The climate for universities is harsh. Even before the general election and the new coalition government, the sector had been served notice that huge cuts were on the way. From this year, universities will have to move towards government targets on carbon reduction and energy efficiency or face financial penalties. Sustainability is becoming an urgent issue - and for reasons perhaps less noble and enlightened than saving the planet.
In an era of financial austerity, there is money on the line. As government funding for education shrinks, research and expertise in sustainability could provide a lifeline for proactive and ambitious institutions. Universities have a great chance to make efficiency savings and place themselves at the forefront of the debate on tackling climate change.
Sustainability has steadily become a more pressing issue at most universities. Only five institutions assessed in the 2010 People & Planet Green League do not have a publicly available environmental policy, which represents huge progress since the league table was first published three years ago.
But making statements is easy; cutting carbon emissions is more difficult, as the table underlines. Despite increased effort and expenditure on sustainability, carbon emissions from UK universities are still rising.
Figures released to People & Planet by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (and covering all UK university estates) show that while the total staff and student headcount across the UK academy has risen by 7 per cent since 2005, carbon emissions have climbed by 25 per cent.
Last year, the sector emitted 1,286kg of carbon dioxide and CO2-like gases per capita. This compared with just 1,103kg in 2007 - a 16.6 per cent increase.
Although universities have implemented good practice in a range of areas, including employing staff to oversee environmental policy and drafting green management plans, carbon emissions are rising at the majority of institutions. And that could prove costly.
From this year, Hefce will link capital funds to carbon cuts. In a tough fiscal climate, universities should be fighting for every penny, and those failing to deal with carbon could face a rude awakening.
Meanwhile, the government's Carbon Reduction Commitment (now snappily renamed the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme) has also come into force. This obliges organisations, including universities, that use more than 6,000MWh of electricity annually or spend £1 million or more on electricity each year to buy carbon credits to cover their emissions. As part of the scheme, institutions must report on their emissions or face financial penalties.
According to People & Planet, the main impediments to a more sustainable sector remain a lack of capital funding, environmental staff numbers and the inherent inefficiency of old university buildings. Looming cuts to capital funding are likely to further slow the sluggish move towards low-carbon estates.
"Overall there has been a massive improvement in all the key management and policy areas, but there is also a severe lack of ambition and urgency in the way the sector as a whole has responded," says Louise Hazan, climate-change campaign manager at People & Planet and creator of the Green League.
"The ones that are effectively cutting emissions are the ones that have gone the furthest in terms of finding creative solutions. A lot of people still need to get their acts together. Unless there's a change of gear, the ones at the top will carry on doing well, cutting emissions and getting more funding, and that will harm the ones at the bottom continually playing catch up."
The data for 2010 show that while staff and student engagement on green issues is improving, institutional carbon-management plans remain weak, Hazan says. All universities must have such plans in place by this month to satisfy Hefce requirements, yet at least half of the strategies were deemed to be too unambitious by this year's study. Hefce's sector-wide targets mean that universities must cut their emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 from a 1990 baseline or face financial penalties - many existing plans are unlikely to get institutions to the target.
Universities look positively complacent given that these targets have already been significantly reduced from earlier proposals after pressure from vice-chancellors. Hefce had initially proposed a 50 per cent cut by 2020, which was deemed unrealistic by institutions.
Of course, sustainability is about more than carbon emissions and waste. Universities are hothouses of scholarship and teaching, and as such have a critical role in inculcating sustainability in young people. This year, for the first time, Times Higher Education is also publishing data from the Universities that Count (UTC) benchmarking scheme to highlight best practice in sustainable teaching and learning. The UTC programme groups universities by levels of achievement for various sets of criteria, and we name the top five performers in sustainable curricula (see box above).
"If you think about what we call corporate social responsibility in the conventional sense, it's about reducing environmental impact," explains Iain Patton, chief executive of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, which runs the UTC scheme.
"If you make every university graduate 10 per cent more sustainable, however you measure it, that's more impact than if you switch off all the lights in every university for a year."
Education and sustainable development has been named the top priority in the University of the West of England's management strategy for 2008-12. "It aims to ensure that every UWE student is exposed to the context of sustainability within their course and for their future professional careers," says Mark Webster, UWE's environmental manager. "Our students will be able to take action on sustainability."
After a curriculum audit, UWE established that 140 modules offered across the university had "strong links to sustainability". It then set up a team to spread this good practice across campus.
The university also launched a master's degree in sustainability, which will be taught partly by non-academic staff. Among them will be experts from estates and facilities management, including the likes of Webster. "I think we have such a lot to offer in terms of keeping the master's up to date, and it makes better use of the whole university," he says.
Another institution that has won recognition for its sustainable curriculum is the University of Gloucestershire. Like UWE, it is conducting research on sustainability education.
"Research has shown that it is easier to implement practical changes at universities than to change teaching and learning practice," says Daniella Tilbury, Gloucestershire's director of sustainability.
"The speed with which the carbon agenda has taken root on campus indicates this; however, there has been very limited progress in curriculum change despite (the best) intentions since the 1970s."
Tilbury says instilling sustainability in the curriculum has been a success. "We believe that these actions are bearing fruit: graduates have skills for life and are more employable, and they are in a good position to make a positive contribution to professions as well as to act as change agents in their communities."
The University of St Andrews was named a leader on sustainability for setting up a research institute dedicated to the subject. To ensure that the issue percolated through the institution, the university encouraged academics to think about how their own research might relate to the sustainability agenda and also brought "academic rigour into our estates", says Rehema White, lecturer in sustainable development.
"As universities, our core functions are teaching, learning and research. We can't be doing sustainability options without thinking about engaging in the debate. Universities have a unique opportunity to be able to change the way in which we work. There is a moral as well as a practical imperative to engage with this."
As these examples show, universities are striving to achieve sustainability and making innovations, but the scale of the task cannot be underestimated. Even estates directors question whether the academy can cut carbon emissions by 34 per cent compared with the 1990 baseline in the next 10 years.
Patrick Finch, the University of Bristol's bursar and director of estates, and a former chair of the Association of University Directors of Estates, admits that there are problems.
"Very few universities have anything in place that would clearly reach that target, although it is for each institution to set an appropriate target in line with the national one," he says.
To achieve that goal would require much more investment in energy efficiency to fund such initiatives as thermal insulation, modern boiler plants, intelligent lighting systems and low-energy IT installation - all this at a time when resources are running dry.
Finch suggests that universities could explore avenues that may not require large upfront expenditure. These could include better synergy between campus maintenance and energy-reduction schemes, and a private finance initiative to fund energy-reduction projects.
At the Carbon Trust, higher education expert Tim Pryce is telling universities their key priority should be cutting emissions.
"It's vital that universities are absolutely clear about the financial business case for carbon reduction. This business case can be expressed most simply in terms of energy cost savings, but there are other significant financial implications (from the CRC)."
But he also sees the scope for research and teaching to play a key role in sustainable development. "My other priority for the sector would be to look ahead to the kinds of technology the UK and the world will need to cut carbon emissions in a cost-effective fashion."
Higher education can take the lead on sustainability by transferring technology and ideas to other sectors and by "greening" their own estates. The outliers in the Green League results show how that is possible. The universities of Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire and Central Lancashire all scored highly, with the University of Plymouth topping the table.
Wendy Purcell, vice-chancellor of Plymouth, which also scored highly in the UTC ranking, says her institution aspires to be socially responsible. "We are working hard to ensure that we lead the thinking in this area, using our research expertise to make a difference and embedding this knowledge in the way we manage our estate. This is a key part of who we are."
The University of Central Lancashire has established a Centre for Sustainable Development and has signed a £1 million, three-year deal with BAE Systems to conduct research into energy management.
"Universities have an obligation to champion the sustainable-development agenda," says Sarah Buckland, Uclan's environment and sustainability manager. "The tide has turned, with more students and staff than ever before wanting to play their part. The challenge for universities is to capitalise on this goodwill to reduce the impact of our operations."
Some institutions have found that their work paid off rather more quickly than expected. Last year, the Royal College of Music languished at the bottom of the table. This year it rocketed to joint 22nd place. After last year's disappointing result, the college enacted a management plan to make substantial changes commensurate with a 2:2 ranking in the league, and it also started work with the Carbon Trust. This year, it was judged to be first class.
A spokesman for the college says that a sustainable food policy, a socially responsible investment policy and an effort to make staff and students aware of their combined responsibility had contributed to its rapid improvement.
"We're not doing this for the Green League. These are all things that we think of as being very important," he adds. "The Green League is a catalyst, but we feel we've got a role to be responsible."
Those occupying the bottom ranks say they are working hard to minimise their environmental impact. "Successes of small universities working hard to deliver their green agenda are often missed by external surveys," says a spokesman for Glyndwr University. He adds that the institution is making "good progress" towards its environmental-management targets.
Middlesex University, which says it is disappointed with its rating, is working with sustainability experts to improve its standing in this area, according to a spokesman. It has instigated a policy of "campus consolidation", concentrating teaching and learning provision in a smaller space. It also aims to cut the amount of power used by its computer servers by 40 per cent. The University of Cumbria was not available to comment on its ranking.
When it comes to greening the estates, there is a widening gap between the top performers and the weakest institutions, as the Green League shows. People & Planet predicts a future in which the best get better and the worst lag behind.
But everyone in the sector may feel that the need to make progress is more urgent than ever as government targets and financial penalties come into force. Indeed, the environmental case for change, while by no means diminished, may take a back seat to the pressing need for universities to make efficiency savings and safeguard their finances.
As the Carbon Trust's Pryce urges: "This is a potentially huge opportunity for the sector in terms of reputation and future income, and it's an opportunity that UK universities should seize."
On course for sustainability: Universities that count
The Universities that Count benchmarking scheme highlights best practice in embedding sustainability in the curriculum.
Its top five performers on sustainability in teaching and learning (in alphabetical order) are:
- University of Bradford
- University of Gloucestershire
- University of Plymouth
- University of St Andrews
- University of the West of England
Institutions were ranked on the following criteria:
Does the university formally recognise the importance of including sustainability in the curriculum? Does it proclaim its ambitions?
Current state of play
Has the university assessed existing teaching and learning for sustainability in the curriculum?
Has the university begun drafting and implementing plans to offer more opportunities to learn about sustainability?
Does the university have a process to communicate where and how progress is being made?
Quality of information
Assuring quality is important. Is the university monitoring the standard of its work and collecting reliable information?
An important measure of success is the ability to demonstrate a positive impact. Does the university have a sound indicator to measure success and gauge performance over time?
The scorecard: Where points were won and lost
How universities were judged
Only five institutions now lack a publicly available environmental policy. Criteria were tougher this year, requiring action plans to set specific time-bound targets, but 31 universities received full marks.
Lack of staff was cited by the majority of universities as one of the top-three barriers to progress. Only 23 universities scored full points, but 84 per cent now have at least one part-time environmental staff member per 5,000 students.
Fourteen institutions were judged to have the most comprehensive auditing standards, reviewing impacts in waste management, transport, procurement, energy, water construction, emissions, community involvement and biodiversity.
Ethical investment policy
Forty-three universities now publish an ethical investment policy, but only 28 of those explicitly cite environmental factors. Just five universities received full marks.
Hefce requires all universities to publish carbon-management plans by June 2010, yet at least half were deemed to be too unambitious. Hefce's sector-wide targets mean universities should cut emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 from a 1990 baseline. Cranfield and Lancaster stood out, committing to annual cuts of over 5 per cent from a 2005 baseline.
More than 72 per cent of universities are now Fairtrade, and 32 institutions have set out a sustainable food policy. One university, Leeds, has stopped selling bottled water.
Staff engagement was found to be more of a drag on progress than student engagement. Eighty-nine per cent of universities have environmentally active students' unions.
Eight universities get all their energy from renewable sources, and 11 use more than 90 per cent from renewable sources. On-site energy generation is also taking off.
Seven universities recycle more than 75 per cent of waste; 42 recycle less than 25 per cent.
Only 25 universities scored full points, with emissions per head as low as 452.5kg of CO2 equivalent. The highest were 10 times greater, at 4,449kg.
Average annual water consumption per head is 13.04m3, but 119 universities have no systems for collecting and using grey water or rainwater.
Source: People & Planet