Universities work hard to green themselves and society – EUA

Universities in Europe have called for enhanced funding, more exchanges and peer learning in order to realise their full potential to contribute to environmental sustainability. The call comes from the first ever survey of greening in higher education in Europe, conducted by the European University Association (EUA) and involving nearly 400 universities.

The report on the survey, titled Greening in European Higher Education Institutions, was launched on 16 September 2021. It found that environmental sustainability and greening are being tackled by the vast majority of European universities as part of their institutional values, with activities often framed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“The findings prove that many higher education institutions are working to green their own footprint and to contribute to society by working with a wide range of partners, from local communities to global university networks and industry,” said Michael Gaebel, EUA director of higher education policy and report co-author with Henriette Stöber and Alison Morrisroe.

The survey gathered evidence of institutions’ diverse activities on and approaches to greening. It collected good practices, identified opportunities and challenges, and explored the scope for collective action and policy advocacy. Interestingly, a third of universities reported greater awareness of environmental issues due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Higher education institutions are central to the green transition and to creating more sustainable societies,” said Amanda Crowfoot, secretary general of the EUA, which represents more than 800 universities and rectors’ conferences in 48 European countries.

“They address sustainability through research and education and are active in forward-thinking activities aimed at reaching the objectives of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and the European Union’s Green Deal.”

The survey’s online questionnaire was open to institutions in the European Higher Education Area and European Union partner countries in the Eastern and Southern Neighbourhood from 15 March to 9 April 2021. ‘Greening’ was defined as increasing awareness and taking concrete action towards a green, environmentally friendly and resource-efficient university.

There were 372 higher education institutions that participated, 305 of which had greening measures and initiatives and were considered for the evaluation, says the report. France, Spain, Austria, Kazakhstan, Romania and Italy had the largest response rates. Most feedback was from comprehensive, multidisciplinary universities (57).

Measures and activities

There are multiple factors that drive engagement in greening, write Gaebel, Stöber and Morrisroe. These range from 96% for ‘institutional values’ to 61% for ‘international funding’ and 73% for ‘system-level benchmarking and indicators’.

An impressive 64% of institutions have greening activities in place across the institution, and at 18% measures are driven by departments or faculties. A further 14% are considering such measures in the future.

“Higher education institutions are addressing greening and, more broadly, sustainability through a large range of diverse measures and activities,” says the report. While some universities provide activities only, others back them up with policies and regulations.

Mobility and commuting are addressed at almost all institutions through different initiatives.

“For most answer options, 80% to 90% of institutions have measures in place.”

There is high interest in greening in teaching and learning. “Around 80% of institutions consider greening in extra-curricular activities (94%), in study programmes (79% bachelor and 82% masters), in dedicated elective modules (84%), and in curriculum reform (86%).”

About 70% of institutions have greening measures and activities in research and innovation, for example through living labs (74%), to foster green use of shared research infrastructures (74%), and by providing incentives or funding for research on greening (73%).

The vast majority of institutions do at least some greening activities via recycling and waste management (93%), sustainable construction and renovation (90%) and use of resources (92%), says the report.

More than half have comprehensive policies and processes in place in these areas. “Likewise, almost all institutions have measures in place to physically green the campus (92%), either as part of a comprehensive approach, or at least with some activities.”

Engagement and networks

Greening appears to invite collaboration and partnership, the survey found. “Most institutions engage with partner institutions (88%) and student groups and organisations (88%), and close to half even have a comprehensive policy or process in place for these activities.”

Further, write Gaebel, Stöber and Morrisroe: “Institutions are highly engaged in their local communities (86%), with employers and enterprises (83%) and NGOs (80%), and they frequently contribute to policy initiatives (87%) in the field of greening.

“A third or more even have concrete policies and processes in place for contributing to local policy initiatives or debates and overall community engagement and outreach activities on greening, and cooperation with industry.”

Less than a quarter of universities were not involved in any network. Participation in thematic networks on greening, at the national and international level, are fairly common and are “an important strategy to enable and enhance the institutions’ work on greening”.

Rectors’ conferences and university associations, including the EUA, were frequently mentioned as actors on greening and environmental sustainability, and as facilitators for inter-institutional exchange and collaboration.

A total of 83 networks were mentioned, dedicated to environmental sustainability or to specific issues such as green energy or water management. Of these, 35 networks focus on higher education’s contribution to environmental sustainability, targeting universities but also often involving other actors.

These networks cover activities such as exchange and coordination between institutions, best practice sharing, data gathering, and the development and implementation of environmental policies and processes at the institutional level, the report continues.

“Frequently addressed topics are new degrees and courses, community engagement, the reduction of the carbon footprint or emissions on campus, waste reduction, energy consumption reduction, plastic use reduction and green mobility modes. Some networks also offer evaluation or review processes of the institutions’ greening measures and performance.”

Policies and strategies

Greening is often considered in institutions’ strategies: 61% address it either through their overall strategy or through a dedicated one, and 25% have plans for such.

The survey found that most universities relate their strategies to the SDGs, and about a third also to national policies and initiatives. European policies and initiatives seem to be of limited importance (17%), although the European Green Deal has sparked considerable interest.

Governance and steering approaches for greening vary, but half of institutions indicated that leadership plays an important role, “underlining that greening and related activities are fairly acknowledged and mainstreamed”, the report says.

More than a third of institutions have a specific portfolio in the leadership team, a dedicated committee and central offices or teams in place. “Usually, two or even more of these approaches complement each other, and only 8% of institutions indicate that they have no concrete governance or steering approach.”

When asked about examples of system-level policies that drive institutions’ greening activities, the French environmental protection law appeared as the only national policy dedicated explicitly to the greening of the higher education sector. Institutions from other countries referenced general national policies and laws for environmental protection.

Benefits and challenges

Institutions have observed various benefits stemming from greening activities, says the report. “For most institutions, these benefits are already recognisable, but not yet to the fullest extent, and expectations for future impact are high.”

“For instance, about two thirds of institutions have observed an improved quality of campus life, an improvement of their institutional reputation by leading through example, increased research on the topic, a positive impact on the institution’s partnerships and the surrounding community, and heightened awareness among staff and students.”

Institutions described a range of challenges to greening and environmental sustainability. Lack of funding was a challenge for around half of universities, while a third mentioned lack of staff engagement, coordination of activities and strategic support.

To overcome challenges, “institutions refer to additional funding from the national and European levels to realise greening measures, but also to peer-learning and more engagement with actors across the institution and exchange with other institutions,” the report says.

“A third state that a European initiative on greening in higher education would be helpful to support such activities.”