Every January, the Higher Education Funding Council for England [HEFCE] receives a letter from whichever government department currently holding the parcel labelled “Responsibility for Higher Education”. This sets out what government expects the Council to do for its (taxpayers’) money in the coming year, and sometimes over a year or three. Expectations can range from serious political / policy matters, to the passing ministerial fancy.
It would be wrong, of course, to see these letters as in any sense ex cathedra. They are the result of negotiations between the Department and the Funding Council: the Council might want to bring pressure to bear on universities in relation to X, and so asks the Department to include this in the letter. Indeed, (some) universities may well have asked the Council for pressure on X in the first place. This is a curious dance which offers some insight into how regulators function, caught as they are between institutions and government: between vice chancellors and ministers.
But it’s not just universities that pressurise the Council; other organisations with an interest in higher education do so as well. The National Union of Students is one example, the Higher Education Academy, another; and it’s hard to believe that the professions and business are far behind in this. When HEFCE had its sustainable development steering group, this was used as a conduit for ideas on how a focus on sustainable development in the sector might be encouraged, and I recall the significance of funding letters in this.
The 2013 funding letter says this:
#28. We thank the Council for its activity which has contributed to the HE sector’s good progress on sustainable development. In particular, by developing strategies and using the Revolving Green Fund to provide recoverable grants to help HEIs in England reduce emissions the Council has supported the sector to reduce carbon emissions. We look forward to the development of a new sustainable development framework that should seek to build on the achievements of universities and colleges and the enthusiasm of students and continue to support institutions in their efforts to improve their sustainability.
The phrase, “the enthusiasm of students” is a reference to evidence from NUS / HEA surveys, and is something that HEFCE takes seriously. This is the first time that there has been this reference to students (with its implicit acknowledgement that their learning is important).
Here are the relevant parts of recent Letters:
#22. The HE sector has made good progress in recent years on environmental issues. You should continue to support institutions in their efforts to improve their sustainability.
#25. We welcome the positive engagement of the sector over recent years in environmental sustainability. Even in fiscally challenging times, we remain committed to achieving the targets for carbon reduction and making progress on the wider sustainable development agenda. We hope you will continue to support the sector in its efforts here.
#9. I welcome the work the Council and the sector have done over the past year to ensure the development of carbon management strategies for all higher education institutions. I hope universities and colleges will show leadership in this area, both in reducing their own emissions, and in seeking to include sustainability in their teaching and research.
These might seem brief, but they have been building on something quite substantive from 2008 / 2009:
#18. When I announced your capital budgets, I noted that among other things this would allow you to commit resources to your proposed Green Development Fund. I warmly welcome this initiative, and your plans to work in partnership with Salix to deliver it. I know that institutions will help develop responses to the problems we face, and I am pleased the Council is providing leadership in this area. More generally, while higher education institutions have made some progress in reducing their carbon emissions, more needs to be done if the 2050 commitment to reduce emissions by 60% is to be achieved. I expect HEFCE to work with the sector to ensure these targets are met. Over the spending review, all institutions in receipt of capital funding should have plans to reduce carbon emissions, and performance against these plans should be a factor in future capital allocations. I would be grateful for a report on your plans for taking this forward by September 2008.
#2. … Other themes that will certainly be relevant to that framework, and where I hope the Council will continue to focus during 2009-10, include engaging with business; widening access to higher education; supporting quality in HE; enhancing employability; sustaining world class research; and responding to climate change.
#19. Last year, I set out our ambition that capital funding for institutions should be linked to performance in reducing emissions. Following your advice to me, I am now confirming that such links should be in place for 2011-12. In May 2008 I asked you to finalise during 2008- 09 a strategy for sustainable development in HE, with a realistic target for carbon reductions that would reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent against 1990 levels by 2050 and at least 26 per cent by 2020. This former target should now be upgraded to 80 per cent, in line with Parliament’s decisions in passing the Climate Change Act 2008. I hope that some of the capital expenditure I have asked you to bring forward into 2009-10 will support strategic, long-term action to tackle climate change, but institution-wide strategies to reduce carbon emissions are also needed.
The 2013 letter calls for “the development of a new sustainable development framework” which seems like good (if overdue) news – provided it is one that takes both carbon and learning seriously.
Time to put some pressure on HEFCE … .