University challenge

Jonathon Porritt

On his installation as Chancellor at Keele University,Jonathon Porritt discusses the challenges faced by the Higher Education sector in addressing the environment and sustainability agenda.

What a time to be getting involved in the Higher Education sector. After all the ructions over the last few years, there are some pretty downbeat assessments out there about the future of higher education in the UK. Yet these challenges also present opportunities, particularly in regard to the environment and sustainability agenda.

Through my years at Forum for the Future we have always emphasized the critical role that the higher education sector can play in helping to bring sustainable activities into mainstream society.

This encompasses how those institutions are managed, how they engage with their local communities and what is taught in higher education. In short, they are uniquely placed to effect change In terms of the campus, the community and the curriculum.

From my experience, it’s easy – or should I say easier – for universities to focus on how their estate can be made more sustainable, and many of the league tables focus on this to showcase the most ”green” institutions. This is a natural place to start for any organization, reducing its carbon footprint through a formal carbon management plan, overseeing energy consumption and carefully assessing any future developments. Nevertheless, vital as this is, universities have a bigger opportunity than most organizations in educating future generations and driving research into the sustainability agenda.

Let’s look at how we can educate students. Given how effectively and comprehensively my generation has trashed the prospects for all young people today, it astonishes me just how disengaged most students are on issues like population, climate change, biodiversity and global resources.

Today’s students have got a lot on their minds, but we need to motivate them so that these issues resonate and are seen as a priority. We should be in a situation where students are holding their university to task on issues about the environment, not needing to be reminded of its importance.

As educators, we have a huge responsibility to embed sustainability into what we do across the board, not just for those students who choose to take subjects that directly relate to issues around sustainability, but for the whole student body. In essence, we should be preparing students for the work of the world, not just the world of work.

This has to start with staff training and preparation. Only then can we begin to embed sustainability more widely into university programmes across the curriculum. This is something which Keele University has been particularly strong at, even developing specific internship programmes for graduates so that they can apply what they’ve learnt to local businesses and share the benefits of their learning with the wider community.

Universities also have a further role as educators not just of students, but also of the wider community, particularly those living around universities who can benefit from teaching on the environment. For instance, Keele University has just opened its Sustainability Hub, a facility which engages with the public through events and workshops on sustainability.

Universities are the true thought leaders of society and if they don’t lead the way, there is a risk that less independent voices fill the vacuum with their own agenda on the subject of sustainability, rather than insights based on robust research.

Finally, we need to ensure that research into sustainability is being supported and funded, not just by universities themselves, but by the government and businesses. In this fast-changing landscape, covering every aspect of sustainability, it’s an increasingly important area that we should all be investing in. Like it or love it, this is the context in which universities now have to thrive.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future, a non-profit organisation working globally with business and government to create a sustainable future. He has helped and advised Hard Rain Project from the beginning and we look forward to working with him on the UK university tour. His latest books are Capitalism As If The World Matters, Globalism & Regionalism and Living Within Our Means.

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