[Are] Higher student fees [really] influencing university emissions cuts?

Edie.net published a thought provoking piece “Higher student fees influencing university emissions cuts” in which the assertion that increased tuition fees and competition among UK universities have created a generation of evermore demanding students which is complicating the sector’s attempts to reduce emissions. That’s the view of Andrew Bryers, energy manager at Aston University – which was recently rated as one of the most sustainable higher education establishments in the UK.

This is an interesting piece and certainly illustrates the challenge of meeting the expectation of students now. But have fees really changed things? And if they have raised expectations, isn’t that actually a good thing? Why wouldn’t you want to meet the highest standards of comfort, quality and strive for world class facilities? Of course, how you meet those expectations is the key to all this. If your solution is to simply heat buildings to higher temperatures for longer then, of course, you’ll see your energy and CO2 consumption rise. However, a strategic approach to fabric investment, controls, monitoring and efficient systems can achieve the same outcome and actually consume less.

In Russell Group universities, like Nottingham, whilst student numbers have grown and fees have increased, the real causes of emissions growth are in the energy intensive research activities that typically occupy science, engineering and medicine. STEM is right for the UK’s industrial policy of course and we have recognised the compelling need to invest in those subject areas but operationally it comes at a cost. But in the global scheme of things, the research being undertaken is creating solutions to climate change, resource depletion, health, biodiversity. If ever there is a sector with a Net Positive impact it’s the Higher Education Sector.

We are reviewing our carbon management plan and taking into account growth in scale, in intensity and number. We are targeting areas where carbon emissions are high in a systematic manner. You can see from our annual reports for energy and carbon those areas are in our schools of Chemistry, Physics, Medicine.

Universities are enjoying (I think) the new found freedoms of greater autonomy and the shackles have been consistently loosened under the past 2 Governments. However, it’s a competitive world out there now and finding efficiencies whilst meeting ‘customer’ expectations is challenging – as Andrew Bryers rightly acknowledges. The challenge here is to think longer term so that universities do the right thing, not the easy thing. That means a combination of investment in infrastructure (new build, refurbishment, utilities and energy generation, transport, waste, etc) and behavioural change programmes. In tandem the gap between expectation and delivery can be closed.