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Are we losing focus on the sustainability of the English university sector?

England's higher education regulator is happy to intervene on all kinds of non-regulatory issues. But, as David Kernohan finds, it has very little interest in the environmental sustainability of the sector - and now our best source of data is at risk.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

One of the biggest environmental issues facing the sector is the way the Higher Education Statistics Agency is funded.

Universities in England will be acutely aware that the number of subscriptions to sector bodies that need to be paid has blossomed over the last year. The ever-rising subscription to the Office for Students has rightly attracted the greatest sector opprobrium, but the idea of dual subscriptions to the legislatively-mandated and other parts of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and HESA run a close second.

A worrying estate of affairs

The “statutory” HESA subscription covers the majority of data collection activity that we know and love (students, most of the staff stuff) – but the Estates dataset is firmly within the “optional” category – to the great disquiet of the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE), who are the primary users of what is collected.

HESA Estates is probably the largest, and unquestionably the oddest, of the datasets. But among such vital information as the surface area of water on the campus and the provision of car parking spaces, it includes a lot of information that can help us understand the moves a provider is making towards sustainable practice.

There is a lot, for example, on power consumption – and indeed power generation. There’s detail about the modes of transport employed by staff and students, and on waste and emissions. There’s fields and fields of data.

A few examples

Just to illustrate this, here’s a graph that intrigued me – the x axis is taught student FTE on campus, the y is total power consumption. You can very quickly see that it is the very research active universities that are using more power per student – the rest of the sector follows a clear correlation.

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And here’s another. Looking at non-national grid power usage it’s plain to see that natural gas represents the majority of the sector’s direct fossil fuel usage. A significant proportion of this is used by just two universities: Aberdeen (which makes some geographic sense, at least) and Manchester. Why the University of Manchester burns so much gas is unclear – but this is a question that OfS would surely be well placed to ask?

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I could (and probably will, in May) sit and do this all day. The data for Wonkhe’s influential car parking ranking is drawn from Estates data – I map reported driving behavior to the number of spaces. But there is travel data for all modes of transport. It is incredibly rich data.

But there are problems too. Firstly, I have lingering concerns about data quality. HESA do check data for plausibility (they cannot, of course, check for accuracy – and the likelihood of the OfS special ops team turning up and using HERA Schedule 5 powers to audit your return on the number of buildings you have is slim to none). I very, very, rarely find obvious errors in HESA data – the two or three times I have it’s been the Estates dataset that was the culprit.

Shifting priorities

The Higher Education Funding Council for England used to see the impact of the sector on the environment as a key responsibility. The technically still current 2015-20 HEFCE business plan promises:

In relation to our role in estates management, sustainable environmental development and carbon reduction, we will continue to maintain strong relationships with the relevant sector bodies, and with third-party funders, to support further investment, and sharing of good practice” (HEFCE Business Plan 2015-2020, para 48)

And HEFCE regularly reported back on this aim, using the Estates data. But it also played an active role in promoting and prioritising this agenda in the sector. It was a partner in the Higher Education Sustainability Exchange – a data- and evidence-driven higher education environmental programme led by the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC). The latter organisation’s response to last summer’s HESA consultation is instructive – both in terms of an understanding of the use of the Estates Record and where it could be improved.

You’ll look in vain for a similar level commitment from the OfS – even a glance down the list of formal partners holds little joy. Comparing them to other “sector regulators” this is an outlying position – but recalling HEFCE’s laudable commitment to the cause it appears very strange indeed. There’s three optional questions in the National Student Survey, and that – it seems – it is as good as we are going to get.

AUDE are currently recommending that providers in England and Northern Ireland take out the optional HESA subscription to ensure the integrity of the dataset is maintained. It feels like a strange way to monitor such an important topic. One could easily imagine a world where HESA Estates data underpinned an environmental sustainability condition of registration.

A question of interest?

There is an argument against, of course. Estates data offers a decent picture in aggregate, but real accuracy at provider level would be hugely expensive and is thus largely unlikely. And, with the rise of monitoring technologies universities may well prefer to use their own, locally relevant, measurements. Perhaps the future is standardised data but outside of HESA?

But at precisely the moment where climate change and sustainable practice has caught the popular imagination we are abandoning the tools and strategic commitment we could be using to ensure the sector in England can play its part. The Estates data could be better – but it needs imagination and commitment to make it so.

Just imagine the positive change we would see if OfS and ministers focused on higher education sustainability rather than nonsense like free speech on campus

One response to “Are we losing focus on the sustainability of the English university sector?

  1. David, thank you for an interesting read. You’re right – there’s never been such a focus on the environment as there is now, and to find that we as a sector are retreating from shared data that underpins our understanding around issues such as energy efficiency is frustrating to say the least. As AUDE, we are working with partner organisations to keep sustainability right at the top of the sector agenda. Our advice to member universities in England and Northern Ireland (where collection of the Estates dataset is no longer mandatory) is to continue to provide that data to HESA as they have in the past via the mechanism known as “optional services” on the HESA subscription – that will mean we retain a nationally comparable dataset with all the advantages for benchmarking and strategic planning that brings. Although the ins and the outs of the HESA subscription model are theirs to explain, our key understanding is that opting out of collection of the Estates data will not bring a reduction in the fee to HESA – it should be a no-brainer for universities to opt in, and continue to submit this data. If the value of this dataset decays over time, as it will if multiple universities opt out of collecting the data, then our ability to understand and plan around one of our most important challenges will be badly hampered. This generation and future generations of students will not and will never understand why we gave up on such an important source of information.

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