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Higher education for a greener Europe

A new EUA study reveals that higher education institutions in Europe are highly engaged in activities that address environmental challenges and the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the EU’s Green Deal. As experts Michael Gaebel and Henriette Stoeber write, the higher education sector is well placed in this field, but European initiatives must better capitalise on universities’ expertise and enthusiasm in fostering environmental sustainability.

Many higher education institutions in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) are addressing environmental sustainability in their research and education missions. They are actively involved in a broad range of forward-thinking activities, both to green their own institutions’ footprint and to contribute to society. By working with a wide range of partners, from local communities to global university networks and industry, universities are proving themselves as key actors in the transition towards carbon neutrality and sustainable societies. Notably, they play a role in the achievement of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda, the EU’s Green Deal and its goals of leading global efforts towards a just green transition.

A recent EUA survey on greening in European higher education institutions has gathered evidence of this. With data from more than 300 higher education institutions in the EHEA, the preliminary findings reveal that greening is of high importance at the leadership level, with three quarters addressing the topic strategically, or planning to do so in the near future. The vast majority of institutions address environmental sustainability and greening as matters of their own institutional values, driven by the third mission, as well as by the engagement of their students, staff and wider community.

Beyond environmental sustainability, university strategies and activities are likely to be framed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, three out of five institutions consider the SDGs in curriculum reform, while only a quarter consider greening specifically. The majority of institutions have concrete policies in place on a wide range of issues. Some examples include minimising the use of resources and recycling, the provision of digital tools for teleworking and virtual mobility, as well as encouraging -low carbon forms of transportation for student mobility. Many of the frequently cited examples in the EUA survey emphasise the institutions’ role as actors in society, with around half being active in community engagement and outreach, as well as contributing to local or national initiatives and policy debates in the field. Partnership and collaboration with other institutions, as well as with student groups, are reported to be key.

So, what is the impact of these activities? While the majority of institutional strategies include targets and goals, indicators to monitor success in addressing environmental sustainability - and especially the SDGs more broadly - are not always easy to define. There is already strong evidence of improvements in quality of life on campus, the stimulation of research in the field of greening, and some enhancement of learning and teaching – and the expectations for future impact are high.  Many institutions strive to lead through example, to contribute to environmental and societal change, and to make the institution more attractive to future staff and students.

In order to realise the full potential of activities addressing environmental sustainability, the majority of institutions call for enhanced funding from the national and European levels. In addition, peer learning and exchange with other institutions on this topic would be especially welcome. In fact, a third of the respondents would like to see this realised through a dedicated European initiative.

The European Green Deal, launched in 2020, with its strong orientation towards the economy and private sector industries, scarcely mentions higher education. However, the forthcoming Council Recommendation on education for environmental sustainability (planned for the end of 2021) and the related upcoming public consultations, will be an opportunity to emphasise the role of Europe’s universities. In addition, a number of European initiatives have already kicked off in 2021: The fight against climate change is now a priority area of the Erasmus+ programme, and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions will introduce a new Green Charter promoting the sustainable implementation of research activities. An Education for Climate Coalition is currently under preparation with input from stakeholders, aiming to foster co-creation and exchange across all levels of education and training.

Feedback collected from EUA’s survey shows that these European initiatives are truly pressing and pertinent. They should capitalise on universities’ expertise and enthusiasm in fostering environmental sustainability. The European higher education sector, in collaboration with local and global partners, contributes to technical, economic and social change, and provides the necessary skills to a young generation and to lifelong learners. All this is urgently needed to develop policies for a green, sustainable transition in Europe, and around the world.

 

The full dataset of EUA’s survey on greening in higher education will be published in the autumn of 2021. A dedicated EUA webinar series discusses the preliminary findings and is dedicated to the topics of “Environmental sustainability and the future of mobility and internationalisation”, “The environmental sustainability of learning and teaching” and “University strategies and actions for environmental sustainability”.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Henriette Stoeber

Henriette Stoeber is a Policy Analyst in the Higher Education Policy Unit. 

Michael Gaebel

Michael Gaebel is Director of Higher Education Policy at the European University Association.

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