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A shared vision for sustainable development in higher education

Higher education has a unique contribution to make towards sustainable development. University researchers were the first to alert the world to global warming, and researchers worldwide are working to help society find social and technical solutions to environmental challenges.

Today’s graduates will occupy future management and leadership roles, and will need the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions, taking account of the complex social, economic and environmental issues that exist in the twenty-first century.


A vision to support sustainable development in the higher education sector

At the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), sustainable development forms an integral part of our strategy for the future development of the higher education sector. The HEFCE vision is that:

“Within the next 10 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, its research and exchange of knowledge through business, community and public policy engagement, and through its own strategies and operations.”

Some universities and colleges are already significantly reducing the environmental impact of their operations, as demonstrated by the Green Gown Awards, the Universities UK publication Greening spires: universities and the green agenda, and data on the environmental impact of HE estates. However, the momentum for change needs to continue and increase if higher education is to maximise its role in helping society meet the challenge of sustainable development.

Strategy and action for sustainable development

The HEFCE strategic statement and action plan on sustainable development recognises that individual higher education institutions should play their part as centres of teaching and research, as campus managers, as employers and as major influencers and participants in their local communities. The HEFCE can promote and support such activity by targeting funding, working in partnership and facilitating the sharing of good practice.

University campuses can be a model of how to be more sustainable and efficient, for example in reducing consumption of fossil fuels. The sector’s carbon reduction strategy sets ambitious targets to reduce scope 1 and 2 emissions by 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, against a 1990 baseline. These are particularly challenging in the context of the growth in student numbers and size of the average estate that have occurred over the past couple of decades. Sector emissions actually increased by 32% between 1990 and 2005. But emissions per student full-time equivalent (FTE) were on average 64% higher in 1990 than in 2005.

The Revolving Green Fund to reduce emissions

The Revolving Green Fund (RGF), run by the HEFCE in partnership with Salix Finance, is an example of how the HEFCE is supporting change. Fifty-seven higher education institutions have been awarded a share of the £30 million fund as recoverable grants for both small institutional projects and larger transformational projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The three transformational projects we funded, listed here, shared £10 million of funding between them:

  • The University of East Anglia project will establish a biomass energy centre at its Norwich campus. It is constructing the first biomass gasification combined heat and power plant in England.
  • Harper Adams University College‘s project will look into anaerobic digestion for renewable energy production. The project will use farm waste and food waste streams diverted from landfill to generate renewable power.
  • The Lancaster University project aims to install two wind turbines to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from electricity consumption and reduce reliance on imported electricity.

A recent evaluation of the RGF shows that the fund is accelerating carbon reduction in higher education. Current projects are saving over 2% of sector carbon emissions each year. If projects continue at current levels and frequency, the fund could lead to 8.6% carbon emissions savings at universities each year by 2020.

English higher education institutions are required to have a carbon management plan, and future capital funding from us will be linked to an institution’s success in carbon performance. The HEFCE Capital Investment Framework assesses higher education institutions’ approaches to capital investment, including carbon management, space efficiency and environmental performance. Those that do not satisfy the requirements of the framework will have their capital funding reduced by 40%.

Building and disseminating good practice

HEFCE’s funding has also been making a difference through building and disseminating good practice. Three examples are:

  • The GreenBuild project developed a standard Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) scheme to cover most higher education buildings.
  • The S-Lab programme aims to create more sustainable laboratories (labs are among the most energy- and water-intensive of higher education facilities) and to raise sustainability awareness among staff and students who use laboratories.
  • Universities that Count is encouraging institutions to measure and report on their performance through a sector-specific version of the Business in the Community Environment and Corporate Responsibility indices.

Leading sustainable development in higher education

Most recently HEFCE funded these 11 sustainable development projects under a special funding initiative ‘Leading sustainable development in higher education’:

  • Bloomsbury environmental management shared service (Birkbeck, University of London)
    Four central London institutions will explore a common approach to carbon management and the sustainable operation of estates.
  • Developing leaders for sustainable development: enabling behaviour change (Bournemouth University)
    Bournemouth and Sussex Universities, two distinctly different HEIs, are broadening leadership support for sustainable development and capacity building, by working with governing bodies and senior management teams.
  • Carbon brainprint (Cranfield University)
    The project will develop, test and disseminate a robust, repeatable methodology for measuring the intellectual contribution HEIs make towards reducing the carbon footprint of other organisations.
  • Leading curriculum change for sustainability: strategic approaches to quality enhancement (University of Gloucestershire)
    This project takes up the challenge of improving institutional and academic leadership by progressing Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) through quality assurance and enhancement. Five universities will work in partnership to produce case studies and strategic guidance, in dialogue with a range of external stakeholders and sector agencies.
  • Developing carbon management strategies for HE institutions with extensive landholdings (Harper Adams University College)
    The project will enable institutions with extensive landholdings (including farmed land) to measure greenhouse gas emissions arising from agricultural activities, establish realistic carbon equivalent reduction targets, and develop informed carbon management plans.
  • Electromagnates (University of Lincoln)
    A project to design, implement, and evaluate a suite of social software applications to encourage positive changes in the way HE and local authority workplaces and environments consume energy.
  • Increasing renewable energy generation in the HE sector (University of Liverpool and the Energy Consortium)
    The project will evaluate technologies and contractual models for both ‘on-site’ and ‘off-site’ generation, providing HEIs with framework agreements by which they can access renewable energy generation.
  • Keeping it local: shared solutions for sustainability (University of Northampton)
    The project will explore how universities can work with other local organisations and public sector partners to achieve a more holistic approach to solving the challenge of sustainability. It will create a Northamptonshire action plan for new area-based initiatives that will achieve significant multiplier effects.
  • Integrating Sustainability into Business Schools (University of Nottingham)
    The project will provide guidance to business schools on how to integrate and communicate social, economic and ecological sustainability in their educational programmes, research and organisational practices/processes.
  • Midnight Oil: How are our 24-hour University buildings really used and how can we better manage out of hours use to reduce carbon emissions? (University of Oxford)
    A project to assess usage patterns of four 24-hour buildings, which will be used to recommend changes to overnight zoning and controls, reducing carbon emissions and feeding into a case study and toolkit for use by other universities.
  • Environmental exchange (Staffordshire University and the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges)
    A project to develop and implement an interactive web-based HE repository of sustainability technical guidance and case studies.

Student involvement in green issues

The student body has an important role in promoting sustainable development and encouraging behavioural change. On many occasions students have successfully pushed for change on environmental issues, often through campaigns led by students through their union.

The National Union of Students and NUS Services Ltd run a range of innovative environmental programmes. For example, the Green Impact Students’ Unions scheme helps facilitate new, collaborative relations between student unions and their institutions which can help reduce carbon emissions and make wider environmental improvements. And the Degrees Cooler project, funded by Defra, is using behavioural change projects to promote pro-environmental behaviours among over 90,000 students and staff across 20 universities in England.

Umbrella organisations address climate change

Universities UK and GuildHE, the representative bodies for higher education institutions, established a Sustainable Development Task Group to consider issues related to climate change and environmental sustainability, and their impact on HEIs. As part of its work to provide leadership for sustainable development in the sector, UUK’s statement of intent on sustainable development enables university leaders to demonstrate their commitment to tackling the challenges of sustainable development.

In conclusion

Sustainable development activity is widespread across the higher education sector: for some universities and colleges it is an over-arching priority but in other instances it occurs in pockets. The HEFCE is optimistic that the enthusiasm for sustainability that exists in the sector – and the urgent need for real change – will lead to substantial and lasting progress.

Further reading

User comments

  1. Sarah Daly says:

    Heath Avery Architects in Cheltenham has been developing tools which quantify the myriad of paybacks from greener buildings. Effectively low carbon/low energy spaces generate up to 3000% greater payback in ‘human capital benefits’ than in energy reduction. In office environments this is represented in reduced sickness absence, reduced staff churn and increased productivity (to name but three). When these ‘costs’ are quantified and understood they provide a compelling business case which accelerates management desire to undertake deep refurbishment to achieve holistic results.
    For more information see:

  2. The University of Greenwich is rapidly embracing the sustainability agenda, and as part of this initiative has developed an exciting new Master’s programme in Sustainable Futures.

    Please check the website for further details:

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