College leaders have warned that the government’s net zero target will fail unless all courses for 16- to 18-year-olds are changed to include compulsory modules on climate change.
They also want an additional £1.5 billion capital investment in the next three years to sustainably transform their estates and invest in technology required to train for green jobs.
Their demands have been made in a letter signed by 150 college bosses to prime minister Boris Johnson and education secretary Nadhim Zahawi. It comes less than two weeks before world leaders meet in Glasgow to discuss how to reduce the effects of climate change at the COP26 summit.
The government published its Net Zero Strategy on Tuesday, which details how ministers plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reach an aim of net zero by 2050.
Some colleges have made their own commitments to become net zero by 2030 but there is currently no sector-wide target that all colleges have signed up to.
Ministers are also aiming to “support up to 440,000 jobs across net zero industries in 2030” and say in this week’s strategy that colleges will be “key” to this goal.
College leaders believe the net zero ambition is “likely to fail” without making education on climate change and sustainability part of all study programme courses.
A curriculum audit from their membership body, the Association of Colleges, has found that less than 1 per cent of post-16 students are currently on a course with broad coverage of climate education.
The college leaders say the Department for Education and Ofqual should urgently work with stakeholders like awarding bodies to review all qualification specifications and ensure that they describe how education for sustainable development (ESD) is addressed.
AoC chief executive David Hughes said: “The government’s plans for the transition to net-zero simply will not work without aligning education policy with climate and sustainability priorities – that includes embedding climate modules in all study courses.
“College leaders and students have been crystal clear this is something they want and is necessary to meet the emerging skills needs of a greener economy.”
Colleges are also calling on the government to establish national centres of excellence in low carbon skills.
These would be hubs of experts in colleges which “could enable collaboration and sharing of best practice across the sector, with an easily accessible and well-known point for employers and people to engage with”.
Additionally, ministers should “urgently” fast-track the lifelong loan entitlement for training in priority green sectors.
The entitlement is currently set to launch in 2025 and will allow people to access funding for four years of study between levels 4 and 6, either in full years or as modules throughout their life.
One hundred and forty universities, all part of Universities UK, committed yesterday to cut their emissions by at least 78 per cent by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. They have committed to net zero by 2050. Both targets are identical to those set by the government for the whole economy.
Neither the college leaders’ letter or the AoC’s ‘green college commitment’ report commit to a hard target for when all college campuses will become net zero.
But some have committed to doing so by 2030.
Gloucestershire College is one signed up to the target. It is planning to undergo a £4.8 million energy “retrofit”, which is being partly funded by a £2.8 million grant secured through the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme.
The project will involve installing ground source heat pumps, solar panels for the college to generate its own renewable energy, followed by battery storage and smart energy controls.
Matthew Burgess, Gloucestershire College principal, said it currently takes the equivalent of 13 million kettles being boiled to run his campus every single day, so becoming carbon-zero is the “biggest and most important goal we can have”.
Other colleges committed to becoming net zero by 2030 include Craven College and Harrogate College – both located in North Yorkshire.
Colleges want a £1.5 billion injection in the next three years to develop sustainable campuses. This would be in addition to the £1.5 billion already committed by this government over this parliament for college capital projects.
The AoC estimates that 237 English colleges hold 8.5 million square metres, which they say “presents a significant opportunity for [net zero] impact”.
A DfE spokesperson said: “As we build back greener from the pandemic, we are committed to supporting people to get the green skills they’ll need for the careers of tomorrow.
“From skills bootcamps to apprenticeships, T Levels and traineeships, our programmes will create the talent businesses need in key sectors and help people at all levels to get the skills they will need for the green jobs of the future.”