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HEi-think: Why should universities be sustainable?


As People & Planet publishes its latest green university rankings, Grant Anderson, Environmental Manager at Nottingham Trent University, sets out reasons why achieving sustainability goals makes sense for universities at every level.


Published this week, the 2016 People and Planet University League has drawn attention to sustainable practices in the UK higher education sector.  The league ranks every university on a series of measures, ranging from carbon management to sustainable teaching.  But why should Universities take sustainability seriously?  As the Environmental Manager at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), the institution at the top of the 2016 University League, it is a question that I have experience answering over recent years.

The reasons are varied and rarely straightforward or clear cut.  Sustainability is so broad, the justifications for action will depend upon the type of project.  For example, the argument for LED lighting would be dominated by a financial business case and pay back periods.  However, the decision to divest from fossil fuels would require a clear moral argument about the perceived values of the institution.

At NTU the justification for action can be summarised into three categories, although undoubtedly there are many more available for sustainability practitioners to draw upon.

Firstly, there is moral and altruistic justification for action.  If Universities can’t see the case for action, then who can?  Knowledge and understanding of the challenges facing this planet and society are developed at universities.  Once we understand a problem or opportunity, the next logical step is to act upon it.  Research output focused on sustainability appears to be growing.  It would be contradictory if universities did not practice what they preach.  For example, it would undermine the credibility of a low carbon building technologies research group if their offices were housed within a new building with a poor energy rating.

Secondly, there is the business argument. Imagine a campus which doesn’t need to draw upon grid electricity, natural gas or water for flushing toilets.  The campus is completely shielded from those annual rises in utility costs.  Now imagine the buildings use smart technology to open and close only when staff and students need them.  They do this automatically and don’t waste any resources.  The buildings themselves are fantastic environments to learn and work within.  They have lots of natural daylight, they are cool in summer and cosy in the winter. 

Outside the campus has green space at every turn, students, staff and wildlife thrive in these gardens and grounds, feeling calm and relaxed.  All the food sold on campus is local and seasonal where possible.  The food is of great quality and local small businesses flourish due to the buying power of the University.  Nothing is wasted with everything being reused, recycled or at worst, used as an energy fuel.  The air is fresh and clean as electric buses, bicycles facilities and walking routes are fully integrated and widespread.

This sustainable campus vision would undoubtedly help to attract the best students and staff to the university.  This efficient campus would also be comparably cheap to run and maintain, off-setting the higher up-front costs.  A sustainable campus is simply good business. 

The third justification is that our staff and students increasingly expect and demand a sustainable university.  For five years the National Union of Students (NUS) and Higher Education Academy (HEA) have jointly run a national student survey, on attitudes towards sustainability.  In that time 25,000 students have completed the survey and 85 per cent of students would like their campuses to be sustainable whilst 60 per cent want to learn more about sustainability.  Sustainability isn’t the main factor in choosing a place of study but it is increasingly a characteristic students expect.

At NTU, we have decided to embed sustainability into every taught course.  This isn’t prescriptive, but rather it is down to each subject area to interpret what element of sustainability is most relevant and useful to them.  Regardless of the subject area, a working knowledge of sustainability will certainly come in useful for the future.  Sustainability is increasingly concerned with finding solutions to problems.  It’s about exploring and taking advantage of positive opportunities.  These skills are transferrable to any discipline or walk of life.

The greatest impact a university can have is in the actions of their graduates. If each graduate understands sustainability then the positive impact on society and our environment could become incalculable.  That must be the strongest argument of all.      

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