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Green light flickers

Colleges care about the environment but cuts have prevented them from turning dreams into reality. Jonathan Croall reports

Ask the question "How green is your college?", and you get many answers. While green ideas are widely supported by staff and students in further education, many colleges find it difficult to implement them.

Three years after a Government committee urged further and higher education institutions to introduce green policies, many FE colleges are still only at an early stage of doing so.

"Some have made progress, but others have found it difficult to take and sustain such initiatives," says Christopher Parkin, development officer at the Further Education Development Agency. "Their priorities have been attending to changes in funding processes and national qualifications."

In its 1993 report Environmental Responsibility: An Agenda for Further and Higher Education (also know as the Toyne report), which was foreshadowed in the Government White Paper Our Common Inheritance, the committee suggested that while the need for greening had been seen by business, FE and HE colleges had failed to give it sufficient attention.

The report, instigated by the then Department for Education laid strong emphasis on cross-curricular greening which the committee described as "poorly developed". It recommended that all FE and HE institutions should adopt a comprehensive environmental policy and an action plan by April last year.

An official review is now being carried out by the environmental consultant Shirley Ali Khan, who is looking to identify good practice in further and higher education and make recommendations. Her report is likely to be published by early June.

"The FE colleges are well behind higher education as far as good practice goes," she says. "A lot of this work can be very tricky: it challenges what staff have always done, so there's inevitably some hostility."

Even among more advanced colleges, progress has been erratic. Allan Lawrence, international officer at Hopwood Hall College in Rochdale, says: "In a lot of places this kind of work has become marginalised. In the end it often relies on a small bunch of enthusiasts to keep it going."

Since 1990, with financial support from the European Social Fund, he's been bringing an environmental protection dimension to Hopwood Hall courses in fashion and textiles, hotel and catering, business and finance, and construction, where students have to assess the impact of their activities on the environment.

While the environmental dimension of the courses is popular with students, most could not be sustained. In part this was due to the ending of European funding, but also to recent cuts in teaching hours, which meant that lecturers had to struggle to retain even the core of their courses.

Cuts have also hit Hackney Community College, where pioneering "greening" packs were launched a year ago for health and social care, sport and leisure, electronics and plumbing. But curriculum development co-ordinator Doreen Morris says: "Because it's seen as an add-on, some students say: "Why should I bother with it?" Raising awareness of environmental issues may require a high-profile event. Lesley Kinsley, from Filton College in Bristol, is frustrated at delays. She says: "The short-termism in FE is enormous. People say the business side has to come before environmental responsibility. But with a proper cost-benefit analysis, for example of resource use or waste disposal, you can save money. "

At Dunstable College, Bedfordshire, a green team aims to save money by appointing an environmental consultant. "Because of redundancies, we've lost some key players, so we're hoping he will come up with some new ideas," says Keith Higham, Dunstable's environmental co-ordinator.

The college has done more than many to establish partnerships. Through its own training agency it's been working on a range of environmental projects with Community Action participants, mostly long-term unemployed - though much of this work will now stop with the termination of the Government's CA programme.

Student bodies are often unenthusiastic. Last autumn the National Union of Students sent a guide called Achieving a Sustainable Students' Union to all 850 branches in further and higher education, inviting them to endorse a "planet pledge" and develop an ecological action plan. The response has been poor: only 25 have done so, only four are in FE colleges.

For many colleges there remains a mountain to climb, according to Shirley Ali Khan: "You can't choose between greening the institution or the curriculum: you have to do both," she says.

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