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Why being ‘one of the most sustainable universities in the world’ is not very sustainable

With COP26 currently running in Glasgow, it is a meaningful time to reflect on the sustainability of our institution. Fortunately, the University of Sussex has been very vocal on sustainable matters of late. In August 2019 the University declared a Climate Emergency, and more recently the Provost Rachel Mills provided a short summary of Sussex’s eco-credentials over the past two years, most prominently the launch of the Sustainable Sussex strategy (SSS) in July 2021.

Sussex UCU was not consulted on this strategy and Trade Unions have been refused representation on the Sustainability Committee, which consists of 2 students, 2 academics, and 8 administrators. This is unfortunate, as there is a lot we can offer (UCU nationally has provided significant material on the Green New Deal, for instance). We have offered some of these comments in a limited way via the mechanism of the Joint Negotiating Committee, but this does not seem to have resulted in any noticeable change or promise of further meaningful consultation, so we offer our thoughts to members below in the hopes that we can make a difference collectively.

It is worth saying at the outset that we welcome wholeheartedly the effort towards sustainability offered by university leaders. The below is offered in the spirit of open exchange and with the aim of working together to tackle the single greatest imminent threat to our industry, our community and our world.

With that in mind, we have the following concerns with the approach currently taken by university leadership in regard to sustainability:

1.Competition vs Cooperation

In general, the focus on actions and outputs of the SSS is often not only ignorant of, but in direct contradiction to, sustainable values. This is clear even in their aim to become ‘one of the most sustainable universities in the world’ and in their reward- and competition-based incentivization schemes (EcoGo and Pitch for the Planet). While these might prepare students for entering the business world as it is, they do nothing to accomplish the broader and deeper change required to shift away from the materialist, capitalist, individualist mindset that is anathema to many interpretations of sustainability. Studies have shown that while these modes of incentivization lead to short-term action, they lead to long-term damage to community-oriented action once the rewards are removed. Monetary rewards may actually reduce the intrinsic care for the environment.To make real, long-term and effective change, a focus on the values of cooperation, collaboration and community-building is required.

2. Individual vs Institutional Change

Likewise, much of the work of the SSS focuses on incentivizing individual actions, rather than reflecting on the much larger changes for which the institution as a whole might be responsible. Placing the burden of responsibility on the individual has been shown to be a tactic of capitalist interests. The emphasis on ‘champions’ allows participation to be self-selecting, and does little to bring on board members of the community who might not otherwise be inclined to take action on the issue. This is matched by the unambitious pace of change outlined; the actions in the SSS are on the whole too small, too slow and too vague compared to what many perceive to be urgent environmental problems..

3. Financial vs Environmental ‘Sustainability’

Outstripping university comms on environmental sustainability has been the message of the financial sustainability of the university (or its various programmes, degrees, etc). This is an idea of sustainability founded on the notion of growth.

The University has a bewildering array of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), several have been falling far from target and were subject to review by Council in January 2021. KPI #13, Financial Surplus, however remains unchanged. It is described in the 2018 Accounts as follows:

The principal financial key performance indicator is to achieve a surplus before exceptional items of 7% of income by 2019/20, increasing to 10% of income by 2024/25.

In 2020 this target was for 5%-7% surplus year on year. The University surplus for 2019 was £12.7million, while for 2018 it was £23.9m. Yet currently Sussex holds investments and cash reserves of around £250 million with loans of £180 million. While funds are indeed needed to invest in estates and IT, Schools are being called on to increase their surpluses in order to ensure the university continues not simply to maintain itself but to grow financially. This is at the expense of staff losses (we are in our third round of Voluntary Severance) and of cutting critical Doctoral Tutors teaching hours, and even their terms and conditions.

It is important to ask if adding this extraordinary stress, when we need to focus on the return to campus, and the support for students who have studied for two years through the pandemic, really considers sustainability as a whole? As many scholars and commentators have suggested (most recently in the Guardian), this view of financial ‘sustainability’ is antithetical to the sustainability of the planet, as well as being damaging to the wellbeing of those who must work to maintain a constant percentage increase (or exponential) model of growth for their employers.

A second consideration is how the University invests the funds it has influence over. Sussex has, for many years, worked within a socially responsible investment policy for the funds it directly manages. Yet despite repeated requests it has not taken action over funds it pays into, including the £90bn University Superannuation Scheme (USS). Sussex paid around £20 million into USS in 2019, with staff contributing around an additional £8 million. This is staff salaries and benefits, it is the investment of our money. Yet USS has considerable holdings in fossil fuels, including Lukoil, CNOOC, Pioneer Natural Resources and Enron Oil and Gas (EOG), all these companies are at Level 2 of the Transition Pathways Initiative meaning they have yet to even set Greenhouse Emission Targets. USS also holds £115 million in Royal Dutch Shell who are currently appealing a court case requiring them to set climate targets. USS voted in 2021, as it always has, against a shareholder motion calling on Shell to set climate targets.

As a report by Make My Money Matter highlights, with £2.6 trillion invested in UK pensions, pensions are powerful. They argue that your pension is 21x more effective at reducing your carbon footprint than giving up flying, going veggie and switching energy provider combined. Yet this opportunity is left undiscussed by University Senior management.

4. Climate and Social Justice

Although the SSS takes the UN Development Goals as principles and makes mention of the relationship between action on climate change and other forms of social justice (encapsulated in the idea of climate justice), there are few concrete aims (aside from the target to apply for Living Wage accreditation by 2023) in line with the principles of climate justice, such as affordable rents or acceptable pay ratios. We also have concerns about the focus on remote working, which can reduce carbon emissions, but also shifts the burden (and the emissions) to staff members’ households. Likewise, though we applaud the focus on the reduction of air travel, there is no indication given what the breakdown is between managerial travel and academic travel. Ironically, the University’s new time management system indicates “annual leave” with an aeroplane. Sustainable travel is, currently, frequently more expensive and time consuming. It is important when encouraging staff away from air travel that staff whose research takes place in regions unreachable by alternative transport are not disadvantaged. Sustainability must not be used as a means to further disadvantage the vulnerable and benefit the powerful. These are precisely the sorts of issues on which the campus trade unions could offer beneficial consultation and support.

5.Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

The QAA has recently offered guidance on embedding sustainability in HE teaching, which emphasises that sustainable values and competencies must be embedded in all modules, not just given as an option on every degree. Staff need support to integrate and recognize these ESD in their teaching. These include:

  • systems thinking

  • anticipatory thinking

  • normative competency

  • strategic thinking

  • collaborative competency

  • critical thinking

  • self-awareness

  • integrated problem-solving competency.

Importantly, this should not come with an increase in workloads and time should be provided for training and making alterations to modules and teaching practices. It is essential that ‘sustainability’ also apply to workloads as well as the working environment.

In short, the SSS needs to be seen as a continuing discussion about the ways to make our commitment to tackling the climate emergency deeper, wider and more meaningful. In particular, reflection is needed on how the institution can fully embrace the values associated with sustainability rather than those which foster climate catastrophe. Anything else is greenwashing. Campus trade unions and their members have a great deal to offer in such a conversation.


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