Wednesday 21st of November 2012. Professor Colin Hughes, Associate Vice President for Sustainability at the University of Manchester interviewed by Marc Hudson.
What does an associate vice president for sustainability at UoM do?
My principle role is the overarching academic lead on all aspects of environmental sustainability across the whole university. So it’s leading on embedding environmental sustainability in the curriculum at the university across the whole university- it’s leading on optimising synergy across the many research groupings. We are the largest single campus university in the country but we’re not known for our excellence in environmental sustainability. You’ve got your Lancasters and East Anglia but if you look at our performance we’ve definitely got more research covering that patch but we are not know for it.
So I think there is a job to do to get recognition for that – now of course the reality is that the community is fragmented as we have a very large community – three of our four faculties are the size of some universities in the UK. So, you’ve got everyone from Tyndall, SCI, pure, natural and life science and engineering research around environment and sustainability and a plethora of other groups in the humanities so there’s a big population of top researchers and when we do manage to pull together contact groups, we find that the benefits of bringing together different disciplines is there in terms of pulling in more funding and getting more research done. So it’s embedding sustainability into the curriculum and joining the dots to improve research synergy and also the overarching academic lead on the business side, the estate, the infrastructure. It’s a part-time job and I am the first associate vice president completely dedicated to the environment as there was a move to recognise that the university had signed up to the agenda and needed a committed lead figure. So the case was made last year for an vice president position dedicated to the environment and sustainability rather than tagging it onto the health and safety associate vice president position which is what happened in the past.
Well this may seem an unfair question in light of the newness of your position. But what can you point to that has happened that wouldn’t have happened if the post hadn’t been made?
You mean what have I done? [Laughs] Well, a number of things. I’m responsible for an explicit strategy for Manchester for environmental sustainability. So within the university’s strategic plan there is an enabling strategy for environmental strategy. So that’s a one page, high level policy document that captures the university’s commitment to the environment sustainability agenda. That document was put together in full consultation so I didn’t write it or present myself there were several iterations with the relevant constituencies across the university so when it was published no-one could say ‘we weren’t consulted’ because everyone contributed to that document. The other thing was leadership at the top of the university to the sustainability agenda- the board of governors have signed up to a statement on sustainability. So there’s commitment at a top level.
We also identified that there wasn’t clear, accountable leadership at other levels so each faculty now has an appointed associate dean who is the accountable academic lead for environmental sustainability and also social responsibility. At the other end of the spectrum we also have the coal face enthusiasts such as MESS [Manchester Environmental and Sustainability Society] and we do have a lot of enthusiasts at every level doing very good stuff – some of it linked to outside activity and others developed and promoted internally. So that’s all happened in the past year and the university has an annual performance review as part of its wider strategy where progress is measured against plans. We have now folded into that explicit KPIs covering the whole environment and sustainability spectrum whether you are talking about embedding in the curriculum or the research agenda or the business operations work. So there is a KPI basket covering all those and that’s taken a significant step we have taken in the past year not only because of me but all because of the university’s commitment to the appointment of a head of environment and sustainability. So there’s a full time post filled by Dr. Emma Gardener who is the head of environment and sustainability.
This time next year how do you hope to be able to answer that question?
This time next year we will have doubled our targets and doubled the number of sustainability enthusiasts such as the and Green Impacts Teams who are doing stuff at the coalface levels such in schools. So if we double those numbers, the amount of activity that will be happening in terms of green impacts and sustainability labs – that will have doubled. So, in terms of our performance against other KPI’s that will have doubled. The other thing that I intend to implement in the next year is realising our commitment to Manchester’s carbon literacy project.
Before we became aware of the carbon literacy project we were already working on a project called ‘porters to professors’ which was working on awareness building and encouraging behaviour change in terms of environmental sustainability so that was on the cards when we found out about the Carbon Literacy project so it made a lot of sense to tie them in and help the city along in its carbon literacy. So I’m hoping to implement that in terms of staff and the great thing about that if you think about sport or health and safety, everybody across the university from porters and professors are aware of the issues. So the idea is to embed carbon literacy in the same kind of way but it’s is going to different because there isn’t a statutory obligation for carbon literacy like there is for health and safety but in many ways the challenges are comparable
I also intend to do something on the higher learning side. The university has recently established the University College which is a vehicle for promoting interdisciplinary learning usually around the grand challenges such as the environment, poverty, conflict – all of those things. So part of it is the global citizen agenda and the other part is about joining up more effectively the community of students. So the idea is to have a provision at the University College which covers environment sustainability and carbon literacy and we are currently working to take that a step further. One of the things we are also working on if for students to be trained as trainers by the Carbon Literacy project and the idea is that within the University College we’ll have a course which combines the appropriate level of academic learning and also trains them to deliver the carbon literacy. They are talking about developing a standard for training the trainers on the project. So the idea there is that the students do this course and do some good academic learning but at the same time they become accredited trainers. Then the University – I don’t know if you’re aware, but we have a very big volunteering programme, as part of the Manchester Leadership Programme – so the idea then is, as part of their contribution to Manchester Leadership, their volunteering can be going out and delivering carbon literacy provision training in the community. And that can be in lots of different ways that you can do that, in terms of how you engage the community. And that can be part of the challenge of the course – how do you engage with the community. This University is surrounded by deprived areas. You’ve got people just across the road there in Ardwick and Beswick – their main concern is feeding themselves every day and being able to pay their fuel bills.
And one of the challenges is how do you connect with those people, and this is non-trivial. First of all there’s the town and gown divide if you like, but then also how do you actually connect with them. Because I wouldn’t mind betting if we went and talked to the community leaders they’d say “yeah great”. So in principle you’ve established that “yes, we can do this,” but the nitty gritty of how you actually do that is going to be a bit of a challenge. Within a year I don’t think we’ll have solved that, but we’ll certainly be well on the road.
What are the metrics for knowing you’re on the right path? Is it people coming to meetings? Is it thank you letters? How can you tell?
Okay, so metrics is always difficult in this area. You can do metrics on footfall, you can do metrics on feedback, and all of that counts. But … it’s the kind of thing where you’d hope to find indicators that show you’ve started a buzz and that people are talking about it, right? So in the city, whether it’s in the Metro or the local rags or people talking in the pub that there is a profile – “hey, have you heard what these students are doing” – that kind of thing. But also in terms of is it really changing behaviour, because that is really the challenge of the whole carbon literacy project. The aspirations are laudable. I think they are realistic. The challenge is going to be … the evaluation of it. In terms of any activity, as you’re developing it, you should be thinking about and determining your evaluation strategy as you go. So we will figure that out as we go, but it’s all the things you said and more. But at the end of the day, it’s not readily measurable. On the one hand you might think “alright, if we start off in Ardwick and Beswick and compare it with a similar community next door, does their carbon footprint go down when you look at utilities consumption – that’s one way of doing it. Are they increasingly pulling in the resources that are available for retrofitting and insulation, or all that kind of thing. There’s a lot of metrics around fuel poverty – is there any evidence of people’s awareness enabling them and empowering them to improve their own lot in this.
Of course, the problem can be with reducing fuel poverty that you get rebound effect – what do people spend the money that they saved on.
Yes. And again, that’s part of carbon literacy – being aware that you justify your holiday to the Canaries or whatever because you saved on your fuel bills. But that’s part of it – there has to be a shared ownership of it. It’s not us doing something to them, it’s sharing awareness and saying “okay, you need to be aware of this potential for rebound effect.”
Before we switched on the recorder, we were mentioning Local Agenda 21 from the 1990s. My question is, “what could go wrong this time round?” Could it be that you and I – or our replacements – will be sat here in five years time going “ooh, the air has gone out of the balloon.” If so, what problems do you anticipate – what challenges, what difficulties, what obstacles?
I think it’s difficult to anticipate exactly what’s going to happen. You can’t see into the future – we don’t have a crystal ball. But my experience to date has been that energy and enthusiasm wins. So if I think of my own background and trajectory at this university, it’s been a long time coming. There has been a significant population of us who are now quite senior who have been active on the environmental front years ago. We are now in positions where we have the capability and the potential to make a difference. Now, providing we support… the next generation to come through to do similar then you’re going to get progress…. Agenda 21 was a long time ago. Since the new University was established, the trajectory in terms of environment/sustainability awareness has been positive, and growing. We have a challenge actually around our carbon footprint… we set our target as a more aspirational target than what the Higher Education Funding Council for England set us, because we thought we were up for it. Had the University stayed the same size, we’d have been bang on track. But since that time the University has actually grown substantially; we’ve got new buildings. And whilst they are spanking new, top BREAM, the most environmentally friendly-buildings you can get at a reasonable cost, we still have the legacy of the old part of the university. Again, we’ve done a lot there – I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but we’ve got new glazing throughout a lot of our old building stock. We’re doing a lot… there’s government funding – including this thing called the revolving green fund, where you can draw down the capital costs of all these things on the basis that you pay back from the savings. So we’re doing a lot, but the University is a bigger place than it used to be, therefore our carbon footprint is more than it used to be. We’re the biggest university in the country, we’ve got the biggest carbon footprint. That’s not going to go away, we need to work on that.
I interviewed Mary Heaney, of Manchester Metropolitan University – well, actually, I threw an awkward question at her two or three years ago – who owns the emissions from students and staff flying not just to conferences, but back to their home countries. She said “MMU” – and the same questions applies to University of Manchester.
I mean, in terms of Scope 3, as is allocated, it is “University of Manchester.” One of the challenges now is that the advice coming down from HEFCE is that “it’s up to you.” Basically the targets and all the rest of it have been devolved to universities. The first challenge is “how do you measure that?” So there are lots of approaches to measuring that, and we are in the process of doing that now. Once we are aware of the scale of our scope 3 emissions – which are ours – then we will be in a position to say, “okay, we’re starting all our behavioural change and our transformational change initiative agendas around carbon now, but we don’t know what our targets are around scope 3 reduction. Oxford University recently published theirs and they estimate that something like 70% of their whole carbon footprint is scope 3. Now, you think of the size of Oxford University – it’s a lot smaller. If ours is anything like that, that’s a monumental number.
We are already looking at these things, so we’ve got a sustainable travel plan, we’ve got within our strategy everyone is accountable in terms of justifying the use of different transport options. On the one hand you’ve got a research-led university where one of the principle vehicles for knowledge advancement is international travel and communication. You have an education system where in a lot of disciplines the educational value of overseas field trips is pretty substantial. Now that’s fine, but we should be asking everybody who’s involved in international travel “can you justify this?” So you want to first of all look at the easy wins. There are difficult questions around our core business – it’s like asking an airline company “what are you going to do about your carbon emissions” – international travel is part of it. Now, interestingly, in some of our schools, people have to justify international travel to conferences on the basis of they’ll go to a conference of if they are publishing a paper. And if it’s just attendance at a conference, they’ll struggle to get that funding. Now, with such a big place we can’t tell anyone what to do. You’ve got that which is reasonable and that which is unreasonable in terms of management control. But there are initiatives at – the coal face, if you like – challenging that. And it’s great, because it’s … supported by students as well.
Every year we get students who refuse to go on field trips if they have to fly. It’s a little bit like Kevin Anderson’s trip to China. I don’t know what happened to this, but I know one student last year – they run a field trip to Tenerife, which is an excellent educational field trip; it’s looking at all the environmental impacts on the Canary Islands, where a lot of people live and there’s a lot of impact not only because of tourism but the way they work there and all the rest of it. Also there’s a pristine natural environment there and so on. This student is going to go by train to a port in Spain and then get on a boat to the Canaries. And I think that’s great, but it’s only one student. And the challenge is of course, how many lectures is he going to miss while he’s on that train and does that trip. Doubtless the benefits to him – not only in making his point – but what he’ll learn in sorting out his own travel – train across Europe, boat to Canaries – that’s the kind of experience that looks pretty good on his CV.
You come into your office on a Tuesday morning, and there’s an email from firstname.lastname@example.org ; “Dear Professor Hughes, I object to flying. I have tried to book my travel to conference X at which I am presenting a paper, by the train. My line manager says that they have two objections. One is the money – because it’s more expensive, but two, I’ll be gone for a lot longer and no-one will be there to deliver my teaching. Help me, Professor Hughes, you’re my only hope.” Do you delete, or do you reply?
I reply. And I say “well, it’s very simple. You decide on your priorities. You have this thing called academic freedom. You decide based on the pros and cons of each, which is the priority. It’s not my position to make that kind of judgement.
You wouldn’t override a line manager who was telling someone that they couldn’t?
No. Line management doesn’t work that way in [the University]. If an academic has got that kind of challenge there are ways of developing the argument around that, but if no-one will give them the money they can’t go anyway.
An anecdote – last Thursday, I was part of a workshop with thirty French (or most of them were French) students from Sciences Po. They were here investigating airports and government and so forth. And I asked them, what’s the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,and what’s the Keeling Curve. None of them knew, out of thirty people. Now, if I came and talked to some of your students outside of [Environment Studies] would I get the same looks of blank incomprehension, and does that matter?
Yes you would, and yes it matters. This is the point of the carbon literacy objective. So, the NHS[MEDICAL AND HUMAN SCIENCES], here’s a case in point. When we’re talking about embedding the environment and sustainability in the curriculum. Anecdotally, years ago when we were trying to do it in the engineering curriculum, academics around the course said “our hands are tied. It’s the engineering institutes that tell us what must be in the curriculum.” So if you look at the Engineering Institutes and ask them “what do you think of this green agenda they say “It’s absolutely critical, it needs to be on the agenda”. We’re starting a process in the Medicine and Human Sciences Faculty where we are looking at their curriculum. In fact, they have to report as part of the annual performance review on how many of their programmes include discussion of environment and sustainability, that awareness is there in the curriculum.
When we asked last year, we didn’t get much of a response. This year the response has been that the faculty is developing provision – a module that everyone will have to do that covers that agenda. I think that’s only part of the solution. I would also like to see evidence that as well as a bolt-on special unit that everyone has to do – it’s a bit like everyone has to do risk assessment and know what plagiarism is etc – it’s part and parcel of the statutory requirements for these courses, I would like to see them working to embed it in the curriculum. And we had the same sort of responses from the Medics and Nursing and Dentistry that we had from the engineers before; “there’s no room in our curriculum, it’s defined by our Royal Colleges etc etc. But when you look at the Royal Colleges, their websites have all got a commitment to environment and sustainability. The NHS has got a substantial commitment, so there’s no argument … the challenge is how do you do it. And I think that’s where we can help, because we’ve got a lot of expertise, not only in the pedagogy of how you embed it in the curriculum, but also how you can be creative about that. So if you take nursing for example ; how do you get nurses to engage with this. Well, in addition to the medical side of nursing, they learn about ward management, they learn about what happens on the ward in terms of … connecting with the hospital’s environment strategy and agenda; how do nurses contribute to that? So in their understanding of the NHS governance if you like, they get an appreciation that way.
The other way you can do it is just in your own behaviour on the ward, how you can improve things.
So it frustrates me sometimes when you get a response that on a questionnaire “n/a” – not applicable. The response back from me is “that’s wrong – all of this is applicable to every discipline. If you read our enabling strategy for environment and sustainability … it’s words to the effect that “every student in every discipline at every level in the university will have the opportunity to learn about environmental sustainability. And I don’t mean the opportunity as in “take it or leave it”. It will be there. Obviously you can sit in a lecture and fall asleep as someone’s trying to tell you about it, but the opportunity will be there. It’s not going to happen within the next year, that’s our 2015 target.
You mentioned early on the Manchester Climate Change Action Plan, also known as Manchester A Certain Future. There’s the carbon reduction goal, and the second headline goal talks about embedding “a low carbon culture.” It’s a bit of a tradition with MCFly, we ask everyone we interview ‘what is a low carbon culture?’
Okay, from the university standpoint, a low carbon culture is the same approach to the low carbon agenda as you have to health and safety. So in the same way that you don’t do a laboratory experiment, or a field course, or climb a ladder or do anything without thinking “what are the health and safety implications” it should be there in the culture that you don’t do anything without thinking about [the] long-term and far away. So it’s not just about carbon and us and climate change, it’s far away. It’s Bangladesh, it’s sea-level rise, it’s desertification – it’s all of those. So the idea is that it’s there in the same sort of way as health and safety. That’s what it means as far as I’m concerned. It also means that every graduate that leaves this university will leave with the knowledge that has the potential to make a difference both in their personal and their professional lives.