Climate change: are FE colleges doing enough?

While concerns about the coronavirus pandemic dominate, the ecological crisis threatening the planet has not gone away. With the introduction of its Climate Action Roadmap, the FE sector is at the vanguard of carbon-emission reduction. But are we doing enough? Kate Parker reports
5th February 2021, 12:00am
Climate Change: Are Fe Colleges Doing Enough?
Kate Parker


Climate change: are FE colleges doing enough?

Today's further education students face a problem. It's something that will have an impact on the jobs they go on to have and the way they live their lives - and no, it isn't Covid-19.

Before the pandemic, climate change and the ecological emergency that our world is facing were being recognised as major threats to humanity. Young people were at the forefront of this movement (remember the student strikes of 2019?).

While worries about the coronavirus now dominate, the problem of climate change hasn't gone away. It's an issue that can't be fixed by a vaccine and one that will continue to affect young people's futures long after the virus is under control. That makes it an issue that colleges are keen to be seen to care about.

So, what can the FE sector do not only to keep the climate emergency on its agenda but also to take steps towards positive change?

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have just 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5°C, and there's only a 1 per cent chance of achieving this. If warming reaches 3.5°C, the IPCC says that the climate and ecological effects will be "catastrophic".

In November, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, unveiled his £12 billion 10-point plan to tackle the climate emergency, a year on from the government's legally binding commitment to meet net-zero emissions by 2050. Despite the vast array of other challenges they face, many colleges are already leading the way on this.

Why? According to Melanie Lenehan, principal of Fircroft College in Birmingham, the question should be: why not?

"In November, my governors signed off on declaring a climate and ecological emergency at the college," she says. "This is something we are really passionate about. As education organisations, we all have a responsibility around this, and it's time to step up and look at it very seriously."

Others across the sector agree. In the summer of 2020, a group of organisations - including the Climate Commission, the Association of Colleges, consultancy firm Nous Group and 12 further education colleges - joined forces to produce a Climate Action Roadmap for Colleges.

The roadmap provides colleges with practical steps they can take in five areas to reach net-zero: leadership and governance; teaching, learning and research; estates and operations; partnerships and engagement; and data collection.

The steps are divided into three stages of progress: "emerging", "established" and "leading" - and throughout the UK, there are many colleges well into that journey.

Fircroft is one such college. In 2007, the college suffered a substantial fire that resulted in buildings being closed for the best part of a year. When addressing the damage, sustainability was at the forefront of decision making: solar panels were put in and the estate's emissions use was surveyed to ensure that, when it reopened, energy usage was low.

Plant-based menu

Serious changes have been made to the day-to-day running of the college, too, says Lenehan. When students and staff sit down to eat in the canteen, there is only a plant-based menu on offer. Initially, it did raise eyebrows, she says.

"When I started to talk to students and staff about this last year, there was a bit of, 'Hmm, not sure how that's going to work, but we're kind of willing to give it a go'," Lenehan says.

"People can add in protein if they want, so we haven't gone completely meat free. But it starts from the point of 'you know that the offer is plant based and then if you want to add in proteins, there's one or two choices'.

"And now students have said, 'I didn't realise that vegan food could be just as delicious'. Sometimes, it's just about breaking down some of the thoughts that people have."

Fircroft also provides short courses on sustainability and is looking to build a sustainability module into every course on offer. Lenehan says its aim is to embed the sustainable development goals into every aspect of the curriculum.

At Dumfries and Galloway College, in Scotland, staff have made a similar commitment to prioritise green skills. The college has long been involved in work around climate change owing to its location (the Dumfries and Galloway region has one of the largest land masses in Scotland but is mainly rural, with a relatively small population). The local authority is striving to be the first net-zero region in the country.

Principal Joanna Campbell says that the college was at the forefront of training Scottish Power's apprentices and staff for years before climate change became "in vogue". However, owing to a strategic plan developed in 2018, known as Ambition 2025, the college has now become a centre of eco activity.

As part of the plan, the college set up a climate emergency group, made up of staff and students, and also signed a climate emergency charter.

The college has already beaten its own carbon-emission targets by 25 per cent and is two years ahead of where it should be.

Campbell says this has been achieved by managing facilities, promoting a cycle-to-work scheme, introducing carbon-friendly food packaging and implementing a ban on bottled water.

The college has also opened a £1.8 billion clean energy hub, funded by the Scottish government and Scottish Power's Green Economy Fund. The building is resourced using renewable energy and has wind turbines, solar panels and rainwater harvesting.

Alongside all this, the college has been working with the local authority to train staff to be able to retrofit buildings and to fit electric vehicle charging points - and is looking across the curriculum to increase the number of courses on offer that support the green recovery.

Whole-college approach

It's a massive effort - and one that Campbell says couldn't have happened without whole-college buy-in.

"I had a vision, early doors - coming into the role as a new principal - that I wanted us to be known as the college of choice for energy skills. I wanted us to be very much lined up to that ambition that the Scottish government has of net-zero emissions by 2045," she explains. "I knew that, in order for us as an institution to achieve that, it needed to be a whole-college approach, and I needed to empower my staff and my students to all get involved in this. I had this vision and I needed everybody to buy into it. And there is so much willingness and enthusiasm for this - it was a very easy sell."

Tapping into that enthusiasm is important, as a commitment to becoming net-zero requires asking staff and students to change how they do things.

For example, at Basingstoke College of Technology, staff are encouraged to cycle to work instead of driving and are offered a "green payment" at the start of the year if they don't require a parking space. The college also uses its 16-19 bursary funds to buy bikes for students to use, instead of bus or train passes.

The college's ecological focus was kick-started by a decision to install solar panels and LED lights. Another change the college has made is swapping single-use plastic cutlery for knives and forks made of biodegradable plastic.

David Moir, deputy principal of finance and resources, acknowledges that it has been an expensive process.

"The biggest issue was the cost," he says. "You can buy a thousand plastic knives and it will only cost a few pennies, but you buy the same version in biodegradable [material] and it's 10, 15, 20 times more expensive."

But while the cutlery swap has made a relatively small dent in the college's carbon footprint, Moir believes it is worth the expense, as it was a change the students had asked for - and one that makes the issue of climate change more visible.

"Putting in panels and LED lights, those make quite a big difference in carbon footprint. Switching from plastic cutlery to biodegradable cutlery doesn't really make any difference but that's a more visible change that people can identify," he says.

"People don't really see the solar panels and LED lighting - it isn't obviously different. I would say visible things make more of an impact on students while some of the operating things in the estate make a bigger impact on the overall carbon.

"It's about showing everyone the overall picture," Moir explains.

Ultimately, it is about balance and raising awareness. One of the things Moir does is to invite a company to measure the college's carbon footprint each year - this brings all the initiatives together into one focus, he says, and shows the true impact of the college's work.

Campbell adds that collaboration with students is also important - so if a swap to biodegradable cutlery matters to students, it should matter to the college.

And if the whole business of becoming greener seems overwhelming to leaders, asking students (and staff) about the changes they would like to see is a very good place to start.

"They will have ideas that you have not even contemplated - and what I found when I started to reach out across staff and students was that some of the ideas that they were coming forward with were absolutely phenomenal. There's so much enthusiasm and leaders need to tap into that," she says.

Lenehan agrees, adding that asking students to contribute should not be a "one-off"; colleges need to commit to tackling the crisis continuously. The roadmap could be very helpful here, she says.

"It has some really practical solutions, like starting off with surveying your students and seeing what kinds of things they're interested in, what kinds of things they think the college should be doing. Encouraging the student voice to be at the centre of it all is really important," Lenehan says.

For many leaders, finding the time to implement climate-change policies may seem impossible in the current circumstances. But with young people passionate about the ecological emergency, colleges have a helpful resource in them just waiting to be tapped.

"We think it's really important to listen to student concerns because the generations that we've got coming through college now are going to be the ones that make an impact in the future," says Moir.

The effects of the pandemic can feel all-encompassing at times - a constant battle against an extremely negative force.

But by joining forces to tackle a larger issue facing our planet, students and staff can focus on taking steps towards achieving positive change that will help to build a better future for the next generation, long after the pandemic is behind us.

Kate Parker is an FE reporter at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 5 February 2021 issue under the headline "Colleges commit to tackling climate change emergency"

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