This is how the Guardian introduced it:
"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," wrote Jonathon Porritt for the network last year.
A year on, are universities driving the sustainability movement forward – or has energy on this issue stalled? The 2013 People & Planet Green League shows some universities are making more effort than others. Manchester Metropolitan University moved from 10th to top place in the table, achieving the highest ever Green League score of 59.5 out of 70. The biggest jump came from the University of Reading which moved up 42 places to 17th, while the University of Oxford, which failed this year's assessment, moved down 13 places to 132.
What is higher education's role in creating a more sustainable environment for the wider community, as well as its own students and staff? Is it tradition that's preventing some universities from adopting more ethical forms of procurement, infrastructure and teaching models – or a case of sustainability scepticism among senior heads and academics?
"We're seeing excruciatingly slow progress from too many universities in some criteria such as ethical investment given the urgency of the climate challenge," says Louise Hazan, who created the People & Planet Green League. Are universities failing to connect academic research into climate change with their own decisions on who they procure from, and partner with?
How can education respond to these complex challenges? In this debate, we want to hear your views on how far the sector has come on university sustainability, and ask in what way it's more than just a green issue. How does it impact on leadership, teaching and learning, research, procurement and the overall mission of the university?
Here's what we're looking to discuss:
- How sustainability research is being supported and funded
- Challenges and benefits of ethical procurement
- Education's role in a sustainable future
- Collaborative partnerships
- Where to focus university efforts
I'll pass over the Guardian's pathetically uncritical stance on Green League methodology, and just comment on the Webchat, the early stages of which I followed as it rolled out.
I kept up for the first hour before following the diverse strings of comment finally got the better of me. Actually, I thought the problem was that contributors didn't keep to the strings, but tended to launch their own comments into the aether just where they wanted to so that the discussion (ie, comment / responses) was literally all over the place. Fine for them, but as there were some 320 individual comments by the end, this was hard for the rest of the world to keep up with. A bit of moderation (in both senses) would not have come amiss. I caught up with the whole thing at the end of the afternoon.
All told, I was rather disappointed that there were so few actual academics amongst the 11 Guardian panellists (details of whom you can see at the link, above). By this I mean those university staff with disciplinary expertise and interest in sustainability who both teach and research (about) it. There are a lot of these across the UK now, but, because of how the Guardian set the panel up, they were marginalised. Instead, we had a combination of those whose prime responsibility is for university estates (think reducing carbon and changing behaviours), and those who see it as their mission to champion ESD and integrate it into disciplines.
The trouble with the latter is that this is not an issue that most academics are likely to bother about. If they are interested (and some clearly are), they are likely to ask: How can I bring a focus on sustainability into what I do now? This is not quite the same thing.
These dispositions might be put like this:
A – How can ESD be integrated into discipline-based teaching?
B – How can I integrate a focus on sustainability into my discipline-based teaching?
To a superficial eye, A and B look pretty much the same, and any eventual outcomes may well be of the same form and structure, but they start from quite different positions and psychologies. A is a question put by outsider experts to themselves, whereas B is a practitioner's grounded question. So, if actual academics (and hence students) are really to be helped, might it not be better if all those across HE (and FE) who want to achieve A, put their efforts into helping those out there who are (and might yet be) interested in B.