Breaking rank

From carbon footprints to electric cars, Luke Evans takes a look at a few of the leading lights in the green revolution

“What does a sustainable hairdresser look like?”

John Hindley drops this odd question in the middle of our interview. His examples seem almost too obvious – “more efficient hairdryers … less packaging, recycling,” – and he later points out why it’s not so easy to think outside of the box. “It’s just not internalised to universities that out in business, graduates with an attitude, experience and skills of sustainability and its issues are a lot more employable than those graduates that don’t have an awareness of sustainability.”

In the last decade, sustainability has gone from being a small-scale concern to an all-encompassing philosophy for academic education, architecture and administration. As the Head of Environmental Strategy at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), Hindley and his team have been responsible for a sea change in the way the University approaches its sustainable initiatives, whether that involves liaising with senior management to consult on procurement, or whether it’s “riding a seven-seater bike around campus looking absolute fools to highlight sustainable travel.”

MMU’s latest prized developments are the Business School, which opened in 2012, and the Birley Fields campus, which is set to open in September 2014. Both of these academic buildings have been designed to the standards set by the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) for Excellence, offering an abundance of energy efficient features including photovoltaic cells and ground sourced heat pumps. Along with a revamp of the estates for the Manchester School of Art, the buildings are part of a £350m overhaul of the University’s campuses, consolidating their far-flung learning centres into two locations in Manchester and Cheshire.

Of the three new developments, Birley Fields is the crown jewel, offering what Hindley calls: “The three zeroes approach … zero water, zero waste, zero carbon.” At MMU, this approach isn’t just the net result of eco-friendly design – instead, it begins on the first day of construction. “We monitor the performance of the construction through really quite strict environmental key performance indicators (KPIs) on a month by month basis. So how much electricity they’re using on site, how much water they’re using on site, how much waste they’re creating.” These energy saving initiatives even stretch to using prefabricated concrete slabs and structures, along with testing the uses of hydrogen fuel cell electricity as part of their leading work in the Greater Manchester Hydrogen Partnership.

The stellar work done by MMU’s Environment Team has seen them leap from 91st place on the 2007 People & Planet (P&P) Green League table to 1st place in the 2013 rankings. The League table mimics the graduation process, offering a ‘first’ down to a ‘fail’ for the environmental policy and performance of universities in the UK. Hannah Smith, who works as Green League Manager with the small team at People & Planet, points out that this gimmick is, “a vehicle for some really serious issues within the methodology of the Green League’s data samples.”

Sure enough, People & Planet’s methodology isn’t light work: the team compile the results of over 150 surveys on sustainability policies, which are sent to publicly funded universities under a Freedom of Information request; the universities in question are then given eight weeks to collate evidence and submit their responses, with a 10-day window to appeal the decision once the surveys have been scored. This information is merged with select data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Estates Management Record, which studies the usage and consumption of university campuses. Finally, after all the statistics have been compared, the company’s IT wiz, Rich Lott, creates the final table, which is free to view on People & Planet’s website.

The Green League has existed since 2006, and both Smith and Hindley believe that a notable change was taking place towards the latter half of that decade. “The students started this sort of ‘envirolution’, back in 2007,” says Hindley. “They were quite vociferous around environmental policy – why have we got no recycling, we want to do this – and since then we’ve had progressive change, growing engagement.”

“It was quite unprecedented, I think, in terms of the results that we saw year on year, through publishing,” says Smith, reflecting on the Green League’s growth. “We’d go from a really small percentage of the sector tackling a certain issue that would be highlighted in the criteria, and 12 months later we’d see an overwhelming growth in the number of universities that were walking the talk.”

Smith is quick to note the other contributing factors, however: “I don’t think that it’s the sole reason that the sector has moved on this – there have been a huge number of variables to consider – so we’ve had the targets set by the higher education funding councils, for example, and for the sector as a whole to reduce its carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2020. You’ve got things like the Carbon Trust working with universities to develop their carbon management plans – you’ve got people like the NUS really putting huge resources into student energy behaviour projects. And then you’ve also got the academic world, responding to a call for more research and more academic work in education for sustainable development … so it’s all kind of come at the same time.”

2007 also marked the year when Daniella Tilbury took on her role as Dean of Sustainability at the University of Gloucestershire. The work of Tilbury’s team has made Gloucestershire one of the most consistently high ranking performers in the Green League, yet she talks about innovations in energy as if they’re already old hat: “We do the usual stuff, introducing efficient LED lighting, using fossil fuel alternatives, ground source heat pumps, we do all of that,” she says. “Since 1993 we’ve had 100% green tariff, 100% renewable energy. But if you really want a culture change, you need to invest in the shifting of minds – on supporting staff and students to understand how sustainability must be an integral part of their professional responsibility.”

Unlike some of their other high-ranking Green League peers, Gloucestershire are also notable for directly linking social enterprise to sustainability initiatives. “Our Students’ Union has established its own Cheltenham Chilli Company, where the students actually grow the chillies and peppers on University grounds, developing the product, its branding and marketing and learning how to increase their employability chances,” she says. “We have edible gardens, where our staff plant fruit, herbs and vegetables and an external community garden, where residents can come together with some students to support some practical composting, planting, weeding, permaculture and discuss local issues.”

Unlike the top-down approach taken to energy emissions, many of Gloucestershire’s sustainability initiatives rely on community engagement and active participation. When it comes to putting these plans in place, Tilbury believes that it is important to think structurally: “It takes time to make deep changes. We work with policy and strategy frameworks a lot, because we see these as very important. We feel that if we don’t have the policy frameworks, then the actions are not sustained, and the impetus doesn’t stay there for that long.”

Tilbury chalks this up to what she calls, “a whole institutional approach” at Gloucestershire, where sustainability pervades all aspects of University life, from ethical investment to academic development.’ Similarly, Hindley says that senior management, “have a responsibility to ensure that their strategy supports all students to graduate as global citizens with the wisdom and skills as sustainably literate thinkers.” Smith, meanwhile, believes that it’s at the heart of progress in higher education: “If universities aren’t producing graduates that are inspired to build a more ethical and more sustainable world, then they’re doing a bad job.”

Drawing on People & Planet’s data, however, Smith is concerned that the environmental revolution is slowing down. “I do feel that we had a burst in movement, from 2007, 08 and 09, where we saw lots of fast improvements,” she says. “But we’ve seen some institutions in the sector dragging their feet when it comes to action on worker’s rights in the supply chains of university procurement. We’re also seeing that carbon emissions overall, and the reduction in carbon emissions overall, is incredibly slow … the sector is not going to meet that target, unless something changes very rapidly in the next six years.”

Despite this, she’s hopeful about the future of sustainability in higher education. “In certain places I think there’s definitely a momentum, and sometimes I think what the Green League’s trying to do is keep all the balls up in the air, juggling each aspect of sustainability in its most holistic form, and keeping the momentum in all of those areas. It’s a challenge, but it’s one that’s really necessary.

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