Three roles for universities to advance sustainable development
You’re asking yourself this question, because you study or work at a university. You migth also be working at a Green Office. You care about sustainable development and want your institution to make a difference. For inspiration, read rootAbility’s perspective on the role of universities in sustainable development below:
To answer your question, let’s explore the different roles that your university plays within society. This makes it easier for you to see how your university contributes to sustainable development – or not.
- Conducts research to generate new knowledge
- Educates future decision makers
- Operates lots of buildings, buy products and services, and produce waste
Through all these three roles, your university can advance sustainable development. Let’s dive into these three roles one by one.
Research: Find answers for important societal questions
Research is the process of generating new knowledge, insights or patents, by asking questions and finding answers through experiments and studies. Many institutions conduct research: For example, pharmaceutical companies look for new drugs, government research organisations provide answers to parliament and environmental NGOs identify harmful substances in rivers. Universities are one of the major societal institutions that conduct research, using taxpayer’s money.
Several factors influence if your university’s research contributes or hinders sustainability. Here are some factors you might want to consider:
- What topics does my university do research on? For example, do we have institutes that conduct research for authoritarian governments on how to make their weapons more lethal or better spy on their population? Or do our research institutes help to find solutions to world hunger, economic inequality or climate change?
- Is the research just published in academic journals that few other scientists will read and understand? Or does our research help to educate the general public? Does it lead to new policies, technologies and patents that positively impact society?
- How engaged are our researchers in the world beyond the ivory tower? To what extent do they act as “public intellectuals” to advance a liberal agenda of human rights, social equality and environmental protection?
- Who defines what research is being done? Do researchers study questions they are personally passionate about, or do we conduct research that industry pays for? To what extent do we realise research in service of larger societal questions, posed by public institutions and non-profit organisations?
To conclude, one important role of universities in sustainable development is to investigate research questions of high societal relevance. In this way, they generate insights to address socio-economic and environmental challenges that affect many people and animals.
Next to research, your univeristy can contribute to sustainability through its education.
Education: Educate global citizens for sustainable development
We all acquire new knowledge, skills and values through education. Many countries require children and youth to receive formal education, by attending a state or private-run organisation until a certain age. EU citizens attend kindergarten, primary and secondary school. Then they go to a technical and vocational college or a university. 20% of all citizens in the EU are enrolled in institutions of formal education. Universities are important educational institutions, because they grant the highest degrees of the education system: Bachelor, Master and PhD degrees.
Several factors influence if your university’s education contributes or hinders sustainability. Here are some factors you might want to consider:
- What is the goal of education? Does our university want students to become obedient citizens or passive consumers? Or do we strive to educate global citizens for sustainable development?
- What topics do students learn about? For instance, do engineering students just learn about constructing a building in the most cost-efficient manner? Or do they learn how to construct a zero-energy building that provides long-term benefits to its occupants?
- To what extent does your university and local community serve as experimentation and learning environment for students? Do they explore real-life questions through projects and case studies? Or do they just passively learn in the classroom, by listening to lectures all day?
To conclude, one important role of universities in sustainable development is to empower students to learn about sustainability in an inter-disciplinary and learner-centred way. At the end, they should be able to upon sustainability issues in their organisations and communities. For more in-depth reading on education, please check out our blogpost on Education for Sustainable Development.
Next to research, your university can contribute to sustainability through its operations.
Operations: Zero footprint of campus operations
The primary societal functions of your university are research and education. But this education and research doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Natural and societal resources are used in the process. Students and staff work or live in buildings on campus, eat food in the cafeteria, fly abroad, print on paper, work or study at computers.
The operational processes of your university might have significant environmental impacts on animal health and well-being, freshwater, air and soil quality, as well as the climate. The purchasing and employment practices of your university also affect the human rights, labour conditions and employment prospects of people – often in countries far away.
Several factors influence if your university’s operations contribute or hinders sustainability. Here are some factors you might want to consider:
- To what extent are we aware about the environmental and social impacts of our buildings, procurement and waste management practices? If not, you might consider conducting a sustainability assessment, using our University Sustainability Assessment Framework.
- To what extent are buildings equipped with solar cells, good insulation, waste separation or energy-efficient lighting? Certifying the sustainability performance of a building using the LEED or BREEAM standards is an easy way to assess and improve environmental and social impacts of your real estate.
- Do we have a responsible and sustainable procurement policy in place? That should help us screen suppliers with harmful environmental and social practices. For an example of how to do that, have a look at the Guide to Sustainable Procurement by the University of Reading.
- To what extent are we improving the environmental impacts of our laboratories? Believe it or not: Laboratories are huge energy consumers and waste producers. For instance, at Harvard University laboratories consume 44% of all the energy, but just use 20% of the space. The Green Labs Guide by Harvard University presents some ideas on how to improve the sustainability impact of labs.
To conclude, one important role of universities in sustainable development is to assess and then reduce the environmental and social footprints of their buildings, procurement practices and laboratories.
To sum it up: The role of universities in sustainable development is to provide new insights to urgent societal challenges, to educate global citizens for sustainable development, and to reduce the environmental and social footprints of operations.