Universities should be drivers of local sustainability

Universities should reinvigorate the civic role of institutions to build ecologically and socially resilient communities as part of their efforts to help lead the United Kingdom’s strategy for tackling climate change, according to a new report.

To do this, they should collaborate more locally, building alliances between scientists, artists, politics and society, particularly from marginalised communities, and become drivers of transition to sustainability in their local community.

In order to take that role, they must also lead by example in redesigning their day-to-day operations to reduce emissions, including from staff and student travel, nurture biodiversity and adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.

But they can also make it part of their mission to open minds to change by helping to inform the public about the changing climate and ecological collapse.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The proposals are contained in a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Beyond Business as Usual: Higher education in the era of climate change (HEPI Debate Paper 24).

It is written by Keri Facer, the Zennström professor of climate change leadership at Uppsala University, Sweden, and professor of educational and social futures at the University of Bristol, UK, and outlines how universities and colleges can help lead the UK’s strategy for tackling climate change.

Facer has spent two decades on research – particularly university-community collaborative research – into the implications for education of social, technological and environmental change.

She makes a compelling case that universities and colleges have a key role to play in addressing the climate crisis, from COP26 (the next UN climate change conference) in Glasgow to the UK government’s levelling-up agenda, particularly by working with local communities.

She advocates universities becoming drivers of climate change action in their community, partnering with local authorities, local business and local community groups to facilitate a transition away from ecologically and economically unsustainable practices.

But to make the changes necessary, universities and colleges must act meaningfully and swiftly and not just ‘greenwash’ their activities, she says.

“Universities and colleges are the UK’s critical learning infrastructure – they help us think our way out of problems, invent new ways of living and adapt to change. We need urgently to harness these resources to help us, as a society, transition towards more sustainable futures,” Facer says.

At the national level university initiatives should be complemented by the development of a massive open programme of public learning as a partnership between the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the BBC and UK higher education.

“We need a massive, nationwide programme of learning and innovation to help us transition – in our infrastructure, our way of life, our food systems and our values – towards a society that can survive well in conditions of significant climate disruption,” says Facer.

“For that, we need to mobilise our universities, our colleges and our great national educational institutions like the BBC.”

A ‘moonshot’ capital and revenue research fund is necessary to stimulate the research and innovation needed to ensure that all UK universities and colleges have zero carbon emissions by 2035, with a 75% reduction by 2030.

In addition, a £3 billion (US$4 billion) National Green Livelihoods Transition Fund should be created to support transition to sustainable employment.

Role of anchor institutions

But some of the most interesting ideas in her report centre on the role universities and colleges can play as powerful anchor organisations that can make a significant contribution to the creation of ecological and economic sustainability in local communities.

Facer warns that universities are able to do the reverse – to intensify social divisions between those who enter higher education and those who do not, a schism that is becoming more visible in the wake of both the Brexit vote and the COVID-19 pandemic.

She therefore urges universities to think about how they are using their financial resources, procurement processes and civic role to encourage ecological and social sustainability in their local communities; and how they are supporting local communities to transition towards ecologically and economically sustainable livelihoods.

Some of this work can usefully involve partnerships with civic networks working on climate change action, such as the international network of transition towns, involving grassroots community projects geared to increasing self-sufficiency and mutual support, and the Incredible Edible Network, which brings local people together to work on urban gardens sustainably growing food.

She cites the ambitious example of Cleveland, Ohio, US, that is being replicated in Preston in the north-west of the UK, where a model of community wealth building has been established and sees anchor institutions such as universities and hospitals developing economic plans that improve the sustainability and resilience of local communities, for instance by:

• Committing more of their purchasing power to buying from local businesses.

• Hiring a greater percentage of local people.

• Providing workforce training for local people.

• Supporting the incubation of development of local businesses and social enterprises.

• Serving as an adviser or network builder.

• Leveraging local development to promote local retail and subsidised or affordable housing.

• Using pension funds and endowments to invest in local job creation strategies or venture capital for local non-profits, entrepreneurs and employee-owned firms.

Facer says in Amsterdam in the Netherlands and in the Brussels region of Belgium, for instance, city leaders are basing their recovery strategy on the principles of Oxford economist Kate Raworth’s new economic theories, which demonstrate the value of economic regeneration that is both socially and ecologically resilient.

This approach opens the way to partnerships with local authorities who are thinking along the same lines in planning their recovery from the pandemic, with a commitment to building back in a more eco-friendly and sustainable way.

Diversifying student intake

An important gap to plug also, though, is having a strategy to support local adults to move out of high-carbon and unsustainable forms of employment, since if you don’t do that you risk stirring the type of social division and alienation that fuelled the Brexit vote.

Facer says: “As levels of unemployment, precarious employment and under-employment rise in the wake of the pandemic, and as governments around the world explore new welfare systems, such as universal basic income, now is the moment for universities and colleges to diversify their student intake to enable older adults to transition to ecologically and economically sustainable livelihoods.”

She says there is a real need for universities to offer debt free courses in this context so that education is not regarded as a luxury for the few but gives adults the opportunity to rethink and reimagine the nature of work and employment and not just retrain for ‘green collar’ work involving vocational skills training.

It’s an ambitious proposal, suggesting a sea change in the relationship between universities, colleges and local communities, with the possibility of older adults becoming a new priority for higher education institutions, developing the skills of the local community.

Facer suggests this might even involve a rebalancing away from the dependence on international students, which is “highly risky in the pandemic era”, to providing for local adults with different educational needs at different times in their lives.

“Around the world a new movement is growing: individuals, networks, governments and industry are beginning to question the social and economic practices that are driving biodiversity loss and climate change,” she says.

“They are innovating, imagining and experimenting with new practices oriented towards regenerating societies, restoring land and relationships and rethinking economies. This is an enterprise drawing on many talents – from farmers to philosophers, artists to economists, scientists to schoolchildren.”

Universities should also be reshaping the knowledge structures of the university to address the interdisciplinary complexity of climate change and refocusing the educational mission of the institution to support students to develop the emotional, intellectual and practical capacities to live well with each other and with the planet in the era of climate change.

“It is, in other words, time for a creative reinvention of higher education,” she says. “It has been done before; it can be done again.”