Summoning our energies

David Eastwood sets out the opportunities and challenges posed by Hefce's review of sustainable development in higher education.

January 31, 2008

Preserving our environment and promoting sustainability is not just an environmental issue; it is a social, moral and economic question, too. The Government aims to reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050, in response to last year's Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change; the environmental goods and services sector employs 400,000 people and is expected to be worth £46 billion a year by 2015.

So it is not just morally right that the sector plays its part in meeting this great challenge, it also makes sound economic sense.

At the Higher Education Funding Council for England, we are today publishing an independent strategic review of sustainable development in higher education. This will help us to update the strategy we developed in 2005 and to identify the key opportunities and challenges, and what we can learn from what has already been achieved in our sector.

Its publication is timely. John Denham, the Secretary of State for Universities, has made clear in his grant letter to Hefce that he believes climate change and sustainable development constitute huge challenges and offer crucial opportunities for our sector over the coming decades.

Like the report's authors, I am conscious that sustainable development often seems to lack a clear definition. But where we see its practical application, we can understand its value and potential to our sector.

Universities have been at the forefront of research into this field. More than two thirds of institutions support such research, which is worth over £500 million a year. Our sector is pivotal to developing the skills and knowledge on which governments and others base targets for reduced carbon emissions and planning strategies to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

A new Universities UK publication, Greening Spires, highlights much excellent practice. Research at Newcastle, Liverpool and Bath universities into hydrogen-fuelled vehicles has the potential to transform our travel. The University of East Anglia's Carbon Connections programme supports innovative research and develops ideas into commercial activities. Research based at the Combined Universities in Cornwall campus near Falmouth could help us further harness wave energy. The Energy Technologies Institute, hosted by the Midlands Consortium of Birmingham, Loughborough and Nottingham universities, will use a public-private partnership to play a major role in low-carbon technology developments internationally.

But it is not just about research. Institutions have myriad opportunities to lead by example on campus in the management of existing buildings, as well as the building of new ones. This is why Hefce has also funded projects such as the London School of Economics' work with the National Union of Students and others to move towards zero waste in student halls of residence and the University of Bradford's leadership in developing sustainable procurement of goods and services in higher education. Such activities can also be spread through work with the wider community.

Our role is that of facilitator. We are not in the business of dictating to universities how they approach this issue, particularly on the curriculum, where the market will demand new courses and new approaches to sustainable development. But we do have a responsibility to encourage institutions to become more energy-efficient and more open to the business and social opportunities and challenges presented by sustainable development.

Universities and colleges are test-beds for new technologies and for behavioural change. They have as important a role in influencing people's responses to climate change as in developing practical responses to it, and they are uniquely placed to help society as educators, researchers and leaders.

Although there is a lot of good practice, there is much more that can be done. Hefce will play its part by spreading the examples of good practice. Moreover, we will promote transformation through a new "revolving green fund", a programme part-funded by the funding council that will help universities and colleges to go carbon neutral - learning from universities such as Bristol, a 2007 Times Higher Education award winner for its successful reduction of carbon emissions by 18 per cent over four years.

Not everyone will agree with all the recommendations of today's strategic review, but I hope the sector will use it to explore what could be done to create more understanding of sustainable development and engagement with the issues. Through that debate, we will redefine and refine our priorities in our action plan to be published for consultation in May.

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