Climate crisis: the HE challenge and opportunity

Climate change is the clear mega trend UK universities and colleges need to recognise better – so say the judges of the 2019 Green Gown Awards

An alumni of over 90 national and international judges – a who’s who of leading names from the education, business and sustainability worlds – met to judge the 2019 Green Gown Award finalists at the PwC Headquarters in London on 1 October. They represented institutions including United Nations Environment, Russell Group, Unilever, Advance HE, Marks and Spencer, EAUC Fellows, National Union of Students, National Audit Office, PwC – among many more.

The Green Gown Awards recognises and celebrates the inspiring exceptional sustainability initiatives being undertaken by universities and colleges across the world. But they are also a critical mechanism to help the sector identify megatrends and prepare for challenges and opportunities ahead.

Major mega trends

In a quick-fire round-panel discussion with the audience, a panel of four leading experts across various fields identified the top four mega-trend challenges and opportunities facing the education sector over the next few years as:

1. Climate change

2. Social justice

3. Response to technological changes

4. Disruption – impact and learning.

Of the trends identified by the judges, there was consistent concern about the need for the sector to face the challenges of climate change. With the ever-increasing climate strikes by staff and students, this is raising the level of awareness among senior leaders within the sector.

Climate action is needed within the sector, and an EAUC-led Climate Commission for UK university and college leaders will be launched by Lord Deben, chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change in November 2019. The Climate Commission is led by a partnership of Universities UK, GuildHE, NUS, EAUC, UKSCN and AoC.

The Climate Commission will form a Council comprising the leaders within universities and colleges, along with sector bodies and agencies providing expert advice. The Climate Commission will formulate a sector-led Climate Framework and Action Plan in response to the government’s stated climate emergency to achieve net zero emissions on all Green House Gas emissions by 2050 under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

The Green Gown Awards recognises and celebrates the inspiring exceptional sustainability initiatives being undertaken by universities and colleges across the world

Raising the profile

Education institutions have the potential to be uniquely powerful in raising the profile of these issues and helping to tackle them. Universities and colleges should be at the forefront of tackling the climate emergency, and the Climate Commission is showing the sector’s leadership.

Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, will be speaking at the launch of the Commission. She states: “Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 will require action in every sector of society, at scale and at speed. Higher and further education are vital in equipping our next generation of leaders with the research and innovation to tackle this climate emergency. Universities and colleges must lead the way in putting sustainability at the heart of what they teach and how they operate. Government needs to listen to – and support – the higher and further education sector in this effort.”

Iain Patton, chief executive, EAUC, said: “This is an agenda that requires the sector to pull together and play a key role in fighting climate change through research, teaching and operations. Designed to produce an international response to the climate emergency, the Climate Commission will report its work to COP26, which is hosted by Glasgow in December 2020. This is a huge opportunity to profile UK universities and colleges and showcase our global education and sustainability leadership.”

The 2019 Green Gown Awards recognise the institutions taking steps towards this ambitious goal, and the finalists set an inspiring example of how the education sector can brace itself to tackle an uncertain future.


Winners of the Green Gown Awards UK & Ireland will be announced at the Awards Ceremony taking place on 26 November 2019 at the Glasgow Science Centre, Glasgow. Tickets are available from the website: www.greengownawards.org/green-gown-awards-2019-ceremony

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