What’s stopping college campuses from going green?

New research reveals the challenges college campuses face in going green and shows how to start the net-zero journey, explains Tom Long

New research reveals the challenges college campuses face in going green and shows how to start the net-zero journey, explains Tom Long

27 Nov 2022, 5:00

To understand what is preventing further and higher education institutions from becoming green campuses, we gathered opinions 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 revealed that 2 in 5 (42%) FE and HE institutions are not confident or do not know whether they will meet the government’s goal of a 78 per cent reduction in emissions by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. 

That so many institutions predict falling short is worrying. They face issues in common and understanding these is key to supporting them. For 77%, finance is the primary barrier, while 42% struggle to deliver renewable energy campus-wide and almost a third (31 per cent) blame a resistance to change within the institution.

The technology doesn’t come cheap, and with college funding notoriously constrained over the past decade, FE needs to look at alternative capital options. Most public sector government incentives are aimed at social housing and local authorities but government support is available. There are also sustainable lending options and strategic advice from banks, including private placement funding, the public sector decarbonisation scheme grant and the green heat network fund.

These funding options may change if the ONS, as is widely expected, reclassifies colleges as public sector bodies. This will result in additional budgeting and consent requirements, complicating matters. Colleges will likely need to compete for funds with other parts of the public sector, making it even more important to develop a clear and compelling case for green investment.

There are very few carbon neutral or net-zero campuses

In our latest report, Building a Green Campus – what’s stopping institutions?, we explore further options for colleges including case studies of institutions that have delivered part of their green strategy using these devices. 

Deadlines loom but there are few easy-to-find examples of carbon neutral or net-zero campuses. Indeed, there isn’t even a standardised definition of a green campus. 

However we have developed a definition, and given the significant undertaking to achieve this status we have proposed a badge for ‘emerging green campuses’ in acknowledgement of those who are en route .

This formal recognition matters. Indeed, 79% of prospective students want institutions to have clear strategies for tackling climate change. But there’s a mismatch in priorities; less than half (48 per cent) of institutions think factoring climate change into decision making is important to prospective students. 

Our research also shows that solutions lie in cross-institutional activities such as leadership and management, teaching and learning, research and innovation, and services and facilities. In short, co-ordinating and implementing green campuses requires a common, cohesive goal for the whole institution. 

One campus making good progress on its net-zero journey is Gloucestershire College: in 2022, it converted 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. The project is expected to have paid for itself in about six years. 

Sustainability targets cannot be achieved overnight. Transparency and collaboration within and between institutions and partners such as lenders, lawyers and consultants could be the key to unlocking the sector’s potential for green campuses.

But to make a real difference, sustainability cannot simply be delegated to estates or sustainability managers. It must run through every aspect of strategy, and its appeal to young people can be just the incentive to put it there.

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