Today (December 10) sees the Higher Education Policy Institute publish its first ever report on climate change.
Though perhaps a little overdue, given the magnitude of the issue and the succession of climate-related policy reviews and commitments already made by higher education institutions (HEIs), ‘Beyond business as usual: Higher education in the era of climate change’ lacks neither breadth nor bite.
“It’s time we gave up on the idea that going to university is just about preparation for a business-as-usual economy; that is not going to ensure our young people survive and thrive in the future,” said the paper’s author, Professor Keri Facer.
“We need our universities and colleges to be helping students imagine and create different futures that are not dependent upon fantasies of endless economic growth and ecological extraction.”
Outlining plans for how HEIs can lead the UK’s strategy for tackling climate change, her report calls for:
- A comprehensive programme of public learning as a partnership between government, the BBC and HE
- Significant financial stimulus for the research and innovation required to ensure that all UK universities and colleges have zero carbon emissions by 2035
- The establishment of a £3bn national green livelihoods transition fund
“Universities and colleges are the UK’s critical learning infrastructure; they help us think our way out of problems, invent new ways of living and adapt to change,” added Facer. “We need urgently to harness these resources to help us, as a society, transition towards more sustainable futures.
“We need a massive, nationwide programme of learning and innovation to help us transition – in our infrastructure, our way of life, our food systems and our values – towards a society that can survive well in conditions of significant climate disruption. For that, we need to mobilise our universities, our colleges and our great national educational institutions like the BBC.”
Turning to the HEIs themselves, Facer urges that they eschew PR-friendly ‘greenwash’ in favour of:
- Hugely reducing carbon emissions from their day-to-day operations, including from staff and student travel, and committing to sustaining biodiversity
- Interpreting their civic role as including the need to help educate adults away from carbon-intensive work and towards socially positive investment
- Striving towards ever-greater collaboration, such as building alliances between scientists, artists, politics and society, particularly from marginalised communities
The government, said Facer, “urgently needs to get its house in order in terms of its climate credentials. It will host the COP26 in Glasgow next year and needs to give a strong example of how it is leading the world in climate action. One way to do this would be through a green livelihoods transition programme that provides free university and college to adults that lets them transition away from high-carbon employment to imagine and create sustainable livelihoods.
“If the government wants to level up, it needs to invest in the people of deindustrialised towns and cities to ensure that they have educational opportunities, by creating new centres for green innovation and skills. To do this, you need to get the universities and the colleges on board.”
If HEIs are sincere about turning words into action, this last point should not prove too troublesome. Published earlier this month, and besides committing to going net-zero by 2030, the University of Glasgow’s response to the climate emergency made much of the need for public engagement and education. Glasgow is one of nearly 50 HEIs to have made zero-carbon emissions pledges.
Universities and colleges are the UK’s critical learning infrastructure; they help us think our way out of problems, invent new ways of living and adapt to change – Professor Keri Facer, report author
“The publication of HEPI’s first ever climate change report is reflective of how much universities, and indeed colleges, are prioritising the issue of the climate crisis,” Iain Patton, CEO at EAUC, the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education.
“Undoubtedly, the education sector has a key role to play in this fight. It is right that we recognise the urgency of the situation, and that we look to act upon it, rather than merely talking about it.
“That is why the EAUC worked in partnership with Association of Colleges, GuildHE, Universities UK and many student bodies to create the Climate Commission for UK College and University Students and Leaders in 2019. The commission is developing a climate framework to guide and support all UK and Ireland universities and colleges to net zero emissions as quickly as possible. A climate action roadmap for further education colleges is now available, and a HE climate action toolkit will be ready early in 2021.
“The path to net zero will look different for each institution, but it is important all institutions begin their journey now, with urgency,” he added.
“The government needs to provide support, and we support the call from Aldersgate Group for the creation of a national low carbon skills strategy that embeds sustainability and net zero delivery across the whole education system, led by a national skills commission.
“We would also like to see additional funding to support the sector transition to net zero, and for the government to reinstate the mandatory requirement for all universities to report their emissions reductions each year, and to have ambitious targets.”