Davidson calls for green education reform

Former Environment and Sustainability Minister for Wales, Jane Davidson, has called for universities to consider embedding sustainability in all courses, claiming this is ‘vital’ for preparing students to meet future challenges. 

Speaking at The University Caterers Organisation’s (TUCO) Annual Members Conference yesterday (23 July), Davidson said higher education should be creating more environment-focused places, and ensuring students are better equipped to deal with issues of climate change, resource scarcity and social inequality. 

She said: “It’s a question for all of us who work in higher education; the role our institutions play in preparing our students for future challenges. Many people ask where does responsibility lie for making sustainable decisions… The big question is, when should the state intervene? But we should also look at how can universities contribute to creating more sustainable places, and preparing students for the challenges they will face.” 

Regulation versus voluntarism

Universities will soon be legally required to address sustainability in their working decisions as part of the Welsh Government’s upcoming Future Generations Bill, set to be introduced in ‘summer 2014’

Speaking to Resource about the role legislation can play in improving sustainability, Davidson said: “Regulation brings forward innovation - voluntarism will only get you so far. Each time you regulate, you create new opportunities and certainty for the future. Take, the recycling targets [which Davidson introduced], we were able to give local authorities the confidence to invest in the appropriate infrastructure for the future, and the absolute assurance that policy will not change. It gave the relevant bodies very clear instructions around the way they dealt with waste long-term.” 

Davidson also pointed to the plastic bag charge [which she also helped implement] as a driver for creating positive action: “Retailers all had voluntary schemes to bring down carrier bag use, but not one of them had broken the 50 per cent mark in terms of reduction. There was no real feeling that the retailers were trying hard to reduce the use of bags, because it ran counter to their objective in terms of your shopping… I’m delighted that the regulation I introduced on carrier bags has seen dramatic falls in carrier bag use and brought much-needed income to charities and communities in Wales. I think it’s the only time that I’ve been called ‘bag lady’ and found it a compliment.” 

Davidson added that she found it “hard to see why England is holding out against [similar] legislation that benefits localism, the environment and is very clearly popular in the other UK countries”. 

University to put all courses through ‘sustainability lens’

Jane Davidson

Since leaving her government post, Davidson has been working to introduce sustainability into all courses at The University of Wales, Trinity St David’s. 

As Director of the University’s new virtual body, the Institute for Sustainable Practice, Innovation and Resource Effectiveness (INSPIRE), the former Minister is now responsible for overseeing and promoting the introduction of sustainability across all departments. 

Commenting on this role, she said: “INSPIRE is a resource, an inspiration, a virtual place that students and staff can refer to, as well as a resource which can be accessed by other universities and colleges going on this sustainability journey to see our faculty sustainability plans and our sustainability surveys, and see how we are doing it. 

“We want to take sustainability principles into the higher education sector, and we want to do it in the most open way possible.” 

The main focus of INSPIRE has been ensuring that, from September 2013, all courses are taught through a ‘sustainability lens’: “We decided that whereas traditionally universities have placed emphasis on excellence in education, we also wanted to promote active citizenship… We have a job as educators to prepare students for the life they will lead beyond their education experience. In many cases its about opening the eyes of young people and preparing them for the challenges that they and their children will have to deal with. It’s important that they understand the nature of the challenges ahead of them, so we’re ensuring that every discipline is teaching their topics to the latest information and the latest big challenging questions for the future.” 

To do this, all courses have been amended or rewritten to include sustainable angles: “Faculties have embedded sustainability as it is appropriate to them. Though we do also have sustainability modules as a whole too [one is called Paradise Lost and another Paradise Regained], more impressively, what staff have done is incorporate all the issues embedded in sustainable development and global citizenship into the way they teach their normal courses. It can be quite hard to affect change in the education system, but the staff were all quite excited by it.” 

Students have also welcomed the new sustainability-led approach. One proposed initiative students have put forward to be more sustainable is creating a new café on the Lampeter campus that just sells locally-sourced food, after student research found that there was no café in the town that was doing it. “It’s this kind of forward thinking led by students that we are trying to encourage and promote”, said Davidson. 

Aside from teaching sustainability in classes, the university will also be looking at implementing more sustainable practices on campus, after a survey of university staff found that though 55 per cent said they tried to be ethical and environmental at home, less than 40 per cent did it a work. 

“We found we were not facilitating the values our staff have in trying to be ethically or environmentally-minded, so through the survey results we were able to prioritise where we could improve… We’re right at the beginning of this process, but we’re looking at energy policies, fair trade commitments, introducing allotments on campus, faculty sustainability plans and better integration between town and campus.” 

INSPIRE won the Guardian’s 2013 University award for best sustainability project in February. 

TUCO Conference 2013 

The TUCO 2013 Annual Members Conference is an annual members event for in-house caterers operating within the higher and further education sectors. 

Held in Wales for the first time this year, the three-day conference (22-24 July) – based at the Treforest campus of the University of South Wales – has sustainability at the heart of its agenda, with the theme: ‘Green, green my campus now’. 

Including an exhibition of catering foods, equipment and packaging, the conference also has a three-day speaker programme. Aside from Jane Davidson, this year’s keynote addresses include: 

  • ‘A Global Overview of Sustainability Challenges and Solutions - How the University Food Sector is Involved’, by Charles Secrett, environmental activist, and Head of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland between 1993- 2001.
  • ‘Benchmarking – An American perspective’, by Rich Neumann, Treasurer of The National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS); and
  • ‘The Role of Food and a Corporate Responsibility in Helping Lives’ by Rob Rees, The Cotswold Chef. 

TUCO 2013 Annual Members Conference finishes today (24 July).

Read more about TUCO.