A path to a more sustainable future in higher education

Extreme heat, flooding and wildfires are all impacts of climate change that people are experiencing. Without action, our planet will warm to unsustainable levels – which means more food shortages, severe weather events and health risks.

GUS Canada institution, University Canada West (UCW), understands the importance of sustainability to the future of our planet and is committed to creating a green footprint for the environmental stewardship of its campuses. UCW is not only committed to teaching sustainability but also to modelling it through actions.

While higher education institutions and businesses alike are working towards becoming more sustainable, nobody quite has it figured out entirely, but what can institutions do to become more sustainable?

In 2020, GUS Canada partnered with Delphi Group – which provides strategic consulting services and innovative solutions to corporations and public sector organizations – to find some answers on what our institutional brands are doing and what others can do in the fight for a greener planet.

Sustainability is the ability to exist and develop without depleting natural resources for the future. The United Nations (UN) defined it as meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.

Sustainability refers to integrating environmental health, social equity and economic vitality to create thriving, healthy, diverse and resilient communities. Sustainability is a concept that has three main pillars: environmental, economic and social.

In 2015 the UN adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is increasing pressure to meet these goals and targets at global and national levels (in both the private and public sectors). The 17 goals serve as an international guide for the UN initiative, Agenda 2030. They are the cornerstone of all sustainability-related frameworks.

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, said in a statement, “the Sustainable Development Goals are a path forward for Canada and the world that leaves no one behind. As co-chair of the SDG Advocates group, I look forward to rallying countries, governments, the private sector and others, to come together to accelerate our progress and continue to raise our voices – and our ambition – on the way to 2030.”

Education plays a crucial role in sustainable development, with Quality Education being goal four of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Higher education institutions will play a vital role in supporting countries in fomenting leadership in sustainability, contributing to learning for education and providing a foundation for improving lives.

Agenda 2030 is an opportunity for universities and colleges to lead research, build leaders, increase access to quality education and build a better tomorrow. As of 2021, 38% of Canadian institutions include the UN’s SDGs in their strategies.

Now that we understand sustainability let’s consider why it is essential and discuss opportunities for higher education institutions to get involved.

According to Delphi Group, “A sustainable university is an educational institution that educates global citizens for sustainable development, offers relevant insights on urgent societal challenges and reduces the environmental and societal footprints of its campus operations, empowers students and staff to act, makes sustainability a central priority.”

From January 1 to December 31, 2020, Delphi Group conducted a report of all emissions from all GUS Canada institutions, including both University Canada West campuses, Toronto School of Management, Canadian College of Technology and Business and Trebas Institute campuses to help get a better understanding of what can be done to combat climate change.

The collected emission sources included emissions from natural gas combustions at GUS Canada’s facilities and grid electricity consumption. They found that GUS Canada institutions used a total of 637 tonnes CO­2e which is approximately equivalent to the yearly average emissions of 147 households in Canada, which are considered to be low for educational institutions.

A GUS Canada Sustainability Survey at GUS Canada institutions gathered responses from 523 participants, including students, staff and faculty.

  • Almost 80% of participants believe that sustainability should be a priority for GUS Canada.
  • 60% of students believe sustainability is relevant to their degree, future jobs and current activities.
  • Respondents believe that GUS Canada brands can have the most significant impact on diversity, equity and inclusion projects.
  • Respondents also believe the second most crucial priority area is facilities and green buildings.
  • The overall consensus was that having sustainability visible to all should be the primary focus for higher education institutions.

Delphi Group provided short to long-term actions that all HEIs can take to become more sustainable.

Short-term actions:

  • Assigning a Sustainability Lead.
  • Assigning the Sustainability Taskforce as a permanent group to assist the Sustainability Lead.
  • Mapping existing projects and initiatives and showing how they fit with your Sustainability Framework.
  • Implementing a presentation series with each brand’s marketing and communication team to showcase the Sustainability Framework.
  • Promoting a meeting with the leadership team to present the results and understand your strategies and expectations.

Medium-term actions:

  • Defining a strategy and roadmap for sustainability.
  • Programming sustainability seminars or workshops throughout campuses.
  • Engaging students, faculty and staff to design a student induction and faculty and staff onboarding program highlighting sustainable actions on-site.
  • Creating “green days.”

Long-term actions:

  • Identifying areas and activities in sustainability where you can be a leader and excel.
  • Researching how they can adapt these areas of excellence into innovative programs or micro-credentials.
  • Engaging a carbon offset company to provide offsetting solutions for your institution.
  • As part of the community engagement process, your institution should participate in sustainability projects, such as reforestation programs and engage agents, partners and international students in their countries that can be integrated as leaders of the projects.
  • Writing and implementing a green procurement strategy.
  • Engaging your building management/leasing companies to coordinate sustainability initiatives.

GUS Canada has created a Sustainability Taskforce composed of several people from its schools and has implemented some initiatives for its institutions.

UCW has an ongoing integration of sustainability throughout its academic offerings and is a leading example of what sustainability initiatives GUS Canada has taken. Currently, UCW offers two types of sustainability education; course content within degree programs and a micro-credential in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

UCW’s recent construction of the Vancouver House Campus in 2020 includes various sustainability features. The building is pursuing a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification from the Canada Green Building Council.

In 2021, UCW became a member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

Meghan Fay Zahniser, AASHE Executive Director, said, “AASHE counts on the support of progressive institutions like University Canada West to fulfill its mission to inspire and catalyze higher education to lead the global sustainability transformation.”

Environmental activism is no longer a radical effort but a mainstream focus for students, faculty and the general public. Regarding protecting the planet, technology can be part of the solution – and part of the problem.

With the right choices, university and college leaders can put their institutions on the right path to greater sustainability in higher education.

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