College leaders might wax lyrical about it and see it as a priority but are they walking the talk and delivering the goods?
When it comes to sustainability as a strategic priority, the answer is ‘no’ according to the third annual ‘Sustainability in Education’ report from the National Union of Students (NUS) and partner organisations.
Sustainability has been a perky buzzword busily humming away for many years in education now and whether it is given a capital S or a small s depends which sector you work in.
The report showed a gulf in resource capacity between Higher and Further Education with lead sustainability staff in HE spending 100% of their time focused on sustainability but FE lead staff spending just 10% of their time.
Although many colleges are ever more aware of the relevance and importance of sustainability and 99% of colleges include it as an aim in their strategic plans, the 2017's Sustainability in Education research found that only 1% of its respondents felt their institution was doing all it could to progress environmental and social responsibility. It found the most pressing agenda was climate change, CO2 reduction and carbon management.
Clearly sustainability doesn't just happen and balancing ‘people, planet and prosperity’ results from a series of intentional choices and necessary sacrifices but there are of course major barriers.
The report noted the biggest obstacles impeding transformative action were finances, budgets and budget cuts along with a lack of senior management commitment and strategic direction and a lack of staff resources. Budgets dedicated to sustainability have shrunk and nearly ¾ of respondents say they expect their budget to decline further or stay the same.
But sustainability has to be more than a balanced ledger sheet otherwise it becomes just a dirty word linked to constraint and a doomsday discourse rather than growth and development. Sustainability is a word that means significantly different things to each institution from ‘the environment and going green’ to ‘social and fiscal responsibility’.
Sustainability is a way of looking at the world to ensure that decisions made are efficient and responsible and these have to be fuelled by professionals with the knowledge, skills, and executive level understanding to address economic, social and environmental challenges. If sustainability is to mean anything then colleges have to employ staff with a formal remit and responsibility for the triple bottom line of sustainability and its tracking, assessment and rating. Sustainability is part of the global conversation and has become an increasingly central issue in the political landscape of colleges. They know that they must play a part in creating a more sustainable future and put forward a bold agenda that makes sustainability and the environment a cornerstone of their practice.
While colleges do recognise that sustainability must play a central role in their institutional life, many wonder how best to approach the topic given the pressures. Where can we turn? The EAUC (Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges) aims to help students, staff and sector leaders and its powerful new strategy aims to build dialogue and understanding and position sustainability at the heart of each institution’s core strategy.
The EAUC recognises that sustainability professionals can often have their hands tied and work in challenging contexts “with severe limitations on time, resources and budget” which is why they have created a range of support services to achieve their sustainability ambitions. The EAUC says that with its members, “Together, we will embed sustainability within institutions to enhance employability, research, quality teaching, student experience, internationalism, efficiency, social responsibility, retention and growth.”
The EAUC offers the number one resource for embedding sustainability in your institution called SORTED - Sustainability Online Resource and Toolkit for Education. This ‘one stop’ guide is world's leading resource of sustainability information accessed via the Sustainability Exchange, a huge sustainability library with a treasure-trove of resources, guides, reports and links to build knowledge on a range of sustainability frameworks. This contains professional development and sector specific events including workshops and webinars.
The above is just a selection of what the EAUC offers its college members. You can read the full list of benefits here. All staff and students of a member college are able to access the benefits of EAUC membership, so if you haven’t already, sign up here.
Whilst sustainability is an integral part of the working culture of some colleges as a vision or basic focus area, its development is too slow in others. The goal is for all colleges to have a strong sustainable profile where sustainability issues are seen as a common aspiration. Sustainability has become a must in many workplaces and colleges should be no different in this but this requires visionary leadership, networking, expert input and high levels of participation. Negligence is not an option.
The vast majority of students think sustainability is something their colleges should proactively engage with but it needs drivers.
The complexity of sustainability is tethered to the immensity of it but help is available. An award winning behaviour change programme called Green Impact aims to empower colleges so they make meaningful change on sustainability with a common goal: to make a difference. Green Impact is the NUS’ sustainability accreditation scheme and “brings together students and staff to green campuses, curriculums and communities.”
Sustainability can be interjected into any area of college life and every college has an obligation to achieve a sustainable future for itself and future generations.
As part of your responsible governance programme, make sustainability one of your Key Performance Indicators and actively promote it by placing it at the core of your activities and committing to Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).
This involves three levels of effortful engagement to reach a tipping point of ‘whole-systems’ thinking and sustainability literacy: understanding sustainability, integrating sustainability and embedding sustainability.
Sustainability is a way of life that connects mind and matter. It informs our decision making and the way we operate day to day. Is your college sustainability literate?