Back in class: making education facilities and campuses ready for the return of students

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For 2021’s new starters, the first group to undertake a full degree after Covid-19, the ‘university experience’ will inevitably be unique for this reason alone. And green credentials could make the difference in making this happen.    

According to a Times Higher Education survey, sustainability is perceived to be as important as location when it comes to international students selecting a university. While the quality of teaching, cost of tuition, and the university’s rankings all come much higher, sustainable practices and demonstrating a commitment to caring for the environment should not be overlooked.

A second survey, conducted by student-led education charity, Students Organising for Sustainability UK (SOS), backs up this view, revealing that 88% of recipients were ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ concerned about climate change. More than three-quarters also agreed that the long-term impacts of climate change are just as serious as Covid-19 and climate change should be a priority in the UK’s recovery from the pandemic.

The term ‘sustainability’ has been used increasingly frequently in recent times. Though it is encouraging to see greater awareness of environmental issues, universities must not fall into the trap of ‘greenwashing’, only through tangible actions and deliverables will campuses be able to define themselves as ‘sustainable’.

We’re noticing a trend of our clients turning to us for advice on setting and achieving individual sustainability targets. These range from improving recycling policies through to devising plans to improve biodiversity and habitats around a site. For instance, outdoor meeting facilities at our business park locations sow the seeds of a collaborative working environment within a unique feature. For students, these can also provide a means of having face-to-face social interaction (remember that?) in a safe facility.  

Interior plant displays strategically placed across a campus provide an alternative social distancing measure by dividing corridors down the middle and directing students through possible bottlenecks where close contact is almost inevitable. Though they will not be the complete solution to student concerns about being in close proximity with each other, using indoor plants as partitioning goes beyond simple aesthetics.

Of course, there is a lot more that universities will be judged on when making bold sustainability claims. To use the BP Target Neutral initiative (which we ourselves use to make sure we fulfil our own environmental obligations) as a guide, a campus must demonstrate how sustainability fits in with the day-to-day running of its faculties and hold itself to account when working towards these targets.

The switch to electric vehicles is more often than not where site managers start in their individual Mission: Sustainable aspirations. It’s not that difficult to see why – EVs are proving to be cheaper to run and put a significant dent in total emission output. With multiple areas to maintain, campus managers soon clock up the miles, and the carbon dioxide.

Fortunately, many are starting to see the benefits of installing electric charging points and making them accessible, with the likes of University of Cambridge and Manchester Metropolitan having more than two-thirds of their respective fleets now running on electric. Of course, there is still room for improvement, but there are signs that universities are opening up to the potential of EVs. We ourselves have been leading our clients by example through the electrification of our own fleet and equipment.

With warnings about our changing climate continuing to make the headlines, sustainability is going to remain in the forefront of many peoples’ minds, especially younger generations. Universities will need to considerably up their games to keep up with the changing perceptions of their policies. Otherwise, they run the risk of losing the next wave of talented student who will ultimately be the ones who take the country forward.    ​​​​​​

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