When it comes to saving the environment, academics don't practise what they preach

Scholars are researching sustainability but not instituting it on campus, writes Zoë Corbyn

July 2, 2009

Academics in the UK may be leading the world's response to climate change, but they need to do more to engage with the sustainability agenda in their own backyards.

This was the broad consensus of participants in a round-table event hosted by Times Higher Education and the Carbon Trust last week, which brought together academics, university environmental managers and student representatives.

The conclusion was that institutions have "much to do" to improve the green credentials of their campuses and to educate students to be more environmentally responsible.

Academic experts were chastised for failing to take the lead on their own campuses, leaving the job largely to estates and administrative personnel.

The seminar also heard that some scholars take the view that money spent by a university on a wind turbine, for example, would be better channelled into research.

"Universities ought to be in a leadership position, they should get their act together," said Lord Giddens, Labour peer and renowned sociologist at the London School of Economics, whose recent book The Politics of Climate Change investigates the sociology of the problem.

"You can't preach what you don't practise. All universities should expand their teaching and research about climate change and other environmental issues, as well as reduce their own emissions."

David Vincent, director of projects at the Carbon Trust, said that in four years only 85 higher education institutions had signed up to its flagship higher education carbon-management programme.

"We are getting there more slowly than we thought. It is indicative of where (green issues) sit in vice-chancellors' priorities," he said.

Dr Vincent also accused universities of missing opportunities to become "test beds" for new environmental buildings because academic experts failed to see the teaching and research opportunities on their own doorsteps.

Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex, agreed.

"The academy needs to start seeing its universities as test beds for projects. We should be trying these things out because that is what the academy is for," he said.

The round table also acknowledged that inserting climate-change and carbon-emission education into university curriculums could lead to clashes with academics.

Lord Giddens said the issue would have to be approached in an academic way, reflecting wider debates in society.

A set of independently audited metrics for measuring environmental performance - including where institutions sourced their food and how they were protecting local biodiversity - was also favoured by the group, which agreed that institutions need to spread the news about their environmental successes more effectively.

Indirect carbon emissions - such as those from overseas students flying in to take courses - should at least be "acknowledged, admitted and recorded" as part of universities' carbon budgets, argued Susan Nash, vice-president-elect (society and citizenship) of the National Union of Students.

The issue of what to do when academics held views that undermined the environmental mission of their institutions, for example, if they were climate-change sceptics, was also discussed. The group concluded that the freedom of academics to say what they wanted should not detract from universities' efforts to drive change.

Universities were unique in that they had both an "outward-facing" remit to provide global expertise on climate change and an "inward-facing" role to lead the way in environmental sustainability, the participants heard.

The round table was held as the results of the Carbon Trust's Green Gown Awards for sustainable universities were announced.

The University of Leeds, Queen Margaret University and Lancaster University all received accolades. zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

Bin and gone: Essex takes the initiative

All 10,000 office bins at the University of Essex may be replaced with central recycling facilities in each corridor.

A "binless office" pilot scheme incorporating the vice-chancellor's corridor is due to be implemented shortly.

Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at Essex, said of the green initiative: "People will whinge to begin with, but the evidence is that after a short period they will adjust their behaviour."

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