Far from being stuck in the past, HE institutions are making serious changes to do their bit for the environment - and attract students

Last year, student campaign group People & Planet published its controversial Green League purporting to show the environmental performance of Britain’s universities. As reported in The Independent, many institutions – particularly those in the must-try-harder category – dismissed the table’s methodology as “sloppy” and “dire”.

One thing is clear though: everyone is keen to be green and be seen to be green. Durham University, which scored a 2:2 in the People & Planet League (which the university says drew on out-of-date information), is taking the matter seriously, recruiting Antje Danielson as deputy director of sustainability.

Danielson oversaw Harvard’s Green Campus Initiative, which saved the American institution £100,000 in the first year. “The numbers at Harvard are staggering now, with the initiative annually saving $7m – the cost is $2m so that’s a net benefit of $5m,” says Danielson.

Durham is the only university of the 20 supplied by N-Power to use 100 per cent green energy, saving 32,000 tons of carbon emissions over the life of the 24-month contract. Its procurement service focuses on fair trade and sustainable practices, and uses the university’s buying power to influence supplier behaviour.

The students are also active, running an Allotment Society to grow their own produce and introducing a “Green Move Out Scheme”, encouraging the recycling of clothes at the end of term. The difference has been noticed by students. “When I arrived I didn’t think they [the university administrators] were that responsive to these kinds of issues, but now I can see they are really trying and some of the changes have been amazing,” says Anthony Crowther, 20, a second-year geographer and the Student Union’s environment officer.

Bureaucratic inertia, EU law and a legacy of old, energy-hungry buildings can make it difficult to effect change. New-build programmes offer a chance to green the campus: new-build work at Greenwich University’s Avery Hill campus, for example, will include timber from sustainable sources, solar water heating and a green roof – topped with perennial plants – offering a natural habitat for birds and other wildlife.

De Montfort University is planning to introduce biomass boilers – which run on renewable fuels – in its new buildings, and is using new types of glass and solar control film to make its buildings more energy-efficient. This September, Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University will move to a new £70m state-of-the-art green building. The new-look business school has been built using 95 per cent recycled materials from an old cinema. It has a floor-to-ceiling central light well that allows natural light to penetrate the middle of the building (reducing the need for artificial light, which will be supplied via an intelligent lighting system that shuts down when not required), and rainwater is collected in underground tanks to flush toilets.

Green travel plans are also much in favour across the HE sector. Northumbria University, for example, is implementing the provision of 160 secure bike places, with showers on site for perspiring pedallers. Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) has had a green travel plan in place for a few years, working alongside its Oxford Road Corridor partners – the University of Manchester and the Royal Northern College of Music – on initiatives such as car sharing, bus-route planning and cycle facilities. Now MMU is planning to go further, as it invests £250m on its estate over the next five years and consolidates from seven to three campuses.

This consolidation will impact surrounding communities and, says director of services Mary Heaney, the university is keen to make sure that impact is as positive and green as possible. The university is mapping the location of all its staff and providing them with travel alternatives, incentivising the greenest options; those who car share, for example, will be more likely to be allocated a parking space.

“We’re also looking at flexible working arrangements to avoid congestion and we’re going to introduce video-conferencing so that we can reduce intra-site travel,” says Heaney.

Universities have one advantage over other organisations: they can draw on in-house research and expertise to optimise their green policies. London South Bank University’s (LSBU) Borough Road building can boast Sunmount, a solar-panel energy system aerodynamically designed to withstand winds up to 112mph and developed by an LSBU spin-out company called Solion.

Academics also help shape government policy and develop green technologies, reducing the need to convince university staff. Our universities may be a long way from being carbon neutral, but they’re going about it the right way.