The roadmap to becoming a sustainable campus by Smita Jamdar, partner and head of education at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau.
Sustainable campuses are becoming increasingly attractive to prospective students, with the majority agreeing that they would be proud to study at a ‘green’ campus. Despite this appetite within the student body, higher and further education (HE and FE) institutions often risk underestimating the importance sustainability holds for potential applicants. So, what is a green campus and how can universities start making changes to become one?
A recent report by law firm, Shakespeare Martineau defines a green campus as one that is carbon neutral, limits or eliminates food, water, and energy waste, and only works with like-minded suppliers. It should also work closely with its local community, colleagues, and students to educate, innovate and drive sustainable improvements, including making a positive contribution to local biodiversity and the wider environment through research, curriculum and projects.
According to the report, 69 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds are concerned about climate change, 78 per cent of prospective students consider sustainability an essential part of learning, teaching, and research, and 75 per cent would consider joining an institution if its leadership factored climate change into their decision making.
These stats clearly show that students lean towards sustainability and green measures, particularly when it comes to choosing where to study. However, with the research also revealing that 2 in 5 institutions are either not confident or unsure as to whether they will meet their decarbonisation targets by 2050 a mismatch between the wants of prospective students and the institutions that they are applying for could be brewing. With more competition than ever before, those campuses that can ‘go green’ successfully will be at an advantage when it comes to attracting students.
With the climate crisis high on the public agenda, it is important for HE and FE institutions to do their bit to make a difference to the planet and for future generations. Whilst knowing where to begin may seem daunting, there are a few key areas to focus on as a starting point that can create a roadmap to a greener campus future.
One initiative institutions can take to create a greener campus is the promotion and introduction of sustainable transportation. The research report found that commuting and business travel is estimated to make up 11 per cent of UK universities’ total emissions – a significant contribution to the UK's overall emissions that highlights the need for a comprehensive strategy.
A green transport strategy doesn’t have to start big. Universities can implement it in phases, starting small by encouraging more people to walk to campus where possible, providing bicycle hiring schemes to staff and students and adding electric vehicle charging points to parking infrastructure. Additionally, FE and HE institutions that may be further along this journey could seek to implement cycle routes throughout their campuses and provide incentives for sustainable travel, through the use of a discounted travel card for public transport.
Green materials and methods of construction
According to the report, construction methods and materials are key contributors to emissions. In 2022, research by the International Institute of Sustainable Development found that the production of building materials and construction activities is already responsible for 10% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. However, by taking appropriate measures, it is possible to minimise the adverse impacts of the construction process, such as carbon dioxide emissions and waste production.
To do their bit to minimise the impact of building works going forward, institutions must adopt sustainable construction practices to reduce their environmental footprint. This means carefully considering both materials and methods, increased use of sustainable materials, improved recycling of construction waste, and the adoption of more efficient construction techniques.
Institutions should conduct research into sustainable solutions for new building projects to discover what alternative options are available, such as timber frame construction which may provide greater design flexibility along with a smaller environmental impact.
Many prospective students believe that promoting green spaces and biodiversity should be at the forefront of HE and FE sustainability strategies, with the report finding that 78 per cent of prospective students would be influenced to apply for a university or college if it has open green spaces and promotes biodiversity.
Biodiversity aims to add ecological value and can include planting trees or native species of plants, as well as creating woodland walks, spaces for outdoor learning and peaceful gardens. By creating green spaces, institutions will not only reduce their carbon footprint but also help to improve the mental and physical health of students and staff alike, making the university's green space a valuable asset. Research from the Wildlife Trust found that a wildlife-rich environment has many physical and mental benefits, including better all-round health.
Education and behavioural change
According to the Climate Change Committee, 62 per cent of emission reductions will require societal and behavioural changes, such as adopting low-carbon technologies and lifestyle changes including recycling, cycling and walking. It is imperative for institutions to develop strategies that will engage staff and students to drive sustainable improvements as a way to make a campus greener.
Shakespeare Martineau’s report found that 31 per cent of education respondents cited resistance to change within the institution as a significant factor preventing universities or colleges from becoming greener. A further 25 per cent said a lack of collaboration between parties across the institution contributed to slow progress on green initiatives.
One of the best ways to implement and combat resistance to change is by having open conversations with staff, students and senior leaders. This will not only allow everyone to share their thoughts and ideas on the changes being proposed, but will encourage people within the institution to work together, speeding up the process. However, it is imperative for senior leaders to recognise that the influence will have to start from them in a top-down push.
To encourage individuals, institutions might look to introduce gamification elements such as green apps and other incentives to encourage incremental behaviour changes. For example, students and staff can be rewarded for walking, recycling or other sustainable initiatives, which can be tracked by green apps. Behavioural change is never easy; however, the accumulation of many small behavioural changes can make a big difference to campuses.
With so much to do, over 77 per cent of institutions have reported that a lack of funding and investment has played a big part in delaying the move towards a greener campus. Help is available if institutions know where to look, with green-focused loans and strategic support ready to be taken advantage of.
One example is the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme provides grants for public sector bodies to fund heat decarbonisation through the installation of heat pumps, solar panels and energy efficiency measures such as LED lighting and building management system upgrades for both modern and heritage buildings.
Looking to the future
Becoming a green campus and hitting sustainability targets is not something that can be achieved overnight, however, by working together and investigating the loans and wider support available, every institution can improve its sustainability credentials and become a greener campus.
With 88 per cent of prospective students agreeing that their place of study should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development, universities must take the initiative to meet the needs of students and start sustainable practices on campus as well as take responsibility for their impact on the environment.
For more information please visit www.shma.co.uk