This article is more than 2 years old

Thin, vague, little and late – the government’s plan for HE and the climate

What kind of back up are universities getting from government over efforts to tackle climate change? Not a lot, finds Jim Dickinson
This article is more than 2 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Once the “buffer” role held by the old funding council disappears, the question of who coordinates sector efforts on things like climate change becomes an important ongoing question.

In the last few days before the pandemic, then Office for Students (OfS) Chair Michael Barber got so annoyed with a comment in Wonkhe Mondays that said that the regulator “doesn’t officially care” whether providers are improving their environmental sustainability, that he put pen to paper in a rebuttal blog.

“This is simply not true”, he said, announcing that OfS was to launch a package to encourage further action from providers – including consulting on the collection and publication of data on carbon emissions, the publication of an Insight Brief on the issue, and gathering and publishing information about students’ attitudes to climate change – as well as leading by example by developing a sustainability plan which was to set out plans to reduce OfS’ own carbon emissions.

We’ve not heard a word about any of that since – so back in November, when COP26 President Alok Sharma wrote to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi setting out the Department for Education’s role in the lead up to and during COP26, we did think that that we might see some coordination and action from the department instead.

DfE, we learned, had recently established a Sustainability and Climate Change Unit to co-ordinate and drive activity across the Department and its sectors – and was busy preparing a Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy that would cover higher education and its arm’s length bodies.

So did the resultant strategy, eventually published in April 2022, deliver? Not so much.

We might have expected it to feature a mixture of the things that universities can do as bodies that provide education to people, bodies that research climate change and sustainability, and things they can do as a set of public authorities that have emissions of their own. And to be fair, there is indeed a mix – it’s all just so thin and vague.

Before we get to the concrete actions, one of the big ideas that sounds like it was left out of a Thick of It script is to consider the whole physical education estate as a virtual “National Education Nature Park”, which apparently universities will support by “acting as champions of nature and biodiversity for local education settings and wider communities”, “providing opportunities to share their expertise and natural environment” and “supporting other education settings in developing and delivering a better environment for future generations”. I’ll believe it when I see it, presumably through a pair of red/green 3D glasses (2 pairs per HEI).

Pave paradise, put up a parking lot

In “Action area 1: Climate education”, we are told that there are “many excellent opportunities” to gain a more in-depth knowledge into sustainability and climate change, and that many providers are already taking steps to “embed the relevant teaching of sustainability and climate change across the full range of their courses”. The action?

We will continue to identify appropriate opportunities to align climate education with the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD for 2030) framework.

Next we are told that from 2022, DfE will “continue to work with higher education” to identify opportunities to work together to “further enhance best practice in teacher training” and the “teaching of sustainability within university courses” – as well as the National Education Nature Park testing an approach for sharing university climate expertise and learning opportunities with colleges, schools and nurseries.

A pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot

“Action Area 2: Green skills and careers” somehow manages to be even thinner and even more vague. As well as “supporting the further and higher education sectors as they deliver programmes teaching the skills of the future and nurturing future leaders”, DfE will “engage employers, professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs), further and higher education sector representative groups and students” in developing opportunities to “forge further links” between course content and the “skills needed for green careers of all kinds”.

We can also looks forward to hosting an International Green Skills Conference to exhibit the “best of UK green skills and education opportunities at further and higher education levels”, and in a low barrel-scraping moment even for DfE, we are told that that £75m that’s going into a National Scholarship Scheme (in lieu of any other recommendations on student financial support in the Augar response) will support “high achieving disadvantaged students to reach their full potential while studying in higher education, including degree courses or apprenticeships that can lead to green careers.”

Charge the people a dollar and a half to see them

For “Action area 3: Education estate and digital infrastructure”, DfE says its approach can be summarised as “innovate, test and invest” – where the role of universities will be to “inspire and drive greater ambition through net-zero buildings and campuses.” In practical terms, the only mention of HE here is that all bids for capital funding for further education and higher education will need to consider environmental impact, carbon reduction and adaptation measures, and align with the government’s targets and objectives – which OfS has duly written into its capital funding bid process for 2022-25.

Then back to Barber’s dream on reporting, DfE says it is supporting the Queen’s Jubilee Challenge for the further and higher education sectors to accelerate a sector-led review which will enable providers report their emissions via a “standardised and comparable” framework by 2024, and then from 2025 DfE will then publish targets and institutional progress for the sector.

There’s not really anything for HE in “Action area 4: Operations and supply chains” other than a commitment to roll out carbon literacy training for at least one person (!) in every university. Then in “Action area 5: International” (where we have to be world leading, world bearing, etc etc), DfE will “continue” work with the sector to ensure “prestigious green-skills learning, training and research opportunities” are developed to attract overseas students.

And that’s it.

Late last night I heard the screen door slam

Universities UK is polite about it all – it’s pleased at the mentions of HE’s role (although notes that the focus is on schools), reflexively relieved that reporting won’t be imposed as a “one size fits all”, and then critical that not only is there no new money, the freeze in tuition means that income per student will continue to fall, hence universities “will face restrictions” on how much they can invest in achieving net zero:

It’s a missed opportunity to combine the power of universities and government to create change.

The undertone, as ever from the Westminster government, is to assume that the current funding envelope for universities is plenty enough for them to fix every problem facing students, wider society and in this case the climate. But then – perhaps in tacit recognition of the fact that the subsidy is all being stretched beyond any meaningful ability to derive clear objectives from it – said government fails to impose anything close to concrete targets or actions, and imposes no real levers for change beyond meaningless civil service doublespeak.

In polling published by UUK a few weeks ago, we learned that 46 percent of adults would like to have the green skills necessary to be able to contribute to tackling climate change, 41 percent are or would consider upskilling themselves in how to build sustainability into their current careers, and 37 percent are or would consider enrolling on a higher education course to learn more about climate change. Any link to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement in the strategy? Don’t be silly.

Meanwhile 58 percent of parents are worried that future generations will not be equipped to deal with climate change, 61 percent of parents would like to see more from universities on researching the solutions to climate change, and parents ranked universities lowest for impact on climate change – below governments, businesses and brands, charities, NGOs, protest groups and individuals. With this kind of half-arsed support from DfE, you can see why.

Leave a Reply