Imagine you are at your University Council meeting and a member asks, “how sustainable is the university?”. What thoughts spring to mind – is it student recruitment, debt and staff contracts, or is it climate change, recycling and student activism? Perhaps it should be both.

In the year of COP26 – the UN climate change conference currently underway at the time of writing – there is no excuse not to think about your university’s impact on climate change. And nearly every institution has it somewhere on the agenda. But sustainability goes far beyond climate – which is just one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which cover the full spectrum of environmental and social issues that plague people’s lives in every country on the planet.

In reading an unscientific sample of university websites, we found a real commitment to sustainability, linking it to their university strategy, demonstrating how they consider it on their campus, in their research and in their teaching. Several have a sustainability board to oversee the implementation of plans. The case has well and truly been made that universities have a significant role to play, and the majority are attempting to step up and make a difference.

A deeper dive into a subset of those sustainability pages highlights how students are engaged with these topics (and occasionally afforded the opportunity to take a leadership role in shaping their university’s action), both as part of their curriculum and beyond. Staff from every role are also being equipped with the knowledge to embed sustainability into their everyday decision-making. And in a handful of cases, universities are working with the communities that host them in civic partnerships where they bring capacity and capability in support of community-wide sustainability goals.

The role of sustainability boards, committees and steering groups deserves further mention. They appear primarily as sub-groups of the university Executive, chaired by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Finance Director or another senior member of staff, and have membership across the key university stakeholder groups. These governance groups generally oversee the implementation of specific plans, receive information to be published in annual sustainability reports and report progress to their parent group.

In terms of structure and accountability, where these groups exist, they appear to be well thought out. Of course, we all know that the operation of good governance is more complicated than that. And bringing this back to the original thought experiment of the question from a member of Council, in the small sample of university websites inspected, it is unclear how Council receive information on sustainability, and whether it is able to exercise any influence over university sustainability actions.

So, where next? Here are three suggestions for university Council members, Vice-Chancellors and university Secretaries:

  • Ask the question “how sustainable is the university?”. If it isn’t discussed at Council at least once a year, ask why not.
  • Connect environmental and social sustainability to every other agenda item. How exposed to climate and nature shocks are the university’s investments? How are the university’s sustainability credentials marketed to environmentally and socially conscious prospective students? Can you access cheaper debt capital for net-zero aligned investments?
  • Get knowledgeable yourself, or suggest bringing experienced advisers into Council meetings. Is sustainability on the skills matrix for Council members?

David Cope is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.