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2 in 5 educational institutions 'not confident' they'll meet their green targets

12 December 2022

Tom Long, Head of Further Education at Shakespeare Martineau.

Just 1 in 10 FE and HE institutions are ‘very confident’ that they would meet their decarbonisation targets, in line with the government’s goal of a 78% reduction in emissions by 2035 compared to 1990 levels, with 2 in 5 (42%) stating that they are not confident or unsure.

Given how important sustainability is on the ESG agenda, it's worrying to see that so many institutions are predicting to fall short in meeting their decarbonisation targets.

Understanding the issues

In a bid to better understand what’s stopping or stalling further and higher education institutions from becoming a green campus, we gathered opinions and experiences from more than 130 FE and HE representatives and 1,000 16 to 19-year-olds planning on applying to college or university. We also spoke to universities and colleges at different stages of their green journey.

Our research, published as part of our Building a Green Campus – what’s stopping institutions report, revealed that there were a number of common issues being faced by the sector: 77% of institutions found finance as a barrier to becoming a ‘green campus’, 42% struggle to deliver renewable energy campus-wide and almost a third (31%) attribute it to a resistance to change within the institution.

It’s true that the technology doesn’t come cheap, and following the reclassification of colleges as public sector bodies, by the Office for National Statistics, this will see colleges grappling with additional budgeting and consent requirements, complicating the funding position further.

One of the challenges for colleges in these circumstances is likely to be the need to compete for funds with other parts of the public sector, making it even more important for colleges to develop a clear and compelling case for investing in green initiatives.

What is a green campus?

Despite carbon reduction deadlines looming, the sector has a long way to go; of the UK’s 400+ universities and colleges, there are very few easy-to-find examples of carbon neutral or net zero campuses and, despite being a widely accepted concept across the education sector, there is no standardised definition for what a green campus actually is.

Using research, we have developed a definition for a green campus:

A green campus collects and reports on its energy consumption, is carbon neutral, limits or eliminates food, water and energy waste and only works with like-minded suppliers and partners. The institution works closely with the community, colleagues and students to educate, innovate and drive sustainable improvements, making a positive contribution to local biodiversity and the environment through research, course curriculum and proactive projects.

Given the significant undertaking to achieve this status we have proposed a badge for ‘emerging green campuses’ in acknowledgement of those en route to becoming a green campus.

What students want

We also looked into what – if any – influence sustainability of a campus had on the choices of prospective students. As a result, we found that 79% of prospective students want institutions to have clear strategies for tackling climate change, yet less than half (48%) of institutions agree that factoring climate change into decision making would be important to prospective students – indicating a mismatch in priorities.

Best practice: Gloucestershire College

In 2022 Gloucestershire College completed installation of technologies to convert both its Gloucester and Cheltenham campuses to fully renewable energy. The campuses host 4,500 solar panels from which it plans to sell excess energy back to the grid. With battery storage also on campus, the college is able to purchase cheap power to hold in reserve when daylight hours are shorter or during peak times. Pay back for the project is expected to be around six years.

Becoming a green campus

What is also clear from our research is that the solutions to becoming a green campus lie in cross-institutional activities, such as leadership and management, teaching and learning, research and innovation, and services and facilities. These will be challenging to co-ordinate and implement, but also offer a common, cohesive goal for the whole institution to work towards.

What is also great to see is that 90% of the prospective students we surveyed said they would be proud to attend a green campus. But time is running out and changes urgently need to be made across funding, planning, energy, and governance if we are to help meet climate change targets and provide students with a campus, and a future, to be proud of.

And in order to make real difference, sustainability needs to run through every aspect of strategy and not just a delegated responsibility of estates or sustainability managers.

For full research results download Shakespeare Martineau’s Building a Green Campus – what’s stopping institutions? report.

Tom Long, Head of Further Education at Shakespeare Martineau.