The ecological monster will not stay in shadows

February 6, 2004

Never mind variable fees, universities should be focusing on sustainable development, says Sara Parkin

The fact that the prime minister's leadership has been on the line for what is, in truth, a detail of policy, says more about our political system than it does about the casus belli - in this case, top-up fees for university students. We have wasted the chance to have a big debate in Parliament and in the press about finding an energetic new purpose for our meandering higher education sector. Instead, attention has focused on knocking Tony Blair off his perch.

Education is in such a mess because of 30 years of nit-picking instead of strategic planning. Fiddling and fads have substituted real leadership and stable funding. Much the same is happening with sustainable development. We happily celebrate the return of otters and wild salmon to our rivers, holiday on beaches of European Union standards of cleanliness, and marvel at the marginal improvement of opportunity for women in the workplace, while carefully averting our eyes from the ecological monster in the shadows.

In the 32 years since the first Earth Summit in Stockholm, the rate of environmental degradation has failed to even slow down, never mind halt or reverse. Even as demand on the resources and services of the earth soars, so the biological base on which all life depends - including ours - is shrinking. The United Nations reports that since 1990 about a quarter of the world's nations have experienced a drop in income, and the richest 1 per cent of people collectively earn more than the poorest 57 per cent - the sum of human and environmental degradation and inequality in a world we are told is richer than ever.

Education has a key role to play in making human development choices more sustainable. But not as most people might envisage. Over the past three years, Forum for the Future has run a Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability (Heps) through 18 universities, easing sustainability into their working practice. One of their key findings has been that sustainable development should be thought of as a non-discipline. This has led to developing intellectual and practical tools to help people act (in any discipline, in any situation) in a way that contributed positively to sustainable development. Progressing our environmental, social and economic goals at the same time, instead of trading one off against the other, is what sustainable development is all about.

Our university partners have made progress in other ways too: they won the support of boards of governors to go about things in a new way, introducing sustainability responsibilities into job descriptions and staff training, adopting new purchasing strategies and dramatically cutting energy and water bills. They have created multidisciplinary research teams and sustainability coordinator posts, and done deals on transport with local communities. Now the ecological monster is emerging from the shadows, all university business managers need to take a fresh look around.

People and Planet (www.peopleandplanet.org) is the fastest- growing student organisation ever. Last September, Charles Clarke, the education secretary, launched the Department for Education and Skills sustainable development action plan ( www.dfes.gov.uk/sd ), and reinforced this message in his grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England last month. Mr Clarke is clearly focused on taking action to make sustainable development a practically integrated part of the whole education and skills sector. It is a significant leap forward for the DFES, and it should be welcomed as a positive step. Next week, Mr Clarke is due to address a conference organised by Heps on the role of higher, further and professional education in a sustainable future.

Low-carbon and secure, affordable supplies of goods and services is where economic advantage (and ecological survival) lies in future. Business has to audit its environmental risks. Devolved administrations and Regional Development Agencies are obliged to deliver sustainable development, as are the Learning and Skills Council and Sector Skills Councils, and sustainable development is in the Treasury's 2004 spending round guidance.

Our partner universities are ahead of the curve. They have connected current solvency and a sustainable future on campus with the greatest challenge of the 21st century - sustainable development for all. Is this the new unifying purpose for higher education?

Sara Parkin is programme director of the Forum for the Future education and learning programme and a member of the scientific advisory committee for the research councils' sustainable energy programme.

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