Craig Mahoney: Should university sustainability be driven by institutions or students?

Eco-friendly buildings or teaching better environmental awareness to students? The answer, says Craig Mahoney, is both

There’s no universally agreed definition of sustainability, but broadly speaking, it is a development that meets the needs of today without compromising those of tomorrow. We’re much more aware of how our actions impact the environment today, but it was only 40 years ago the modern symbol for recycling was designed by an engineering student in the US.

Students have always been at the forefront of the day’s most pressing social issues, often tirelessly campaigning for change at both local and national levels, and in the face of continued global warnings related to unsustainable practices impacting climate change, it will no doubt remain at the top of the agenda. Certainly, the Universities Scotland Efficiencies Task Force, of which I am convenor, regularly debates sustainability issues.

The National Union of Students (NUS) questioned 14,000 students in its 2017-18 survey about sustainability and found 87% of higher education respondents believe their university should actively promote and incorporate sustainable development in its operations.

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But this demand isn’t necessarily driving tangible results on campus. In a separate survey, again conducted by the NUS, researchers found only 1% felt their institutions were doing enough to progress environmental and social responsibility.

This could be down to the broad and sometimes ambiguous definition of sustainability. To some, reducing the environmental impact of the built environment and the day-to-day running of institutions is key; to others, it is teaching students to act as eco-conscious citizens.

We believe for a university to be truly sustainable, it must encompass both. By developing an eco-friendly campus where sustainability is woven into the fabric of its buildings, students can be empowered to make smart choices that have wider-reaching results. A quick example – 22% of those aged 25-34 said they found recycling too time-consuming, but if there are multiple, colour-coded bins making the process simpler, recycling rates improve.

On a grander scale, buildings have an important role to play. University of the West of Scotland’s Lanarkshire campus, which was recently named a 2019 Guardian University Award winner in the ‘sustainable buildings that inspire’ category, runs on energy derived from Blantyre Muir wind farm and is supplemented by photovoltaic panels, with its water collected by rainwater harvesting and subsequent filtering on site. The building itself is energy efficient, having achieved four stars in the BREEAM sustainable development chart, with insulation and ventilation well-balanced to keep the use of heating and air-con to a minimum.

We’re pleased our campus has been recognised in such definite terms – our BREEAM rating and our EPC rating of A – but this is where tangible results end, because not all sustainability initiatives can be quantified.

We’re committed to improving the wellbeing of our students by also giving them tools to lead sustainable and healthy lives. This includes our partnership with Cycling Scotland, creating better bicycle storage as well as on-campus maintenance facilities, in addition to UWS being the first Scottish university to offer free gym memberships to all students using UWS facilities.

Physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on the brain, both in terms of functional and mental health. But for those unable to use these facilities, it’s encouraging to know the same can also be said for their surrounding environment.

Sustainability has three pillars – economic, environmental and social – and all three must work together to achieve true balance

A building with good ventilation, for example, not only contributes to energy-saving in buildings, but also to the alertness of its occupants. Those still needing an additional boost, however, can also rest assured that with their Fairtrade coffee, money is being put towards growing UWS orchards. So far, over 270 UWS trees have been planted through this initiative and UWS Lanarkshire has orchards in Bellshill, Chatelherault, and also in the Clyde Valley.

The concept of sustainability is multi-dimensional and composed of three pillars: economic, environmental and social, and all three must work together to achieve true balance. While we’re doing all we can to create a university our students and staff can be proud of, we also want to encourage students to be conscious of their own actions, to create an environmentally and socially conscious community.

Sustainability is a complex issue and one of the most important of our time and if we are to make a real difference, institutions should lead by example to inspire the next generation to take up the mantle.

Craig Mahoney is principal and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of Scotland

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