University Estates Still Underpin Sustainability Progress in Higher Education

Sustainability has never been more important to the UK higher education sector than it is today and over the past 25 years there has been an ever increasing commitment from the higher education sector.

In 2015 the publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals put greater emphasis on the role of education in global sustainability and, globally, politicians have committed to those goals.

This has helped shape the education, learning and research agendas in the developed and developing worlds and the research portfolios of the seven major research councils focus on these global challenges featuring investments in crop productivity and agricultural sustainability (BBSRC); energy and the built environment (EPSRC); international relations and economics (ESRC); health of the public and antibiotic resistance (MRC); climate change and management of land and natural resources (NERC); energy and nuclear physics (STFC). Increasingly it features in the curriculum of degree programmes, equipping graduates with an understanding of one of the greatest challenges we face – sustaining the planet’s health so that the growing human population can survive and thrive for centuries to come.

Universities in the UK have responded to the research challenge and have developed world leading expertise in a wide range of disciplines – cities and urbanism, public health, food and crops, climate adaptation, energy systems and transport, forestry and water and they’ve done it on the campuses, in the buildings and laboratories and out there, for real, in wider society. Because of that, the campuses of 2018 are very different to the campuses of 1992 when AUDE first formed.

Today, visit any UK university and the chances are you will find an exemplar building or project that showcases the art of the possible. Zero carbon laboratories, BREEAM outstanding buildings, LEED Platinum and Passivhaus standards abound. Without doubt, our universities are able to demonstrate best practice with exemplars but are the social, economic and environmental impacts (both positive and negative) of universities adequately understood – both academically and operationally?

Over the past 25 years Directors of Estates and their teams have been central to the delivery of increasingly sustainable estates. The agenda has evolved from a marginalised-green view so that now sustainability professionals are commonplace across many universities helping to shape and deliver increasingly higher standards of performance.

Indeed, the higher education sector has got much to be proud of and can point to some fantastic examples of best practice such as the University of East Anglia’s Enterprise Centre, the Cockroft Building at the University of Brighton or the Centre for Sustainable Chemistry at Nottingham, but despite efforts, most universities are failing to deliver meaningful carbon reductions. A recent report by Brite Green revealed that 71% of UK higher education institutes are forecast to fail the carbon targets they set around 2010 in response to the Higher Education Funding Council for England – even those considered to be doing the most. Whilst much of the public sector has been contracting and reducing its footprint since 2008 the university sector has been encouraged to grow. Chances are, if there are 5 cranes in your city one or two of them are in the middle of a university campus. The real success has been to grow whilst maintaining a reduction in carbon emissions along the way. In fact, the analysis shows that whilst the higher education sector in England has improved its carbon emissions reduction performance it is still off track to achieve the 2020 targets and is far from the 43% HEFCE target.

Increasingly there is a strong economic case for doing embedding the principles of sustainability in to the way campuses are developed so that they are inclusive, safe and environmentally responsible.

Whereas once ‘sustainability’ was seen as a differentiator it’s now considered an expectation and, without doubt, the expectations of current and future students are ever higher and, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, it’s important to deliver.  To attract the very best talent universities are creating inspiring, healthy, innovative spaces that support the research and learning strategies of our universities.

This is a challenge AUDE has fronted up to and, with others, is working with its members to support them in achieving these targets and continuing to contribute towards the wider sustainability agenda. In response to these new challenges, AUDE has developed training and learning activity to support its members and helped to celebrate real achievement through recognising leaders in its awards, conferences and programmes. Alongside that, AUDE has developed a sector-specific tool, the Green Scorecard, to provide benchmark performance information across wide range of estates-related metrics such as biodiversity, waste, water, transport and energy.

There is much change in the higher education sector and, similarly, whilst the scientific evidence for climate change is clear, the policy response isn’t. Successive British governments have been inconsistent in policy and approach and it may become less clear how carbon reduction targets will be achieved whilst negotiating exit deals with the European Union from where much of our energy dependency still comes. Universities are here for the long term and will benefit from longer term policy thinking in government. Whilst the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments have made firmer commitments, Whitehall and Westminster need to provide consistency.

For Directors of Estates, the future is both challenging and exciting. It’s unclear how long the current period of campus expansion can continue. Great uncertainty about the impact of Brexit and stability in the international market may mean that there’ll be a greater focus on maximising the efficiency of existing estates through more robust space management and, afterall, doing more with less and being resource efficient is a fundamental plank of any sustainability strategy. A renewed focus on older buildings and wider infrastructure services will ensure greater longevity for buildings that can have a second, third or even fourth life in a changing climate where resilience to extreme weather patterns will be increasingly important.

If we’re really to embed sustainability in the higher education sector it needs to maintain its strong foothold within estates departments whilst an institution-wide approach is adopted to ensure the wider mission, objectives and strategies consider their economic, social and environmental responsibilities more holistically so that sustainability is considered ‘just good business’.

The opportunity to bring together both the academic mission and the operational need through the development of ‘living labs’ and ‘smart campuses’ could be the way in which universities develop not just sustainable operations, but also learning, knowledge and transferable impact.

Imagine campuses demonstrating real-world, global, sustainability challenges using their intellectual potential to address practical issues and demonstrate them on campus. By co-creating teaching, learning, research and operational activity the next 25 years of university development will see greater innovation, inspiring architecture and better places to live, work and study than ever before. What a neat way to help deliver the sustainable development goals here and across the planet.

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Author: Andy Nolan

An experienced director-level professional with expertise in sustainable development, cities, universities, governance, policy and strategy. 15 years of experience working in the field of sustainability in both the private and public sector. Has worked within a local authority, in multi-authority partnerships locally and nationally. Experience in higher education across four universities in the UK plus representative bodies. Particular areas of interest and expertise include; energy; transport; climate change; waste management; air quality; decentralised energy; education for sustainability; smart cities; knowledge transfer; research.

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