top of page
  • Writer's pictureDavid Cope

University Extinction

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

Greta Thunberg, the inspiration behind the global School Strike for Climate movement, will be thinking about applying for university in a year’s time. Except that she probably won’t. She and one million other young protesters in well over 100 countries around the world share a common message: “Why should we study when we have no future?”

I wrote a blog piece under this banner for the influential Higher Education policy website Wonkhe. My blog explained why I think universities should declare a climate and environment emergency, and start to act swiftly. I wrote it at a time of peak interest in climate change and biodiversity loss in the media and popular discussion. Extinction Rebellion had occupied key sites in London, Greta Thunberg had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and our MPs declared a Climate and Environment Emergency. But once the media attention has moved on, have universities responded, or are we back to the business as usual of exams, graduations and student recruitment?

Borderline 2.1 or 2.2

I'm pleased to say that I have not been a lone voice in making this argument, nor was I the first. However, even though I have seen a series of impressive opinion blogs and one or two universities make tangible announcements, we are a long way from being able to say that universities are taking a First Class stance on this issue.

Degrees of Foundation

When I wrote my blog in Wonkhe, I celebrated the actions of a few key organisations in making the case for urgent and transformational action:

- EAUC, the alliance of sustainability professionals in education, have shared many useful prompts on how a university can follow through after declaring a climate emergency

- People and Planet have been assessing university performance across a range of environmental and social dimensions for the past decade

- Times Higher Education have launched an innovative league table assessing university performance against the UN's Sustainable Development Goals

- The National Union of Students has been campaigning on sustainability and climate change for several years

But these first steps really aren't enough. Going back to 2016, a sector-wide assessment of performance against carbon reduction commitments from universities showed that while there were some strong performers out there, overall we were well off track to meet 40% reductions by 2020 (from a 2005 baseline). It is clear that more action is needed.

Project work

Since my blog, I've been keeping an eye out for others who are pushing for the same action as I have been, and there are some notable voices who are adding to this project:

- The University of Exeter declared a climate and environment emergency, with a specific and credible list of actions that they would take in response. One of their energy policy researchers published a powerful article in the Conversation arguing for universities to be at the forefront of solving the climate crisis

- Cambridge University announced that it would be establishing a new Centre for Climate Repair to look at innovative large-scale ways of reversing the damage already caused to the atmosphere

- The Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, has taken the opportunity of his additional temporary responsibilities for Climate Change to advocate for universities to lead the charge towards the UK achieving net zero, linking this up with the civic role many universities see for themselves in their communities

- The Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester has called for greater and faster action across all universities, including a really important call for universities to build sustainability into their curriculum at every available point, promoting the NUS's Responsible Futures programme that engages students in auditing the university in question

- A group of 36 universities (including five from the UK) from the rich, industrialised nations that make up the G7 have formed U7 and committed to taking concrete actions on climate

- There have been a range of really great blogs and opinion pieces, such as this additional one on Wonkhe, or this fantastic piece by a student blogger in THE or one urging academics to reduce the amount of international plane trips they take

So it feels like the consensus is building and the desire for action is starting to be matched by actual action.

Predicted grades

I will finish this piece in the same way that I finished my blog in Wonkhe

If the sector were to declare a climate and environment emergency, not only would we take radical action on reducing our environmental impact, but we would also find new ways for young people like Greta Thunberg to gain the skills and knowledge that will provide them with hope for their futures.

If I were a betting person (I'm not), I would put a decent amount of money on the fact that universities will come together in the not-too-distant future and use the incredible power of their intellect, influence in local communities and the potential held in every single one of their students in order to take a truly leading role in responding to the climate and environment emergency that we all face. By doing so, universities will secure their relevance to the next generation and to society more widely. This goes beyond CSR in my view, but by placing sustainability right at the heart of university strategy, they can achieve a competitive advantage and create distinctive brands.

I believe there will be a distinct advantage for the first movers and that the laggards will suffer as a result. My proposal for action is:

1) Make a bold commitment. Do it internally first, but be bold and commit to doing something. There is a clear moral case, but also a real business case for action

2) Get your experts in the room. Universities have brilliant minds amongst their academics, their students and partners in the community, bring them together to start to form a clear plan. Collaborate with other universities and sector bodies, but ensure your solution is distinctive to you rather than a vanilla version of radical change

3) Bind the commitments and actions into your governance. Involve your governors, appoint a senior academic to lead (possibly even your VC), weave the commitment into your planning processes and allocate resources

4) Keep the energy up. Action is urgent, but will take years to implement fully, so create a regular rhythm of engaging ways for your whole university community to get involved and celebrate success (and openly learn from failure) at every step

Getting a strategy in place, bringing all the insights from inside your University and your wider community into the process and then helping your staff and students adopt the changes that this crisis demands of us isn't easy. 600 strategy is here to help you navigate this journey. For a conversation about how we can help you, without any obligation or commitment, get in touch.


bottom of page