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Taking action in higher education

'Let's "green up" the world's universities', say UK academics

12 November 2007 | last updated: 14 December 2015

UK lecturers and researchers will this week urge their colleagues in universities throughout the world to become active on climate change and negotiate with their employers to 'green' their university and 'green' the curriculum.

UCU has submitted ideas and recommendations to an international conference of higher education unions, many based on good practice in the UK and on UCU's own emerging environmental policy.

The ideas are contained in a discussion paper 'Climate change, a trade union responsibility in higher education' being presented to the international Higher Education and Research conference of the Education International -  the international organisation of education unions - in Malaga, Spain on 12-14 November.

The union argues that lecturers and researchers should use both their professional role and their trade union role to promote sustainable development. It encourages the creation of union environment reps and for lecturers to design the 'greening of the curriculum', bringing awareness of climate change into courses.

UCU urges academics around the world to bring issues to the attention of their university that are relevant for negotiation and will reduce carbon emissions, such as:

  • the design and use of buildings
  • commuting and home working
  • staff and student travel
  • changing work patterns.

The document's authors understand the irony of travelling to a distant conference to discuss issues including energy saving and they confront the contradiction head on. They say unions should examine their own ways of operating, to reduce their own 'carbon footprint' and consider using more 'tele-conferencing' and fewer face to face meetings, while retaining democratic procedures.

They also recognise many other dilemmas which need to be addressed. For example, how is the enormous value of the international exchange of students to be weighed against the environmental impact of their journeys? Should academics in the developed world instead be helping to build the capacity of developing and newly industrialised countries to provide high quality higher education?

UCU argues that there are dangers for staff who raise controversial issues or who 'whistleblow' on the unacceptable practices of employers. Their academic freedom and employment rights will need protection, it says.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'Climate change is a massive challenge and UK academics have a duty to contribute their professional skills to addressing this, through research, by developing appropriate courses and materials and by encouraging collective action.

'UCU is examining its own conduct in the light of the global need to reduce carbon emissions. We have far to go, as do most UK universities and colleges, but we are keen to speed up international debate and the exchange of ideas and good practice.

''While it is everybody's duty to help limit the negative effects of climate change, the greatest contribution must be by those of us in the developed world who consume the most energy and produce the most carbon dioxide and environmental damage.

'International trade union solidarity and lobbying is vital on development issues, whether trying to influence World Bank decisions on water systems in sub-Saharan Africa, or pressing western governments to write off debts, enabling developing countries to invest in public health.'

UCU's ideas have been welcomed by the TUC and by Education International.

Frances O'Grady, TUC Deputy General Secretary, said: 'This UCU's proposals to "green" the curriculum and the campus again demonstrates the groundbreaking role that unions are playing in tackling climate change. The TUC's green workplaces projects across the public and private sector are already showing how joint union-employer initiatives achieve real cuts in carbon emissions by engaging people at work. The UCU has taken this a stage further with its campus and curriculum approach. The TUC would be delighted to offer its support for this terrific project.'

Monique Fouilhoux, Senior Coordinator of Education International, who is organising the conference, said: 'The UCU paper is a pioneering piece of work on the global footprint of our universities. We live in an age of enhanced student and staff mobility at the global level, and when universities are major economic units in their own right, contributing to climate change and other environmental concerns. They also are at the heart of the research base in the struggle to find solutions to the problems posed by the environment and climate change.

'As the Malaga higher education conference demonstrates, Education International is able to bring together trade union activists from universities round the world to develop strategies for action at the global and national level on climate change as on other issues.'