On 30 October, the SU held its first ‘Ask Your University’ event of the academic year, asking if our University is sustainable enough.  Students challenged staff on issues such as building and development, curriculum and university strategy and found that the answer seemed to be no we aren’t, but we will be working to combat that.  

As the most popular ‘Ask your university’ event so far,  it’s obvious that students really care about sustainability issues. “It really highlighted to the University how passionate students are about sustainability,” Megan McGrath, the SU Development Officer, remarked. “I think they were probably a bit surprised by how many students came. It made them realise they needed to take action.”

So, almost five months on, what’s changed?

Our University still has a long way to go to improve our sustainability policies and practices. In the recent Green League Table, which takes in to consideration all aspects of sustainability including carbon emissions, consumption, staffing and more, Sheffield was underwhelming. The University ranked 77th for sustainability out of 154 UK universities (a 2:2 grade overall), and of the 24 Russell Group Universities, we ranked 16th.

Improving this will take time, and there has been progress – we are in the process of developing our first sustainability strategy, we have a lovely new Coffee Revs (that was built sustainably) and several successful campaigns relating to sustainability, to start.

The event was a “milestone moment of realisation by University staff of how deeply and widely the student body care about the issue of sustainability” according to Tim Allen, the SU Sustainability Coordinator. The Director of Corporate Communications and Human Resources and the University’s new Professional Services Sustainability Lead, Tracy Wray, said: “It was very encouraging to observe the strength of feeling our students have on sustainability issues first hand at the ‘Ask Your University’ event. This is clearly a real priority for our students and we are determined to translate this enthusiasm into action at the University.”

Naomi Guo, Chair of the SU Sustainability Committee, explained how “face to face dialogue with staff smoothed the way for further interaction and involvement over the semester, bringing people together working to promote real progress”. The ‘Ask Your University’ event had groups address three key topics, discussing the current situation and steps forward. Over the last few months we’ve seen lots of progress on these issues.

Our Strategy

Education is one of the issues expected to be included in the upcoming University Sustainability Strategy, which is currently in development. Why do we need a specific strategy? Sustainability is a big issue, and a strategy will provide long term goals that the University can be held accountable for, past the current rotation of students and staff. Our more sustainable peers, such as the University of Leeds, all have a specific university strategy for sustainable development and practices. The Sustainability Committee has been campaigning and petitioning since last year for the creation of a strategy and appointment of full time staff to develop it.

The University has listened, the University Executive Board has approved the Committee’s proposal for a strategy, although it has been revised to exclude the appointment of any staff for a team. In the next few months, the strategy is being written by a Sustainability Steering Group that includes Megan McGrath to represent the student voice. The other members will be Professor Duncan Cameron and Tracy Wray as academic and professional service leads respectively, and Andy Dodman to represent the UEB. The key areas of focus for the strategy are “Quality Education, Climate Action”, “Sustainable Cities and Communities”, “Responsible Production and Consumption” and “Affordable and Clean Energy “. The Sustainability Operations Group (which includes Megan McGrath and Naomi Guo) will then decide how these targets can be reached and how changed are to be implemented.

The ambitious aim is to have the strategy completed by March. To ensure student involvement, the Sustainability Committee held a workshop this week to consult students and create a advisory manifesto for what students would like to see in the final manifesto, which will be delivered to the steering group by Megan. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities for student consultation when the draft of the strategy has been written.

A key issue raised across all three of the topics at the initial event, and a key priority for the strategy moving forward, is that of transparency and accountability. We as students have a right to know how our university functions, but finding this information can be difficult.  A lack of clarity makes collaboration difficult, and also makes holding those accountable for missed targets much harder. To improve visibility, a small project group has developed the Public Responsibility section of the University website to make it easier to find out what’s going on.

However, how do we hold the University accountable?

Wyn Morgan, the Vice Chancellor for Education, explained at the event that the University Council and UEB hold staff accountable, but as students we don’t see this. Having a strategy with clear public targets should improve this process and allow students to apply pressure on the University more easily. “Due to the quick turnover of students in leadership roles, it is difficult for students to know about long term targets and to make progress over time. Having a sustainability strategy would allow for this, and that’s why it’s so important,” explains Christian Unger. This is a key issue for his group, the Carbon Neutral University Network, and the Sustainability Committee moving forward. He also highlighted how important the student voice is in this process, saying, “Students pay to be at this University, so they should have power in influencing its future.”

From their responses at the event and since, it appears the staff want this too. Josh Barnes agrees: “We really hope the strategy will be informed by student expertise, particularly [those knowledgeable in] sustainability, of which we have many.”

Building up or powering down?

One key issue discussed at the ‘Ask your university’ event was that of sustainable development, specifically buildings and the university carbon targets. The University’s failure to meet their carbon reduction targets was a focus for students. The University is not inline to meet its target of 43% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020, however, and this is partially due to the development of new buildings like the Diamond.

At the event, students asked for more clarity and transparency on the carbon costs of these projects, including a Freedom of Information request for the Diamond plans. The Carbon Neutral University Network (a group made up of postdocs, staff and students) have been working for over four years to find out more about the University’s emissions. This includes the building and maintenance of University properties, new and old. They have made several FOI requests about emissions, and have been involved in public consultations to ensure the University takes student voices into account.

Christian Unger, co-chair of the Network, explained, “We need to present solutions and positive actions as well as campaigning to see change in the University” and the network has proposed several action plans. They are working with the SU and the University to create the strategy, and are hoping that more support from students will help with this.

There is hope for the University’s new developments. The SU’s revamp of Coffee Revolution shows that sustainable building is possible – sustainable products, building materials and low energy lights – and the University should take note.

Coffee Revolution is also further promoting the SU #reusablerevolution campaign, which involves more packaging-free products in Our Shop, and discounts for using your own containers and flasks at several venues. Outgoing SU Development Officer Megan McGrath, who is responsible for this campaign, has also launched the Campus Cup scheme, where you can ‘borrow’ a reusable cup from the University and SU and return it anywhere across campus. Procurement is a significant aspect of the University’s carbon footprint alongside energy use, so sourcing local, sustainable and ethical products is a priority for many students.

Furthermore, students have been involved in the planning of the new Social Sciences building, through meetings with estates and management. The building does have some sustainability attributes, like the inclusion of a ground source heat pump and solar panels, but this is alongside a gas generator. The reasoning for the gas generator is that there is government financial incentive offered to pay for its building, as it’s a more sustainable option than others, and only needs to be in use for seven years before it can be powered down. A target for those involved in the discussion is to ensure that it actually is powered down in seven years, through a written agreement. Having a University-wide sustainability brief for new builds could help prioritise these areas in the future.

We could also look to Sheffield Hallam University as an example, who use sustainability as a key assessment criterion in preliminary choice of plans for new buildings.  

What’s happening now?

Last week the Sustainability Committee held a student consultation to discuss what we would like to see in the strategy. This, along with student views given online, will be used to create a student manifesto to inform the steer group. Ruby Lee, who is leading the Sustainability Committee’s campaign for the development of the strategy explained the goals for the student manifesto. “It needs to be ambitious to test the steering and implementing groups, so we can hold them accountable on short term goals and make changes if necessary.” Hopefully, there will be further consultation and student involvement through this process, and potentially an ‘Ask your university’- style event on the proposed strategy.

There are many groups promoting sustainability and challenging the university and others to do the same, such as: the Wellbeing Cafe, Vegetarian & Vegan Society, Market Society, Engineers Without Borders, Save Our Sandwiches, Beekeepers Society, People & Planet, the Carbon Neutral University Network.

Green Impact and the University Market Society are hosting a No-Waste Market on the 15  March in the SU, with stalls from societies and external vendors.

In March, Green Impact will also be holding their audits, where improvement of sustainability practices made this year by different departments and groups is assessed.  Our new Sister Cities sustainability project hopes to improve sustainability at our University and McMaster University in Canada through information sharing.

What is excellent to see if the number of student groups now working together, aided by the Sustainability Network. For example, UNICEF society + Vegsoc event are holding a joint event later this term.

Want to get involved?

Joining Facebook groups and mailing lists will keep you informed about upcoming events. You can also look on the SU website for a list of all the societies and check out that Activities Zone for ideas. Think about taking on a role in a society or group next year, as most AGMs will be coming up soon, or even starting your own if you have a cause! Get to know the incoming SU Development Officer.

Also, don’t forget about your course reps! Ask them to lobby on your behalf to embed sustainability, and if you can go along with them to their meetings to help defend the issue.

You can have your say on our sustainability strategy by filling out the online consultation form atsurveygizmo.com/s3/4166174/Sustainability-Consultation.

This is a really exciting time for change, our opportunity to shape Sheffield into the sustainable university it should be, one that prepares its graduates for the issues of today and the future.

Together, we can make a difference and promote a more sustainable future in our university, the local community and our broader society. The more students involved in the process the better.

If you have any suggestions for the strategy, or for how students can act to improve sustainability at the University, email Megan (megan.mcgrath@sheffield.ac.uk)

Find out about what the university is doing to improve sustainability practises.

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