Embedding Sustainability in Universities - University World News

19th May 2014

Iain Patton, CEO of EAUC, is featured discussing embedding sustainability in universities in University World News. You can also view the article here.

There are some excellent examples of successful sustainable campuses around the world. The United Kingdom, in particular, has many examples demonstrated by the Green Gown Awards. However, without true leadership from the very top of a university or college, how successful or sustainable can they really be?

Without institutional governance guiding the institution, how can a campus go beyond procedural, compliant or standard practice? We need transformational leadership that can vision and shape a different future – a low carbon future.

With their teaching, research, community engagement and campuses, universities are exceptionally well placed to generate a better economy, society and planet. And if they don’t – who on earth will?

As the UK’s sustainability body for universities and colleges, it is the view of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, or EAUC, that the public benefit capacity of an institution should be recognised, valued and then measured.

So what are we doing about it?

Multiple actions

Launched in December 2013 the ‘Enabling The Future We Want’ Manifesto is the UK’s response to the UN Earth Summit Rio+20 outcome document “The Future We Want”. Seventy organisations from across the tertiary and sustainability sectors submitted evidence that led to the formation of a shared manifesto.

Coordinated by the EAUC, the manifesto acts on the UK’s Rio+20 commitments and the future of education for sustainable development, taking account of the global context.

The manifesto calls on governments, education sectors, non-governmental organisations and civil society in the UK to work closely together to strengthen the role of education, particularly further and higher education, as an enabler of sustainable development.

Now the challenge is to turn this into action.

Also coming out of Rio+20 was the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, or HESI, initiated by a group of UN partners – the Executive Coordinator of Rio+20, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UN Environment Programme, UNESCO, the UN Global Compact, the UN Global Compact's Principles for Responsible Management Education and the United Nations University.

HESI has a special responsibility to provide leadership on education for sustainable development. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “This initiative is transformative, global in reach and could reach thousands of graduates from universities and business schools.”

To help institutions to report on their HESI commitments, the Platform for Sustainability Performance in Education, again coordinated by the EAUC, was created with support from UN partners. The platform brings together many of the world’s sustainability assessment tools designed to support universities and colleges.

Global higher education sustainability performance assessment systems now exist in the UK, United States, France, Australia, The Netherlands, South Africa, Japan and Spain, with others in development.

Rio+20 taught us the power of a collaborative approach and to focus on what we have in common and not the differences that divide us. From the UK it is the LiFE Index – Learning in Future Environments – that is our contribution to a global move to better measure and benchmark the social and environmental contribution higher education makes to society and the planet.

Currently being piloted by around 24 institutions in the UK and Australia and delivered by the EAUC, the LiFE Index is a comprehensive performance improvement system developed specifically to help colleges and universities to manage, measure, improve and promote their social responsibility and sustainability performance.

We are working with partners across the world to adapt it for their country-specific requirements while maintaining a global standard that all institutions can report and assess themselves against.

What about the students?

Yet the key ingredient of any university or college is students. They are entering a world characterised by rapid change, uncertainty and risk in socio-economic and environmental conditions that will affect them throughout their professional and personal lives.

Universities hold a unique position in society and have an important and influential role to play. But what we also have is an opportunity, as a sector with a social conscience, to lead change in addressing the many challenges and opportunities that sustainability presents.

To quote Jeffrey Sachs, director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network: “Success in sustainable development will require new science-based solutions. Success will require an unprecedented integration of insights across various disciplines, including earth systems sciences, public health, civil engineering, information technologies, economics, politics, law, business and much more.

“Only universities bring together this range of knowledge (hence their 'universality’). Universities are therefore critical stakeholders for success. To an unprecedented extent, universities must partner with government, business and civil society to take on the great challenges of sustainable development that lie ahead.”

So how can universities be sure that they are producing sustainability literate graduates?

The Sustainability Literacy Test, created by international organisations and endorsed by UN agencies, is a new and developing tool to assess and verify the sustainability literacy of our students when they graduate.

It assesses the minimum level knowledge in economic, social and environmental responsibility for higher education students, and it is applicable all over the world, in any kind of higher education institution, in any country, studying any kind of tertiary-level course.

Need to step up

The education sector has to step up in its role as a delivery agent for a sustainable economy, society and environment. For this reason, it is imperative that sustainability becomes a key indicator by which universities are measured and their contribution is recognised.

For our part, the EAUC will continue working in collaboration with partners – both in the UK and worldwide, such as the Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability and the United Nations Environment Programme – on initiatives that help drive sustainability up the agenda. One such initiative is the Green Gown Awards, which are 10 years strong in the UK and five years in Australasia and we hope to grow them across the globe.

That leaves me with the question: how do we achieve a truly sustainable campus?

Perhaps we need a new approach in which we abandon ‘stand-alone sustainability’ and move to one in which we embed the principles and values of sustainability into the sectors’ existing policy infrastructure. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that the sector struggles to embrace what it sees as an additional, separate agenda.

Sustainability isn’t about doing different things, but doing what we do now differently.

* Iain Patton is CEO of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, (EAUC).
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