Higher education has a substantial environmental footprint. It emits an estimated three million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year from energy use alone. It also occupies about 10% of UK office space.
Universities also have substantial external influence through employing staff, educating future leaders, conducting research and buying more than £3 billion worth of goods and services annually.
Twenty institutions undertook a BITC environment index, a self-assessed environmental performance and management benchmarking system. Their average score was 55%, compared with an average of 83% for participating businesses across the UK in 2005. However, six universities in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, which have taken part in the region’s own benchmarking programme since 2001, scored a higher 84%.
This could indicate benchmarking improves performance, but the group includes Leeds Metropolitan, Leeds and Sheffield universities, which have led on environmental issues for many years.
Only five participants reached the top 100 of the business environment index. Of these, only one was within the top 50. But there were strong scores for climate change, water use and biodiversity.
Iain Patton, executive director of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, said that while the report shows universities "are taking the first steps towards environmental and corporate responsibility", it also highlights that "there is a long journey to go before they are flagship organisations".
Only a few universities have certified environmental management systems, notably Gloucester, where the EAUC is based, Glamorgan and Leeds Metropolitan. However, several others are working towards that goal.
There has also been growth in recent years in the number of environmental management staff in the sector, reflecting growing pressure on university leaders from staff and students.
The report comes ahead of the release of a "green index" on 7 June by student organisation People and Planet that will establish an environmental league table for all UK higher education institutions.
The sector now has two awards for environmental progress. The Green Gown Awards were established in 2005 and are run by the Higher Education Environmental Performance Improvement project. The Sound Impact Awards were first awarded to student unions this year by the National Union of Students’ trading arm.
Under the direction of the Department for Education and Skills, funding councils have published sustainability action plans for themselves and the sector they supervise. But these have not set targets or requirements for universities because they are independent bodies and funding councils are wary of accusations of undue interference.
A second report from Forum for the Future2, based on a survey of university applicants for the 2006/07 academic year, revealed that an institution’s performance on sustainable development issues was important or very important for 45% of applicants for education, social sciences, architecture, building and planning.
Another driver for improving their performance will be the Energy Performance Commitment, expected in 2009.