Profile: Iain Patton, EAUC

The EAUC will present a blueprint for sustainability in higher education to the COP26 conference in Glasgow. James Higgins asks: how close does chief executive Iain Patton think the sector is to a breakthrough?

The phrase ‘trailblazer’ is used far too frequently (and journalists, in general, are its worst abusers), but it struck me as I spoke to Iain Patton – chief executive of the EAUC – that his career marks him as a pioneer. 

I’m sure that is a phrase he won’t be glad I’ve used, but in the early 1990s, as one of the UK’s first college environmental officers, Iain trod fresh ground as he (and a handful of others) devised the remit of these brand-new roles. To follow the course of his career is to follow the journey of ‘sustainability’ from fringe issue to defining debate. 

Now, 24 years after he – and a group of other sustainability officers – founded the EAUC, the alliance for sustainability leadership in higher and further education has helped convene a climate commission that is set to deliver recommendations for higher education to a worldwide audience at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow this November. 

“We’ve given ourselves a hell of a year to really knuckle down,” Iain says to me during our interview. Come November, I’ll be writing about that very report, but can the sector rise to this ‘hell of a year’?  

Read more: EAUC opens registration for 2020 annual conference in Bath

Kenya, The Troubles, and a commune in the Malverns

I did cross-community reconciliation work in Northern Ireland; I was really into trying to bring loyalists and republican communities together, and that was bloody awful.

I start by asking Iain how he got to where he is today. For a man in charge of a large charity, there is surprisingly little information on Iain to be found on the internet. 

“So, I am an odd one,” Iain begins. Growing up in the midst of the countryside of Northern Ireland, Iain says he developed a deep relationship with the planet and environment – a none-too surprising revelation considering his job a few decades later. 

“As a young man of 18, I had this idea to go and work in Kenya. That experience was very influential because, in Africa, I got a sense that you cannot work with the environment on its own. It’s about where people and the environment meet.” Iain returned to Ireland to take an environmental degree and a community development diploma.

Iain’s career took a sidestep when he returned home during The Troubles. 

“I did cross-community reconciliation work in Northern Ireland; I was really into trying to bring loyalists and republican communities together, and that was bloody awful. It was hell. Violent and hell.

“Then, in the early 1990s, I worked on some extreme social stuff – working with prisoners, addicts, all sorts of stuff. I got into probation because I was really keen on trying to help people, but it is really damaging, harsh work. 

The experience of Northern Ireland at that time brought me over to England, but after a couple of years I gave up on probation entirely because I felt…” Iain trails off.

“Feel free to, you know, ignore all of this,” Iain laughs. No, no, I reply, please continue. This is fascinating. 

“I was doing probation with people in cycles of repetitive offending. I felt they were so disconnected from the planet. They were living in an extremely hard social sphere and I felt a bit of nature would actually help these people. I resigned – I’m a bit headstrong, by the way – so, I quit, which I could do because I was living in a commune in the Malvern Hills at the time.”

I interrupt: a commune? 

“It was a really interesting space. From there I started to do voluntary work at a pioneering children’s environmental education centre called Bishops Wood in Stourport-on-Severn.” 

It was while watching unemployed tradesmen from the local technology college build one of the country’s first environmental buildings at the centre, that Iain found the twin tracks of his career align. 

Iain was given employment as a dedicated environmental officer. He worked with vocational students on the land and helped connect people with brain injuries explore nature. He spent time educating businesspeople, the public and lecturers at the local college on environmental issues. 

“I suddenly found myself the first dedicated college environmental officer. There were a few universities, like Edinburgh and Nottingham Trent, which were starting to appoint environmental officers as well, and after we bumped into each other at events around the country, we decided to create this voluntary group called the EAUC, the environmental association for universities and colleges,” says Patton.

“We were meeting annually to cry on each other’s shoulders,” Iain laughs, “because we were trying to create something new. It was very fringe. After 10 years, this little voluntary organisation grew. We were a crowd of volunteers doing this in our evenings, but we realised we needed to take the next step and become a charity.”

After persuading the university and college members to stake money on the charity’s business plan, the team went on to deliver the first three years’ objectives by the following AGM. “We hadn’t dreamt what having permanent staff would do, and how much more we would be able to get done. And we haven’t looked back,” says Patton.

Now, the EAUC employs 13 staff and has offices in Edinburgh and Cheltenham. The organisation works with university leaders, governors, students and academics on a sustainability agenda informed by the United Nations’ 27 Sustainable Development Goals. 

“And I’m still here, which surprises me because I get bored easily,” Iain chuckles.

Iain Patton says the higher education sector has a year “to knuckle down” and address its carbon emissions.

The new Climate Commission: what next? 

The student strikes had kicked off and universities began to realise they were at the heart of solving these problems. Sector leaders were contacting us saying: ‘OK, we need to do something. Can you please help us?

This year could be the EAUC’s most significant to-date; a ‘step-change’ for the organisation that started life with, in Iain’s words, a “little crappy newsletter”. This November, Glasgow will host the UN’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26). The two-week conference, which could welcome as many as 30,000 delegates and 200 hundred world leaders from nations far and wide, will attempt to produce an international response to the climate emergency. It will be the largest global summit the UK has ever hosted. 

Ahead of COP26, the EAUC announced it was launching the new Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education Leaders, with support from its partners, The Association of Colleges (AoC), GuildHE and Universities UK (UUK). The commission will design a blueprint for how post-16 educational institutions should respond to the climate emergency and present it to the global audience at COP26. 

This written commitment from the UK’s universities and colleges is seen as an opportunity for the sector to demonstrate its oft-touted ‘world-leading’ position. 

“The commission is our most ambitious – and scary – initiative yet,” Iain explains. In the spring of last year Iain returned to Kenya but flew home seriously unwell. While a five-month bout of pneumonia kept him from work, the world’s environmental consciousness was stirring. 

“I came back to work in September and the world had changed. The first university had declared a climate emergency. Universities were committing publicly to net-zero carbon emissions targets. Institutions were saying: ‘we don’t know how we’re going to do this, but we’re committed to doing it’.

“The student strikes had kicked off and universities began to realise they were at the heart of solving these problems. Sector leaders were contacting us saying: ‘OK, we need to do something. Can you please help us?’

“We realised the EAUC, as the sector-recognised sustainability leadership body, needed to look up from our members and bring together a co-owned, co-led approach to the climate crisis.” 

The commission was announced shortly after and (at the time of going to press) has 10 months until its work is due to be presented. 

“It is valuable having a global platform because we have a huge opportunity to showcase UK universities and colleges as next-generation places of learning; institutions that are responsible, accountable and forward-thinking in imagining what education will look like going into the next decade.

“That is assuming we’re successful this year in getting results and momentum. Being realistic, it is only a year, but we’ve given ourselves a hell of a year to really knuckle down. That expectation brings pressure, which, of course, we’re exploiting to the max.”

The commission will follow the style of House of Commons select committees. The secretariat will announce a call for expert witnesses, who will be invited to oral evidence sessions. Drawing upon the evidence and expertise collected from the sessions, the sector bodies will agree a game plan for university chiefs to take back to their institutions.

The secretariat is in the final stages of agreeing their priorities, but Iain offered me an indication of the issues being thrashed out behind closed doors. 

Iain describes the first priority as ‘deep adaptation’ – in other words, addressing how universities adapt to the changing world they find themselves in. The second area of work is teaching and student experience, with particular focus on how universities can ensure graduates are equipped for the new world with the skills to help improve it. 

The third issue is around tackling scope three emissions: the pollutants often omitted from universities’ zero-carbon pledges. Scope three emissions are harder to track and spot because they are released away from the university campus – it could be in the catering supply chain, on flights to academic conferences or from the enormous digital warehouses that accommodate the world’s growing cloud storage. Unlike scope one and two, there is no agreed measurement for these ‘hidden’ emissions, which makes it difficult to track and curb. 

The commission’s fourth priority is a framework for more sustainable research – in particular, the sorts of research that could help solve the crisis. 

Finally, the commission hopes to shape the institutional responsibility for public understanding. Understood loosely as a university’s ‘civic mission’, HEIs can be the anchor for their place and educators for the populace. The commission hopes universities can transfer their knowledge and experience to policymakers and the public and build a national response.

It is a long list with considerable potential for success.

Iain Patton says the EAUC is not a police force “monitoring and accusing the sector”.

The carrot or the stick: what is needed to ensure progress?

We’re not a police force monitoring and accusing the sector; we are here to support and enable them to ensure the public commitment translates into action. This is not beating up universities.

In the last 12 months, the HE sector’s dialogue on carbon emissions has kicked up a gear. From nowhere, universities like Newcastle, Sussex and Bristol promised net-zero carbon emissions.

Declarations and pledges came thick and fast, but all set out different timeframes and ambitions: the University of Cambridge offered a detailed blueprint of how they would reach net-zero by 2050; the University of Hull announced it would become carbon neutral by 2027. 

Even government was not immune from this bout of pledge-making. 

One of Theresa May’s final acts as prime minister was to commit the UK to net-zero UK carbon emissions by 2050. But some raised concerns around the practicality of these arbitrary deadlines. 

During our conversation about the work of the climate commission, Iain explained the importance of the ‘three circles of sustainability’. Environmental policies must be balanced with economic and social concerns in order to be described as truly ‘sustainable’. 

With carbon neutral pledges all the rage, I ask Iain if there is a risk – as some critiques have highlighted – that a focus on one could ‘unbalance’ other forms of institutional sustainability.

“At the end of the day, we’ve only got one planet. If we fuck it up – excuse my language – we’re screwed. We can have all of the diversity, inclusion and justice, but if we don’t have a planet, we’re screwed. The environment – the planet – is the trump card. I think, however, that concern is partly why we set up the commission.

“I think some have felt a pressure to make a public expression on emissions. 

“I think we have an opportunity to support them. We’re not a police force monitoring and accusing the sector; we are here to support and enable them to ensure the public commitment translates into action. This is not beating up universities. This is not name-checking them.”

“When the Conservative government replaced the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – the sector’s ‘critical friend’ – with a regulator (the Office for Students), it did not see fit to substitute like with like. The changeover meant that universities were no longer required to collect and publish estates maintenance records (EMR) and are no longer eligible for environmental grants.

“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’.” 

So, where does leadership come from now? 

The situation in Scotland is different. The government requires all public sector employers to report their emissions and align themselves with the UN’s 27 sustainable development goals. “There’s real leadership in Scotland, top down,” Iain emphasises. “Here, in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, we don’t have that.” 

So, is it time for a ‘stick’ to ensure progress?  

But students can be quite demanding and radical and not always grounded in reality. Vice-chancellors can be quite conservative creatures. We’re walking a very challenging line here.

“I think students are a stick. And I think staff are expecting their institution to step up. It’s a different world, this Tory world that we’re in. I don’t want you to get into my politics, but the landscape has changed. What we’re trying to engineer here is peer pressure, and collective sector leadership in this space, so that students become the stick.”

Students are an important dynamic in this discussion because it is “thanks to them” that universities are addressing this issue so vocally, Iain explains.

“But students can be quite demanding and radical and not always grounded in reality. Vice-chancellors can be quite conservative creatures. We’re walking a very challenging line here. Some students accuse us of being a talking shop. Of course, we understand that, but EAUC is not a talking shop. We have every intention of enabling those commitments and translating them into long-term change. That’s why students are critical here. They’re the ones keeping the pressure on.”

Developing a sustainable business plan is “a vital ingredient for institutional success”, Iain says. “A plan will help a university ensure they deliver students who are employable for the future. It will help them find opportunities for new partnerships with businesses and communities. It will help them reduce organisational risks. It is good business sense for an organisation that wants to be here for the next hundred years.”

Iain is a pioneer, not because he possesses some extraordinary gift others lack, but because he had the fortune to be in the right place at the right time. And he had the mettle to do something meaningful when he got there.

Journalists, in general, love to heap praise upon some and criticism upon others. But in the climate crisis, no one individual (Thunberg, Attenborough or Gore) will put things right. And no one person is the enemy. This year, the higher education sector has a chance to make that point. 

Keep up to date with the work of the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education.

You might also like: Sustainability at Keele University


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