Turn on the green light

May 6, 2005

Hefce should push institutions to embed sustainability in business strategies, argues Martin Wiles

The environment and sustainable development were notable by their absence in the general election campaign. And yet it is absolutely clear that climate change is already happening and that environmental change is one of the biggest issues facing us today.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England's strategy for a sustainable future, published in January, was an important step forward, but Hefce must do more to embed sustainability in the business planning of universities and colleges.

There is much that universities can do. As leaders of world-class research and knowledge transfer, universities are already working on sustainable low-carbon futures in laboratories, but turning blue-skies ideas into practical solutions for the planet will require more assistance from the Government and industry.

As educators, universities and colleges have the opportunity to ensure that students gain a higher understanding of the complex environmental, social and economic issues. It is vital that they, as the next generation of decision-makers, are able to assimilate this information.

Undoubtedly, the contribution universities can make through their core business - teaching and research - is vital to sustainable development.

However, while more emphasis on sustainable development is being placed on curricula and research programmes, there are things that can be done more immediately.

As a sector, we employ almost 300,000 staff, educate 2 million students and occupy per cent of the UK's total office stock. In aggregate, universities and colleges consume 5.2 billion kWh of energy a year at a cost of more than £200 million (and rising), use more than 16 million cubic metres of water a year, spend £3 billion a year on goods and services and produce hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste every year that must go to landfill or incineration. More than 1 million people travel to work and study in higher education almost every day.

Good business practice ought to identify opportunities to cut costs and minimise environmental impacts at each institution across the country.

There are already a number of good practice examples of what can be done to tackle these issues, as recognised by the recent Green Gown Awards, but so much more could be done with the right incentives.

For some time, the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges has asked the funding council to take a more proactive stance. We feel Hefce could and should expect institutions to meet agreed targets and standards as a condition of funding for new building works, and we would welcome measures that encourage and enable universities to design, construct and operate sustainable buildings without impeding their academic missions.

Hefce might stimulate behavioural change through specific initiatives, and we have long advocated the use of targets, standards, indices and metrics to monitor improvement over time. Institutions that are well run, that incorporate the principles of this strategy into their business management and that can demonstrate improvement should be rewarded. The transparent approach to costing methodologies should incorporate social and environmental costs into policy, strategy, operations, projects and programmes.

Like every other business in the UK, operational costs are rising as new legislation is introduced and as the prices of energy, water and waste disposal increase. These costs must be recognised by the funding and research councils, and Hefce must support opportunities to reduce their impact. Long-term revenue costs can be cut through careful design and investment at the capital development stage. However, that requires a shift in emphasis within funding mechanisms upstream of universities and colleges.

If we are to make a positive contribution to sustainable development, we must identify and support committed leaders, who need to question "business as usual" and foster a culture change throughout the sector.

There is evidence of strong support for this agenda by influential sector leaders, including vice-chancellors and the funding council itself. They must be encouraged to lead those less inclined through existing networks such as Universities UK, the Higher Education Academy, the Russell Group and the sector's support associations, such as the Association of University Directors of Estates, the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, the Association of University Administrators and the Universities Safety and Health Association.

Universities are subjected to many differing agendas and priorities. Hefce should not try to supersede these agendas but rather act to complement them where possible.

Hefce is being too cautious in defining its role as only supporting. We believe individual institutions have a duty to take responsibility for their contribution to this agenda, but they need a clearer lead.

Martin Wiles is convenor of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges.

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