A record number of universities participated in the Sustainability Leadership Scorecard (SLS) this year, reflecting the growing weight higher education leaders place on environmental and social sustainability – but the scorecard’s custodians warn that areas like teaching and research are sector-wide weak points.
According to figures from EAUC, The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, and AUDE, the Association for University Directors of Estates – who share responsibility for the award scheme – 69 UK universities engaged with the scorecard in 2020 – up from 42 in 2019.
This year also marks the first time the SLS has presented platinum awards, with four institutions achieving the very highest recognition for their work to embed sustainability across all areas of their operations.
Of the 76 institutions that engaged with the framework, 55 received either a bronze, silver, gold or platinum award – the remaining 21 failed to achieve a grade; most were new to the scheme and did not engage with enough of the award criteria to be eligible.
It is encouraging to see more universities engage with the SLS, and fantastic to see some achieve the best ‘Platinum’ rating. But there is obviously more still to do
– Stephen Wells, Surrey University
The scorecard marks universities on four categories: leadership and governance; estates and operations; teaching and research; and partnerships.
On the whole, universities achieved more in the first two categories, which include things like recruiting senior leadership figures to drive sustainability on campus, and reducing waste, energy consumption and water usage.
Universities perceive these types of achievements as core sustainability goals, but the scorecard encourages universities to consider a holistic definition of sustainability, including things like gender equality and mental health.
Institutions also continue to show little progress in developing long-term coping mechanisms to deal with climate change, so-called climate change adaption plans.
“On the one hand, it is baffling that the sector continues to ignore an issue that could have such a significant impact on its future business continuity,” the report said. “However, it is also not surprising. Climate change adaptation has always been seen as a problem for the future when compared to mitigation and carbon reductions which have, at least recently, been seen with a sense of urgency.”
The SLS also encouraged institutions to address curriculums and research outputs. The report suggests this lack of progress is “not surprising” given “the practical difficulties with making changes to entire research and/or teaching programmes”.
The EAUC warned that institutions are not making enough progress to disassociate from organisations that “do not align with the sustainable development principles”.
Iain Patton, CEO at EAUC, urged universities to address these areas. “Institutions must be praised for their efforts and strengths, but they must also reflect on areas of weakness and address these as a priority.
“The curriculum needs to have education for sustainable development embedded to ensure young people are gaining the right education and skills for a rapidly changing and increasingly low carbon future. They must also look at how sustainability can be better incorporated in research, and get to grips with Climate Change Adaptation plans.”
He added: “Reaching Net Zero is a necessity and the time to act is now. We owe it to young people; we must embrace student views and be held accountable by them, in the drive for a better future.”
Stephen Wells, director of estates at the University of Surrey and chair of AUDE, said: “It is encouraging to see more universities engage with the SLS, and fantastic to see some achieve the best ‘Platinum’ rating. But there is obviously more still to do.
“The beauty of the tool comes in many ways. It helps you compare, in a collaborative way, your own actions and plans with those of other institutions. The tool is built around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – that’s a great framework for your own activity while allowing you flexibility in prioritising and building your own institution-specific approach and plan. And it fosters a ‘whole university approach’ so that different elements of the sustainability work don’t become disconnected from the task as seen in the round.
“If you’ve been dipping your toes in the edge of this pool 2021 is the year to take the plunge in a serious and committed way. This report suggests that those who have been gaining real value from what remains a sector-leading initiative.”
EAUC hosted a five-day virtual global climate conference from 16–20 November that addressed many of the SLS areas.
Prof Peter Licence, professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham, discussed the challenge of reducing scope-three carbon emissions. These “fugitive emissions” account for between 80% and 70% of total emissions for most universities and Prof Licence suggested the sector spend less time tracking water wastage and more time on the as-yet-undiscussed contributors to scope three emissions. Tackling these emissions will require “thorny discussions” with departments and suppliers, Prof Licence said.