Education International
Education International

Universities urged to 'green' their policies and practices

published 14 November 2007 updated 14 November 2007

British scholars are urging colleagues in universities around the world to take action on climate change in order to 'green' their university campuses and curricula.

The University and College Union (UCU) submitted a discussion paper and hosted a workshop on the issue at to the 6th International Higher Education and Research conference held in Málaga, Spain from 12-14 November.

UCU officials Brian Everett and Rob Copeland said that academics should act in both their professional role and their trade union role to promote sustainable development.

"We'd like to see carbon emissions and other environmental concerns become negotiable issues," Everett said. "The world's universities are huge producers of carbon emissions. Unless they take action quickly, their continuing contribution to global warming will be substantial."

He added: "Ironically, it is in those very universities that research is carried out to find means of reducing carbon emissions. But this in itself is not enough. Trade unionists within universities must negotiate with their employers to help them reduce their environmental impact."

The UCU initiative was sparked by a resolution passed at the 5th World Congress which mandated Education International to inform members and to take action "on the urgent issue of environmental awareness and global warming, such action to be undertaken at the individual community, national member organisation and international organisation level." The UCU is urging unions to recruit activists to serve as environment reps who would promote environmentally positive policies and practices. In addition, educators could bring awareness of climate change into their course content, thus contributing to the 'greening' of the curriculum.

Everett suggested that a variety of issues are relevant for negotiations aimed at reducing carbon emissions. These include: the design and use of buildings, commuting and home working, changing work patterns and staff and student travel. Everett and Copeland noted the contradictions of travelling to a distant conference to discuss issues like energy saving. They say unions should examine their ways of operating to reduce their own 'carbon footprints' and consider using more 'tele-conferencing' and fewer face to face meetings, while retaining democratic procedures.

They also recognise other dilemmas which need to be addressed. For example, how is the enormous value of the international exchange of students to be weighed against the environmental impact of their journeys? Should academics in the developed world instead be helping to build the capacity of developing and newly industrialised countries to provide high quality higher education?

The UCU representatives cautioned that there are dangers for staff who raise controversial issues or who 'blow the whistle' on the unacceptable practices of employers. Their academic freedom and employment rights will need protection. UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said her union is examining its own conduct in the light of the global need to reduce carbon emissions. "We have far to go, as do most UK universities and colleges, but we are keen to speed up international debate and the exchange of ideas and good practice," she said.

Monique Fouilhoux, EI senior coordinator of education and employment and organiser of the international conference, noted that we live in an age of enhanced student and staff mobility.

"Universities are major economic units in their own right, contributing to climate change and other environmental concerns. Universities are also at the heart of the research base in the struggle to find solutions to the problems posed by the environment and climate change," Fouilhoux said.

"As the Malaga higher education conference demonstrates, Education International is able to bring together trade union activists from universities round the world to develop strategies for action at the global and national level on climate change as on other issues," she said.