Driving sustainability means reshaping teaching, operations, strategy and engagement, says Sergiu-Matei Lucaci
The green transition will reach into everything from fundamentals of life such as food and health, to social structures such as markets, cities and welfare states. Making such a transformation work will require the awareness and collaboration of all sectors and communities.
Too often, though, the systemic thinking needed is hampered by the notion that broad societal changes can be driven from a single point. Take the EU’s Green Deal, which aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent but is framed principally as a strategy for economic growth.
The Green Deal will never be a done deal if a focus on industry obscures contributions from other areas. Among these, research, education and innovation appear in EU plans in widely different ways. Sometimes they are central, such as in decarbonisation schemes that depend on cutting-edge research and innovation. At other times, they feature only tangentially: the 2019 Green Deal Communication, for example, barely mentions higher education institutions.
This omission inspired European universities to present their own university vision for the Green Deal last year. Today, the European University Association takes the next step, launching a Green Deal roadmap for universities, highlighting their untapped potential to meet the green challenge.
With their unique ability to bring together researchers, innovators, the public and private sectors and their surrounding communities, universities were made for systemic thinking. But not all can develop and use such approaches equally well, particularly when rankings, metrics and competition still hold sway over institutions. Solidarity and mutual learning, even from failures, will better enable the sector to find its common voice.
So how can universities reconfigure themselves for the green transition? EUA has identified four key areas for action: research and innovation, education and students, staff and operations, and public engagement and societal impact.
Although the impact of R&I is an EU political priority, its potential to spur the green transition has not resonated with wider society. One probable reason is that, within existing policies, research and innovation goals are expressed as targets for technological development and deployment that are not properly communicated and explained to those intended to adopt them.
When innovation focuses on developers rather than users, the result can be a cycle of ever-narrower funding calls that seek only to scale up successful pilots. This is a very narrow foundation on which to build, one that ignores what else could have been tried or how to better use what is already available.
New avenues must always be explored, but their viability and usefulness does not rely on technological maturity alone. This was echoed recently in the EU Communication on the Climate-Security Nexus, which calls for risk assessment and effective governance of geoengineering interventions aimed at cooling the planet. Universities provide the intellectual space to explore these issues, particularly through interdisciplinary approaches and methods for studying the impact of innovation.
Regarding education, the Sustainable Development Goals and the skills demands of green industries have led to a proliferation of programmes combining sustainability and interdisciplinarity. But a deeper rethinking of education for sustainability is also needed, looking beyond quantitative measures of success such as enrolment numbers or graduate employability.
For example, a recent foresight study from the EU Joint Research Centre argued that sustainability requires citizens accepting they should not consume more than they need. Higher education can foster this value, among others, and show how to achieve it through more experiential learning or changed curricula.
In terms of university staff and operations, leaders should encourage more bottom-up initiatives and set goals, and the strategies to meet them, less reliant on numerical milestones. Such milestones may reflect the realities of daily management, but they may not incentivise or motivate all staff.
Instead, strategic planning processes should mirror universities’ double role as employers and civic institutions. This will help to nurture a community centred on ethics and values, rather than just institutional growth.
The green transition is not just a question of costs and financing, but of empowering the university community to act as a multiplier and facilitator for the Green Deal on campus and beyond.
Finally, on public engagement and societal impact, universities must push against having their contributions limited to the official framing of the Green Deal. Technical fixes cannot replace a wider-ranging reflection on other sources of societal change towards sustainability. Academic input to policymaking can be enriched by insights and perspectives from local communities and civil society, which universities could engage with more systematically.
Sergiu-Matei Lucaci is a policy and project officer at the European University Association
A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe