Round table: the sustainability challenge – Gemma Goater

How is the UK’s HE sector addressing today’s major sustainability challenges? Steve Wright quizzes a panel of experts. Here’s the first in our 7-part series

Gemma Goater works within the public services team at SUEZ recycling and recovery

Q. Should the higher education sector play a major role in the drive towards sustainability?

Universities have become powerful, influential institutions with vast networks including surrounding businesses, councils and communities. People take note when these respected institutions lead the way. By continuing to lead and generate interest, you will have more businesses and communities wanting to link with these institutions, enhancing the positive reputation and further increasing their networks.

The collaborative and competitive culture of this sector drives universities to be at the forefront of innovations and developments. Culture and behaviour can be contagious: if higher education is at the forefront of sustainability, those who work and study in the sector will change the way they interact with the world and hold this as a natural core value in life. Equally, it is important not to underestimate the influence that higher education sector employees or graduates can have as they cascade into the wider world, influencing our society, business and government in future years.

This current generation of students is clearly more engaged with environmental issues, and our impact on the planet, than any generation previously. Showing prospective students that their higher education choices also support their personal sustainability focus may attract more students to enrol with you.

Q. What approach should universities take towards legacy or outdated practices, assets and buildings?

A recent report from Universities UK looked at what universities are doing to drive more value for money from their assets – and gave six great examples of these strategies in action, from enabling year-round use of facilities to promoting the use of shared spaces and reducing duplicated services. All these techniques can enable higher education institutions to find efficiency gains, reduce environmental impacts through centralised services, and reduce unnecessary logistics or activities.

By rethinking and reworking their spaces, universities may find that they do not have to invest in development projects in order to accommodate new technologies or speciality equipment.

Q. How can HE institutions create their own leadership models for environmental impact?

The need for environmental leadership has never been higher. From global conflicts via climate change to the very local issues of food and water supply, we see a common desire for action.

A leadership model needs to be simple, relatable and well organised. Although it should link into global goals, to succeed it needs a local focus. If a person cannot relate to the stated goals, behaviour change will never reach its full potential (see the issues around the segregation of recycling as an example).

Empower people through training, coaching and education, so that they can implement the model themselves; and ensure that it becomes a core part of your institution’s values, as most models will fall at the first hurdle if people do not understand them fully and feel part of them.

Q. How important is it to set realistic, achievable deadlines around sustainability?

Setting unrealistic deadlines can impact you and others around you more than you think. By setting realistic deadlines, you can ensure that you have visualised your goal by going through it step by step, allowing your brain to engage in the start and end of the process (eradicating the ‘finger in the air’ process); considered the challenges you may encounter along the way; focused on the task at hand and driven it to completion; and created an encouraging culture where people are more inclined to be involved (remember, not everyone works well under pressure). 

Q. Are we using the correct metrics to measure sustainability?

Every sustainability measure comes from the right place, with people wanting to drive a change. However, having worked with universities all over the UK, I see a clear lack of consistency between measures between institutions. Having a small set of sustainability measures, calculated in the same way over all sectors, would be illuminating and would provide the information needed to drive change together. Finding the right metrics is vitally important in representing each organisation accurately.

To find out more about Suez, please visit SUEZ recycling and recovery

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