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OfS won’t be silent on sustainability

OfS Chair Michael Barber hits back at claims that the regulator doesn't care about climate
This article is more than 4 years old

Michael Barber is the Chair of the Office for Students.

Whether it’s flooding in Jakarta which has claimed scores of lives, the devastating bushfires in Australia or the destructive impact of Storm Ciara here at home, indicators of the climate emergency are everywhere.

Left unchecked, the consequences of climate change for us all are enormous.

Universities and colleges have a significant role to play in responding to climate change. First, it’s important they recognise the impact of their own emissions and think about how best to reduce them. And, of course, the combined talents of these institutions will be at the forefront of how we respond to and adapt to climate change in the coming years.

This is a matter of profound importance, and I know from my visits to universities and colleges that acting on the climate emergency is a key concern for the whole higher education community – students and staff at all levels.

Lies, damned lies and metrics

I was surprised to see comments in Wonkhe’s Monday morning briefing that the OfS “doesn’t care” about the work universities and colleges are doing to cut carbon emissions. This is simply not true. The OfS board recently met to look at precisely these issues. We had an in depth discussion about the critical role of providers in this area, as well as what the OfS can do to play our part.

First, we acknowledged the important work being done by the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education. As with many issues, one of the principles of good regulation is the recognition that those regulated often hold the key to making positive progress. Indeed, under the Higher Education and Research Act, we do not have the powers to set an emissions reduction target for the sector, so the role of individual providers is absolutely paramount.

More institutions are joining the Commission, including a number of student commissioners. The Association of Colleges, The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, GuildHE and Universities UK are all to be commended for the leadership they are showing in this area.

Many individual providers are also taking positive and public steps to tackle emissions, and showing leadership in their towns, cities and regions for wider collective efforts.

Data (with PRNs) is coming

But I do think that the OfS can make an impact too. The board agreed that we should consult about how we might collect and publish data on carbon emissions for registered providers. Many providers, especially some larger universities, already publish such data. It would be helpful to extend this.

In doing so, we need to ensure that what we do is proportionate and adds value, particularly in terms of contributing to work being undertaken by the Climate Commission.

The OfS plans to publish an Insight Brief on this issue, which will use the data HESA previously collected to determine the state of play. We will also seek to publish information about students’ attitudes to climate change, as part of a package to encourage further action from universities and colleges.

We also – of course – understand that we need to lead by example. That is why the OfS is developing a sustainability plan which will set out plans to reduce our own carbon emissions.

This is the issue of our time

These are difficult issues, without single solutions. Needless to say we will always seek to act consistently within the legal framework established by the 2017 legislation – part of which, rightly, requires us to have regard to institutional autonomy.

Fundamentally, we want to act in collaboration with the higher education sector on what is the issue of our time.

One response to “OfS won’t be silent on sustainability

  1. Don’t quite follow what Michael Barber is saying here.

    Didn’t HEFCE set out carbon emissions reductions for the sector that were in fact written into law following the 2008 climate change act?

    The post reads as if the legal requirement doesn’t exist.

    And isn’t the target of a 43% emissions reduction across the board due this year? An actual cut – as opposed to offsetting. With individual institutional targets too.

    I’d expect OfS to say they will be announcing what these outcomes are and pushing on. From other wonkhe contributions it sounds like they would be pushing against an open door.

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