Mobilising the higher education sector on climate change

The cross-sector Climate Commission's work has begun. Sonya Peres reports on the commission's inaugural evidence gathering event.

The world and humanity are in the middle of a climate and biodiversity crisis.

Although the UK further and higher education sector is complex and holds diverse interests, there is widespread acknowledgment that we need to play an instrumental role in tackling this crisis. Indeed, many universities and colleges are already taking action, but we need to do more. We need to act together to strengthen our response to the climate emergency.

The Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education Students and Leaders, a collaboration between Association of Colleges, EAUC, GuildHE and Universities UK, is coordinating action in the sector. The Climate Commission, which is guided by student and institutional leaders and supported by a council of 24 students and 63 vice chancellors, aims to produce an action plan by the end of the year. Expert witnesses provide insight on each of the commission’s five priorities at our virtual evidence gathering events which inform the commission’s work. The first of these priorities is mobilising the sector’s voice.

A shared message

I spoke with institutional climate commissioners Jim Longhurst, assistant vice chancellor at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and student climate commissioner and mathematics student at the University of Warwick, Manveer Gill, about why the sector should mobilise, and the consequences they anticipate if we miss the mark.

For these commissioners, mobilising the sector’s voice means producing a strong, shared message to the public and the government on UK colleges’ and universities’ role in responding to the climate crisis.

Students and staff from colleges and universities make up around 7.7 per cent of the UK population – our impact on society, the government, and the economy is greater together than on its own. The role that the sector has played during the pandemic is testament to this critical role. But the sector can only create this message by making widespread changes in governance, operations, research processes, curricula and leadership.

The commissioners believe that there is a moral imperative collectively to respond to the climate crisis. Universities and colleges occupy a trusted position in the world established by our common purpose: to benefit learners and society through research and knowledge exchange and by developing world leaders. As a collective we need to mobilise our voice and strengthen our response.

Now, especially, as Covid-19 restructures our lives, the public has placed trust in experts from the sector who promise a vaccine, communicate science-based information and train the next generation of healthcare workers. The government and communities rely on our institutions to share buildings for makeshift hospitals and ensure nursing and medical graduates are prepared to join the workforce earlier than expected.

But trust is not a static, one-time arrangement. Despite the pressures and constraints of Covid-19, universities and colleges must act as trusted partners to address the other crisis at hand. Scattered climate action from institutions in the sector is better than nothing, but it doesn’t command the credibility of a shared voice. Manveer asks, “if [the sector] which prides itself on being a pioneer of thought does not act, then who will?”

Every year 750,000 UK university graduates go out into the world and make decisions influenced by their time spent on campus and in lecture halls – decisions that shape the current and future sustainability of our world. These are the individuals who will inherit the changing climate and so the sector must ensure they navigate the world responsibly and equipped with skills, knowledge and values to cope.

“If graduates are not supported and enabled to understand the climate threat and to develop the skills and attributes that enable them to live their professional and private life in a low carbon way,” Jim Longhurst warns, “then the sector will be complicit in perpetuating the climate emergency.”

What can universities and colleges do?

Expert witnesses on mobilising the sector stressed the need to continually earn trust, build credibility and act reliably to mobilise our voice and produce an impactful response. One way colleges and universities can do this is by helping protect the communities that house them. Although many institutions are already deeply rooted in their places, and are even more so during Covid-19, we need more collaboration on climate action with tangible outcomes for our communities.

All colleges and universities should further develop and participate in more place-based initiatives to support local authorities, communities and industries in responding to the climate crisis. Listening to and learning from outside the sector can uncover meaningful opportunities and possibilities for more widely impactful and credible responses to the climate crisis and beyond.

Across the UK, research centres produce knowledge on the climate and biodiversity crisis. We can mobilise our voice by acting as credible experts providing evidence to and sharing knowledge with all individuals, from grandparents to community activists to world leaders. We must find a way to make our findings more accessible to the public and to policymakers, locally and globally. Joy Carter, fellow climate commissioner and vice chancellor at University of Winchester, has suggested we should start by “mapping and capturing” key messages from research centres.

Another key action is ensuring all universities, colleges and sector bodies review their policies, strategies, commitments, protocols to identify inconsistencies. Do curricula encourage emitting greenhouse gases beyond 2050 despite government, or internal climate strategy targets to curb these emissions?

There needs to be collective acknowledgement of where established practices contradict climate action so that we can reshape strategy. Universities and colleges need to make this information accessible to the public and to students, across the board, to be transparent in their climate work, facilitate dialogue and understanding of the climate emergency and empower students by supporting them in holding the sector accountable.

It’s in our best interest

Commissioners also believe it is in the sector’s best interest to act. Manveer anticipates growing student frustration in having to engage with a sector that isn’t meaningfully responding to the crisis, despite increasing evidence that students care about sustainability and social responsibility.

Jim also points to student-led divestment campaigns, explaining, “higher education has a multi-billion annual expenditure and increasingly students will expect that this expenditure will be supporting low or zero carbon activities.”

Manveer adds that a clear and cohesive voice and response to the crisis will benefit the sector by attracting cutting-edge thinkers, leaders and innovators to work and study in UK institutions. Without a strong response to the emergency, he considers, “I would personally be much less inclined to consider working for one of these institutions in the future.”

Expert witnesses urge the sector to dig into institutional systems of incentives and rewards for career academics and professionals to collaboratively design a culture and career path that rewards high-quality scholarship and work conducted sustainably. The same can be done for curricula and student assessments across universities, colleges and sector bodies.

These proposals may be daunting to those in the sector who do not have previous or in-depth knowledge of sustainability and the climate and biodiversity crisis, but there is help. Mobilising the sector and its voice also means supporting and challenging one another to make these changes.

The Climate Commission will continue to listen to the sector’s proposals and concerns to create an action plan representing the range of experiences and climate understanding in the sector. With our diverse experiences and skills, we should be confident that the sector’s mobilised voice can meaningfully contribute to protecting society and the environment.

Find out more about the Climate Commission’s work.

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