University carbon emissions: NUS prompts Office for Students to reconsider its position

The NUS has welcomed the move, but others in the sector question if this latest indication is enough to bring change

A letter from the NUS to the Office for Students (OfS), which appealed to the regulator to push environmentalism in the sector, has prompted new action from the previously tentative body.

In a letter addressed to the board, NUS president Zamzam Ibrahim called on the OfS to offer sectoral leadership which, she wrote, “is now sorely missed and needed”, since the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) was disbanded in April 2018.

Ms Ibrahim, who also heads Students Organising for Sustainability UK (SOS-UK), told the board: “We think it is crucial that an organisation that states its primary purpose is to promote the student interest should be actively leading the sector in its response to the climate emergency.”

The correspondence prompted a meeting of the OfS board in January where it discussed three areas for future work, including “drawing attention to the sector’s carbon emissions”.

Responding to the minutes from the meeting dated 28 January 2020, Ms Ibrahim said she was “really pleased that the OfS is so open to dialogue”.

EAUC chief executive Iain Patton said the move is a “big step in the right direction”, but added he had concerns about how impactful the OfS would be without more regulatory powers. He also questioned some of the approaches the regulator outlined in its minutes.

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EAUC’s chief executive Iain Patton questioned whether the OfS would have the power to affect change.

University carbon emissions: who is regulating the sector?

In her original letter to the OfS in October 2019, Ms Ibrahim wrote: “Carbon reduction was a HEFCE responsibility which seems to have fallen between the cracks when the OfS and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) were created. Clearly, the OfS is very different from HEFCE, but HEFCE used to really drive the sector on carbon reduction, arguably years ahead of its time.”

In her letter, the NUS president outlined 17 calls for action, but noted some may “be beyond [OfS’s] remit”. She said her union would back a parliamentary campaign to give OfS more powers to regulate university environmental sustainability.

When it replaced Hefce, the OfS was not required to regulate universities carbon emissions and, in November 2018, announced that English HEIs would no longer be required to submit data to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) Estates Management Record (EMR). “Such data does not have a direct and clear regulatory purpose for the OfS,” the recent board meeting minutes recall.

Since then, the regulator has been silent on environmental sustainability.

In its board meeting minutes, the OfS senior leaders says sectoral leadership has been offered by the EAUC, a charity calling for sustainability in higher and further education, and the Association for University Directors of Estates (AUDE).

But, in a recent an interview with University Business, EAUC’s Iain Patton said following the changeover from HEFCE to the OfS, there had been a lack of leadership. “There once was a policy driver there. That is gone. With this government, we have a much more marketised system. The approach is more of a, ‘if something is important to you, you get on and do it’,” he explained.

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Could the Office for Students find itself collecting EMR data?

Could EMR data be made mandatory once again?

There is no need to tie ourselves in knots searching for a solution here – we simply need to reverse the decision, so that once more we have a national EMR dataset
– Jane White, AUDE

But the recently released minutes suggest the OfS might take a more active role, including a consultation on reintroducing “mandatory, standardised collection of emissions data” for universities.

The OfS minutes make clear that it may have scope to do this, using powers given to it in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA 2017). The regulator can both require “appropriate information” to be collected from universities and arrange “studies designed to improve economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the management or operations of a registered provider”.

“Taken together, these two sections enable the OfS to collect and publish information on a provider’s carbon emissions on the basis of efficiency and effectiveness of the provider in question,” the minutes report.

This data would be made publicly available, the minutes make clear, “to ensure transparency” and “give clarity to students”.

The minutes also confirm the regulator will survey students on whether they feel their provider is doing enough. These two datasets, the board hope, will “encourage providers to act”.

The soon-to-be-launched consultation would consider the burden of regulation on providers, the possible exclusion of small providers, the inclusion of scope 3 emissions and the cost to both providers and the OfS of the initiative. Doing this would also increase OfS staff workload, the board minutes note.

Jane White, executive director of the Association for University Directors of Estates (AUDE), said the sector would be playing catch up after the OfS decided to ditch the collection of EMR data.

“AUDE remains firmly of the opinion that the decision to make collection of the EMR data a voluntary rather than mandatory one for English and Northern Irish universities was a backwards step. A complete national dataset is an essential decision-making tool in our universities.

“There is no need to tie ourselves in knots searching for a solution here – we simply need to reverse the decision, so that once more we have a national EMR dataset that we can all use to benchmark, provided by mandatory instruction.”

Ms White said the sector’s Sustainability Leadership Scorecard (SLS) had been imperilled by the OfS’s record on EMR data. The SLS is publicly available software which helps universities track their performance.

“The Sustainability Leadership Scorecard was co-developed with AUDE, the EAUC and Arup – using public money. It is our best current tool in supporting the sector to face up to sustainability challenges. It is already being used in more than 100 institutions. It is based around the EMR data – the very dataset at risk of degradation over time unless we reinstate its collection as a mandatory activity.

“Given that HEFCE funded the development of the SLS, the risk to the SLS caused by such degradation of the underpinning data following the OfS decision is ironic to say the least.”

EAUC’s Iain Patton echoed these concerns and said the OfS needed to rethink its approach to data collection.

“In the recommendation relating to continued collection of EMR data, OfS have suggested they will look to support institutions that have not continued to voluntarily submit EMR data (or never did) by getting them to submit information through other pre-existing reporting processes like annual financial returns.

“This is problematic because EMR data requires a lot more detail than this, it is a rich source of data, and alternative sources would not enable this level of data to be provided,” he said.

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According to law, the UK should be carbon neutral by 2050, but do universities have the money to make that possible?

Sector-wide targets

The ongoing Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education, which is backed by sector bodies including Universities UK and Guild HE, has said it will set university 2030 carbon neutral targets for vice-chancellors. The OfS looks likely to agree to these targets and “support registered providers to meet [them]”.

But questions were raised about how the OfS intends to support these targets without funding commitments and regulatory powers.

We need clarity on what ‘support’ looks like for the Climate Commission targets – because it needs to be funding and regulation
– Iain Patton, EAUC

There remains no government funding for decarbonisation in the UK HE sector. HEFCE offered grants to encourage this work, but the OfS does not have similar funds at its disposal.

In a widely publicised move last year, Theresa May’s government passed a UK-wide 2050 net-zero carbon emission target. Reaching that goal “implies significant investment by providers”, the OfS minutes note, but the board makes no mention of how it might financially support universities to decarbonise.

The minutes suggest the OfS would instead “signpost” HEIs to Salix Finance, which provides interest-free government funding to the public sector to improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions and lower energy bills. At present, only 43 universities have used Salix Finance to support their decarbonisation, “meaning a number of large higher education providers have not taken advantage of this source of funding”, the OfS board meeting minutes note.

Mr Patton responded: “We need clarity on what ‘support’ looks like for the Climate Commission targets – because it needs to be funding and regulation. Without regulation in their remit, OfS should work with the Department for Education to look at regulatory possibilities on emissions reductions across the whole education sector.”

He said many of the recommendations “do not reflect the urgency in which we need to act as a sector”.

“There was also a suggestion that smaller institutions could be exempt – but no one can be exempt. The legislated 2050 net zero target for the UK means everyone must get a handle on their emissions now – no exceptions. Smaller institutions will need more support with this,” he continued.

AUDE’S Jane White added: “Nothing about our shared work on sustainability should be ‘optional’ – whether that is in our thinking about recycling, renewables and energy generation, or our policies around scope 3 emissions. It is a collaborative task and we have to set out firmly in the mindset of helping others to help ourselves.”

Responding to the minutes from the OfS, NUS president Zamzam Ibrahim said: “The OfS’s predecessor HEFCE was a real champion on sustainability for the sector. We know the OfS is more restricted in what it can do, but as a regulator that serves the student interest, we are saying there is no greater student interest than having a hospitable planet to live on after we have been educated.

“The climate emergency is happening now, and every university and college should be ensuring they are doing everything they can to help abate and stop it. We look forward to more dialogue with the OfS on this crucial issue.”


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