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Reconnecting the civic university with the climate agenda: thinking globally acting locally


As someone who has spent the last decade leading a research programme encouraging partnerships between universities and communities, I very much welcome the publication of the new Civic University Commission report from the UPP Foundation. There is much in here to applaud: the call for strategic commitment by universities to civic engagement; the demand for a new approach to adult education and widening participation; and the need for sustained national funding for civic collaborations. But it is hard to avoid the fact that there is a glaring blind spot in a report that claims to be making a case about the future of universities. Namely, there is no reference to climate change. This is surprising given the significant and far-reaching implications of a changing climate not only for universities but for the communities in which they are based. For a report on the civic role of the university not to engage with climate change – when issues such as Artificial Intelligence, ageing populations and the ‘Asian Century’ are prominent – is a significant omission.

This gap in the report matters. It matters because it overlooks the significant positive impact that universities could make, working with their partners, to prevent and adapt to a changing climate. It matters because it underestimates the significant negative impacts that are already being felt by communities and cities as a result of disruptive weather events. It matters because it ignores the huge intellectual, social and practical innovation needed to allow our towns, cities and rural communities to live well with a lively planet, a civilizational shift in which universities should play a lively and creative role. Finally, it matters because young people and students across the UK as well as the rest of the world are looking to universities to provide them with an education that recognises the reality and the consequences of climate change.

The concerns of the authors of the report are clearly oriented toward the role of universities in softening the blows of past and future economic and technological changes. This is important. But even if this were the primary goal of the civic university, couching discussion of labour market futures primarily in terms of the fourth industrial revolution is on shaky environmental ground. The huge and currently unsustainable energy costs of artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example, suggest that the shift towards a brave new techno-enhanced future might be somewhat more dependent upon boring matters such as planetary sustainability than even the most ardent Prime Ministerial advisor in search of wacky ideas might imagine.

The entanglement of economy and environment, after all, is something the Stern report pointed out 14 years ago. If one of the agendas of the Civic University report is to rebalance the attention of universities towards the radical economic inequalities at play in their communities, then climate change and its impacts have to play a role in these calculations. Moreover, at a time when the UN Sustainable Development Goals (however flawed) are increasingly making their way into local government decision-making; at a time when many cities and towns are themselves taking the lead in setting ambitious carbon reduction goals, this absence in the report is hard to explain. It ignores what is already a defining challenge for many of the cities and communities in which universities are based.

There is, moreover, a clear opportunity to align the civic university and climate change agendas. Not least because civic collaboration of the sort envisaged by this excellent report works best not when it is a vague hand-waving memorandum-of-understanding type endeavour, but when people from different organisations come together to roll their sleeves up, learn from each other and figure out how to work on a shared matter of concern. And working out how to prevent and adapt to climate change is the mother of all shared concerns.

There are at least four clear areas for potential alignment:

  1. Climate change provides a creative motivation for research and education collaborations between universities and communities. Let’s look at what is happening in the city where I am currently working in Sweden. Here in Uppsala, universities, city leaders and business leaders have begun working together to actively reduce their carbon emissions 14% year on year. This sort of hugely ambitious challenge – far greater and faster than anything in the UK at present – brings significant educational and research opportunities from practical partnerships with the community. Elsewhere, in universities and cities in the UK with a similar shared agenda, as in Bristol, we see researchers, business leaders and community leaders coming together to begin to work out what it means to create cities that are carbon positive, create employment and provide housing and energy for everyone.
  2. A changing climate provides a powerful rationale for investing in adult education. Taking climate change seriously also aligns closely with the report’s calls to reinvigorate adult education. Any serious attempt to reconfigure the UK’s energy and infrastructure systems in lines with the Paris agreement, will involve significant shifts in employment. Adults in carbon intensive employment will need to be supported to develop new skills. The university system will need to adapt, welcoming older adults, supporting them to rapidly learn and innovate. Any Green New Deal requires Green New Universities able to respond to the interests and needs of older adults. Irrespective of Brexit, universities seeking to remain part of the European Research Area will need to engage with the challenge of green skills and innovation.
  3. A changing climate brings an urgent demand to re-localise education. Understanding that a changing climate is the condition in which we are now living also has implications for the trend that has seen some British universities detach themselves from the cities that first funded them in order to become finishing schools for wealthy international students. The sort of international travel habits encouraged by this trend (one student I recently spoke to told me of the nine transatlantic flights every year that she and her West Coast American boyfriend take to see each other) is unlikely to be compatible with any university or city seeking to reduce its emissions. In an era in which international travel becomes an increasingly unacceptable choice both for increasingly carbon literate younger age groups and for city leaders with an eye on their carbon budget, understanding what replaces international students will become an increasingly compelling concern for university leaders – a re-localisation that fundamentally connects with a renewed civic role.
  4. A changing climate demands that universities recognise their material and economic role in the local community. Understanding universities as anchor organisations in their communities, as this report recommends, means paying attention to how university money flows, where it flows, who benefits, what is invested in, how buildings are built and how land is used. Universities with landholdings, with investments in student accommodation, with thousands of staff and students everyday moving into and around the city, have the potential to make a major contribution to both preventing and adapting to climate change. Thinking through climate change therefore, only strengthens the commitment to local economies, cultures and communities. It encourages a respectful and careful stewardship of land and resources and of the people in those communities.

Taking climate change seriously, in other words, is not something that detracts from the civic role of the university, it brings a much-needed focus and purpose to this agenda.

Thinking globally, acting locally is an old slogan from the environmental movement but it is one that also captures the essence of a civic university. These two movements for change – the civic university and the university of the climate emergency – need urgently to align to create the universities we actually need today.
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This blog post was written by Cabot Institute member Professor Keri Facer. Professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol and Zennström Professor in Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University. The blog has been reposted with kind permission from HEPI. View the original blog.
Keri Facer

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