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The need for a new, sustainable model for tertiary education is resoundingly clear

Mark Sweeney, Regional Vice President, UK & Ireland, Citrix
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How can institutions boost their sustainability credentials and accelerate change? 

FE institutions and universities are under immense pressure to evolve and place sustainability action at the heart of everything they do. The pandemic has provided the perfect opportunity to experiment, proving that blended learning, split between campus and home, can work, with the potential to reap immense sustainability benefits over the longer term. Now at a crossroads, the education sector must be careful to build back better, making choices and IT purchases that support sustainability goals. Otherwise, they risk losing favour with students as well as staff, who are equally aligned in wanting their university or college to drive sustainability forward, to support their own green agendas.

A recent study by Citrix, exploring the present and the future of higher education IT, found that 45% of students factor in a university’s sustainability ranking when choosing where to attend. The student voice on the subject is getting louder and over the past couple of years, students across the country have protested over government inaction on the climate emergency, both in-person and online. According to the National Union of Students (NUS), which has been monitoring attitudes towards the environment since 2014, 91% of students are “fairly or very concerned” about climate breakdown; 80% want their institution to be doing more on sustainable development; and 80% are taking action themselves.

Campus life versus sustainability: can the two coexist?

Environmental activism on campus is growing, often providing the perfect forum for change and disruption: however, often it can be too easy for students to call out problems, rather than offer up solutions. While, granted, there are a growing number of students launching on-campus initiatives such as zero-waste shops, selling sustainable products made by students; the irony is, their being on campus is a threat to sustainability… and there’s the rub. Students want a university or college that has strong green credentials and is taking sustainability action, yet they also want a campus experience. For the sector to advance its sustainability credentials, the campus experience needs careful review, and it’s quite possible a compromise, or sacrifice, will need to be made.

People&Planet, a coalition of UK students dedicated to holding universities to account on environmental and ethical issues, believes that around 80% of a university’s carbon footprint is related to the behaviour of its staff and students, including how they use energy, travel, what they consume and so on. Behavioural change is needed from the ground up, meaning that everyone must take some responsibility and ownership, from college leaders, university vice chancellors and principals, through to students, lecturers and teachers, facilities and administrative staff.

Tackling a blended approach to learning

Our Citrix study found that less than half (47%) of the students surveyed are keen to return to campus for all their classes. Moreover, their experience of online learning throughout the pandemic has been hugely positive: 92% of the students we surveyed said they were able to easily access necessary information, learning material, apps, and data remotely. While remote learning and the sustainability movement aren’t entirely the same thing, at this critical juncture, it makes a lot of sense to consider the two together.

To significantly reduce their carbon footprint, FE institutions and universities need to evolve to accommodate a blended approach to learning. A truly integrated experience means a combination of on campus and online learning, which two years ago would have been unthinkable; however, students have been shaped by the pandemic and the experience thus far of online learning and are likely to be receptive to only being on campus for some of the time. While granted, there are valid concerns around what blended learning means for teaching staff and how students can be kept engaged, all existing preconceptions around learning need to be set aside as we begin to create a new, more sustainable model for education.

Should universities and colleges ‘teach’ sustainability?

According to NUS, 60% of students want to learn more about sustainability. While carbon reduction, low energy IT, renewable energy and recycling schemes, are all important; getting the entire community on board with sustainability is essential for behavioural change to occur, and education is often the best place to start. A number of institutions across the country are already engaged in research relating to sustainability and have a wealth of cutting-edge academic insight to share; and for those who don’t, organisations such as SOS-UK, a student-led education charity focusing on sustainability, are well underway in creating teaching resources for the sector.

Building sustainability into the curriculum may fit more easily into some courses than others, however there’s no question that today’s students need to be well educated in sustainability before they enter the workplace, irrespective of their career choice. Sustainability needs to be a priority for all businesses, across all sectors. The trades and skills students are learning now will indeed be reshaped by that necessity; in fact, the chances are, students will be heavily involved in reshaping them.

Technology and equipment require a thoughtful balancing act

IT is responsible for approximately 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, according to some estimates, which is similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally. Technology, therefore, is an important part of the sustainability question for the sector.

There are some quick wins to be had, in terms of energy reduction. For example, in a recent Citrix roundtable for the education sector, one IT leader said he had seen a 75% downturn in printing at his university after challenging staff to consider whether they really needed a personal printer. Off the back of one email, 200 printers were surrendered back to IT.

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The introduction of low-energy devices, for all students, combined with a virtual desktop solution, is another easy way to support sustainability targets, while having the knock-on effect of also enabling remote working. The University of Cambridge has 15,000 desktops on site, not to mention the students’ own devices, and was spending a huge amount on power. By investing in Citrix Workspace, it was able to shift resources away from the endpoint device and into the datacentre, meaning it could replace power hungry devices with much more energy efficient Raspberry Pi devices. These provide an excellent desktop experience for under £100, bringing in substantial financial and environmental savings.

The power usage of university devices however is nothing compared to their data centres, which often have significant amounts of HPC (high-performance computing) infrastructure. Autonomy has led to many departments setting up their own networks, and there is an urgent need for defragmentation to occur, with these being absorbed into one central network.

There is also the danger that IT can be a hindrance, if not considered properly, and institutions need to be mindful that as they grow their IT capabilities, their carbon footprint will expand in parallel. Working with sustainable vendors, with science-based targets, will be critical. Virtual meeting software, for example, can use significant bandwidth when video is utilised, so we need to be thinking about alternative ways for remote learning to take place.

Rethinking real estate and minimising commuting

Removing the real estate debt that many institutions have is an obvious way to reduce energy consumption and boost sustainability credentials. One university we work with had been wanting to shut down an office down for years, but was consistently told that staff wanted to remain based there. However as a direct result of the pandemic, staff priorities shifted and the office is no longer in demand, so has been closed. Sometimes you need an event to expose what is no longer needed, and all institutions should be carrying out an audit of their real estate right now and deciding what is no longer needed, particularly if combined with remote working targets.

Opening work-spaces, or ‘hubs’, in local towns closer to where staff live is another way to reduce the need for expensive real estate, while also helping to avoid commuting. The University of Cambridge, for example, looked at where staff lived and built hub offices in those locations. Enabling its people to work securely and easily from home has been another big factor in helping the university to reduce its carbon footprint, and work towards its commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2030.

The solution: do we need to create sustainable principles for the education sector?

What is resoundingly clear is that a new, sustainable model for tertiary education is needed, that tackles every aspect of university or college life.

Much is happening on the fly, but what the sector is lacking, currently, is a set of guiding sustainability principles, built specifically for education. The college or university experience could then be designed around these, with a shared and measured sense of purpose inbuilt into every decision. The process is likely to be a gradual one, but when we eventually come out the other side of the pandemic, we have a real opportunity to build back better, placing sustainability centre stage.

Universities and colleges occupy an extremely privileged position, shaping the lives of our future leaders and so without question, they have a duty to take sustainability seriously. Students want action, and that is what every intuition across the country should be aiming for.

Mark Sweeney, Regional VP Citrix UK & Ireland

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