Pick the right solutions from a forest of ideas

March 30, 2007

An instinct for innovation will enable higher education to lead the environmental agenda. David Eastwood explains

Higher education has been at the heart of identifying the causes and the extent of global climate change. But universities and colleges seeking to reduce the environmental impact of their estate often face high construction costs, the uncertainties of embracing novel technologies, constraints on listed buildings and a not always sympathetic town planning system.

Yet the tide is turning. Buildings that were once revolutionary are becoming commonplace, and management practice in areas such as transport and waste is adapting quickly.

The creation of knowledge and the exploration of new ways of doing things are at the very heart of our higher education system. The sector’s willingness to take the long-term view is spelt out clearly in the values and mission of many institutions. But the contribution of our universities and colleges goes well beyond formal education. Through cultural leadership and economic influence, they shape thinking and practice in cities, regions and beyond.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s 2005 vision statement for sustainability states: "Within the next ten years, the higher education sector in this country will be recognised as a major contributor to society’s efforts to achieve sustainability — through the skills and knowledge that its graduates learn and put into practice, and through its own strategies and operations."

A strong moral imperative — the desire for a just society and for reducing the impact of climate change on nations less able to respond than our own — provides a compelling basis for action.

And, while curricula issues are rightly a matter for individual institutions, we are likely to see growing demand from students and employers for courses that address the financial, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development. There is also little doubt that research and knowledge-transfer funds will flow to institutions able to offer solutions to pressing technological and social questions.

Finally, there are cost and efficiency benefits from a long-term and sustainable approach. These are nowhere more evident than in estates and facilities management. Rising energy prices and carbon trading will accelerate these advantages. But "green" buildings are only a part of the picture.

The full benefits will come from adopting a strategic and sustainable approach to physical infrastructure. Efficient use of assets — space management, lifecycle costing and the evaluation of projects and practice — is a key contributor to sustainability. The estate is a tangible opportunity to show that what universities and colleges do in practice matches what they say. This gives the Green Gown Awards added impact.

For Hefce’s part, we will continue to encourage institutions to pursue strategies for sustainable development, but we will avoid an overly centralised approach that would run the risk of stifling the initiative so evident among the Green Gown Award entries. Here, as so often, partnership working is the key to success.l

David Eastwood is chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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