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Millions of helping hands

Staff and students have the chance to play a big part in driving the national agenda. Let's make sure we don't pass it up, says Steve Egan

The UK's universities and colleges educate 2 million students a year and employ almost 300,000 staff. They have a great opportunity to support a sustainable society by teaching young people and by generating and transferring knowledge through research.

They can also contribute by influencing local, national and international networks. As organisations, they also have a significant impact on the environment. For example, each year universities and colleges are responsible for:

  • Consuming 5.2 billion kWh of energy at a cost of more than £200 million
  • Using more than 16 million cubic metres of water
  • Spending £3 billion on goods and services
  • Causing more than 1 million people to undertake journeys to work and study almost every day
  • Sending hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste to landfill and incineration.

Sustainable development makes business sense - through improving operational efficiency, enhancing reputations and making connections with the concerns of future markets. The case is made stronger by increasing pressures such as rising energy prices and additional legislation.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has developed a plan for interacting with the sector, taking into account the Government's strategy, Securing the Future . Implementing this plan will bring lasting benefits, but we also recognise that making sustainable development a central part of our operations demands a co-ordinated approach. Therefore, our plan for 2006-11 will be published in April so that we can support institutions in embedding it in their own way.

Sustainable development is about changing the way individuals and organisations think and act. To facilitate this, we are providing grants through our Leadership, Governance and Management Fund. The five projects funded to date involve:

  • Managing and enhancing biodiversity on campus
  • A sector-specific environmental management system called Ecocampus
  • Building good practice in energy and environmental management
  • Measuring and benchmarking performance using the Business in the Community indices for environmental and corporate responsibility; and a guide on ethical behaviour and standards.

Nordic countries consistently top international rankings such as the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI, www.yale.edu/esi ), with the UK 65th out of 146 countries in 2005. But in the pilot of the 2006 Environmental Performance Index ( www.yale.edu/epi ), which uses different measures, the UK is rated fifth.

Other countries are increasing their commitment to sustainability; it is vital that the UK is not left behind. At Hefce, we do not expect institutions to do what we are not prepared to do ourselves, so we have developed a set of performance indicators to benchmark against similar organisations, and we have also committed to developing a holistic plan for a corporate social responsibility policy.

We have the opportunity to drive the national agenda; let's ensure higher education plays a full part.

Steve Egan is acting chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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