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Build back greener

Lisa Roberts argues that university partnerships are the secret to a healthier, fairer future

Universities are going through one of the biggest transformations since 1945. The decade to 2030 is likely to be the most challenging period that university leadership teams have seen in their careers, thanks to the pandemic, Brexit, financial uncertainty about the post-18 review of student fees, changes to research funding and an unstable pension and pay situation.

The expectations on universities from government, students, staff, businesses and local stakeholders have changed significantly and universities will need all their skills to navigate the years ahead. September 2020 was not the easiest time, then, to start as vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter.

But amid the challenges, I also see opportunities. Staff and students at all universities have shown their extraordinary adaptability and resilience over the past year. I am proud of the way we have supported each other—and that must continue as we seek to build a better, fairer future, working in partnership on multiple levels.

The importance of evidence

The Queen’s speech earlier this month set out many policies and challenges for university leadership teams to heed. Many of the media headlines focused on skills, post-16 education and freedom of speech. But there were also vital announcements on research and innovation, life sciences and the environment bill. Building a greener, healthier and fairer society is an aspiration we can all get behind, and it is incumbent on universities to help deliver solutions based on evidence and expertise.

I support the ambition to ‘build back greener’, to better protect the natural world, to make the UK a world leader in using resources efficiently and to create jobs in clean energy. I support the plans to “revolutionise how we recycle; enhance local powers to tackle sources of air pollution; secure long-term, resilient water supplies and wastewater services; and protect nature and improve biodiversity”.

I also want to see the UK spark “a green industrial revolution, mobilising billions in private and public investment to turn the country into the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance, creating 250,000 highly skilled green jobs across the UK”.

The question is how we do that at scale and pace. Universities have a critical role to play in shaping policy details based on evidence, as well as in forging partnerships that will support businesses and organisations in our regions and across the world with “net zero plus” agendas.

Co-creating solutions

At the University of Exeter, we have just launched a Green Futures campaign to demonstrate how, through research, education and partnerships, we can lead the way and help others to protect the planet and life on Earth. The campaign highlights how collaborations with businesses and national and international policymakers, as well as people and communities who are being affected by climate change, can lead to the effective co-creation of solutions.

Exeter has the UK’s top five most influential climate scientists, according to a recent Reuters global list. Some of the university’s core strengths lie in research expertise on the environment, climate, biodiversity, natural capital, the circular economy and sustainability. It has built a base of more than 500 researchers working in interdisciplinary teams across these areas.

We are not only defining the problems but critically developing solutions, and we are committed to urgent action. Our joint centre for excellence in environmental intelligence, in partnership with the Met Office, positions the city of Exeter as a global hub for climate research to develop solutions to the major challenges ahead. And we stand ready to help others.

Like all universities, we are not only making sure that our research and innovation activities are addressing the global challenges of today and tomorrow; we are also working with our regional partners to ensure we have the skills and knowledge we need to adapt to a new economic future.

We are helping businesses to innovate and grow, and our strong partnerships with schools and colleges, such as the South West Institute of Technology, are ensuring that we support the development of the skills required for the green and digital transformations the UK needs. We are working with other education providers in our region on critical projects such as Marine-i—which helps companies working in wind, wave and tidal power generation to deliver the energy of the future—as well as on the development of our civic university agreements across Devon and Cornwall.

Crowdsourcing strategy

Partnership is at the heart of everything we do, including the development of our 2030 strategy. We have taken a novel crowdsourcing approach to engage our community of staff, students, alumni and external stakeholders, giving everyone a voice in shaping our future. We have used digital platforms and collaboration tools as well as a series of “big conversations” with the whole community, about our purpose, goals and values.

So far, more than 4,000 ideas have been shared and almost 40,000 votes cast on ideas and priorities. We have also drawn upon insights from internal and external experts, from focus and community groups, from analysis of higher education trends and from government policy; we have reviewed our own strengths, weaknesses and ambitions, and of course the context we are operating in. In the autumn, we will publish our 10-year strategy and get to work on delivering for our whole community.

That community includes other universities in our region, in the UK and around the world. We will never solve a challenge such as climate change without international collaboration. Working together, universities are crucial to ‘building back better’ and delivering the ‘green industrial revolution’.

The decade ahead may be daunting, but strong partnerships will ensure we build the greener, healthier and fairer future we all want to see.

Lisa Roberts is vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Exeter.