University challenge: How behaviour change can unite staff and students on sustainability

Britain's universities are facing the same carbon conundrum as the entire global economy: how can you achieve meaningful emissions reductions while the market in which you operate continues to grow? Birmingham's Aston University believes it has found the most effective answer: behaviour change.

An increased effort to implement energy efficiency measures across the University’s various departments has ignited a behavioural shift in how both staff and students view ‘sustainability’, according to Aston’s energy, environment and sustainability manager Andrew Bryers.

Speaking to edie ahead of his appearance in a behaviour change-focussed session at edie Live next month, Bryers explained that the introduction of departmental energy use leagues and campus-wide awareness weeks has made sustainability interactive and engaging for staff and students.

“It’s become our corporate responsibility to put sustainability at the heart of everything we introduce,” Bryers said. “We’re doing all we can to raise awareness and get the message out to as many people across the University as we can.”

For Bryers, the holistic awareness of sustainability concepts at the University has been personified through its staff, who are now eager to engage with him on key issues such as energy consumption. He revealed that this behavioural change had been accelerated after receiving exemplary ‘board room buy-in’ provided by Aston’s vice-chancellor, Julia King.

As the Baroness Brown of Cambridge, King – who is due to leave her position at Aston University later this year – has spent eight years as vice-chancellor, playing a key role in introducing a number of sustainability targets across the University. Supported by her role as a member of the Committee on Climate Change, King’s backing of initiatives has catalysed the majority of energy reduction commitments and behaviour change initiatives – a factor that Bryers feels has created “positive” movement at the University.

“The vice-chancellor helps a lot because it gives everyone a chance to question the university on environmental credentials, such as energy use or operational equipment, as they know they have her buy-in as a way to address any of the issues that are raised,” Bryers said. “This is something you won’t see with all universities and businesses, so it’s a really positive aspect to have.”

King helped to set Aston University’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 53% by 2020 against a 2006 baseline. Bryers revealed that the University has slashed emissions by around 28% so far and, although this number is still slightly short of last years incremental target, the 2016 target has been adjusted to compensate.

But for Bryers, King’s contribution goes beyond the setting of carbon targets – she has created a platform that allows him and his three-strong team to introduce sustainability initiatives aimed at driving down energy consumption and ramping up staff involvement.


In recent years, Aston University has introduced monthly Go Green workbooks that are sent to each department, calling for evidence and ideas on how to improve energy across each school. These workbooks are complimented by-monthly electricity tables, displayed in the main foyer on Aston’s campus, ranking each university department’s annual electricity use.

“We have a number of sustainable champions throughout the university who sit on various departments to spread awareness and drive change,” Bryers added. “The public display aims to get departments at the bottom to ask why they are there and what can be done to change it.”

The success of these tables has create a real sense of control within each department, so much so that Bryers plans to devolve energy management to each head of department in the near future.

Sustainable students

While the introduction of a league table has driven the behaviour change for staff, a tweak of tact in the marketing department has helped embed sustainability for the students to get on board with.

The introduction of a new mascot and marketing campaign has made the sustainability drive a visible part of everyday campus life – an aspect Bryers feels is already creating a cultural shift among students.

“We do find that a lot of students are now more aware of the sustainability issues at the University,” Bryers said. “The awareness grows each year, because it gets built into them through our teachings and throughout daily activities. On the other side of the coin, students are here to be educated and if they need to use a vast amount of electricity on research projects then it is justifiable.”

The students’ acceptance to these sustainability teachings was highlighted at the launch of Aston University’s Carbon Week. Attracting around 2,000 second-year students, the Week was dedicated to understanding the challenge of climate change and the requirements of a low-carbon economy.

“We tried to highlight that, at some point in their future, even if the job has nothing to do with sustainability, there will be a sustainable angle and they will need to think about it when they’re at work,” Bryers explained. “Students are beginning to look for sustainable credentials, not just at the university, but also for job prospects. Carbon Week has shown that sustainability is worth taking seriously, and over the years it will show students that sustainability is a huge factor to look out for.”

With the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) recently revealing that the current crop of sustainability professionals – dubbed Generation S – are now beginning to base their employment decisions on environmental performance rather than profit, a number of other universities are looking to follow Aston University raising the importance of low-carbon practices.

University challenge

But Aston – which has already begun work on the next two instalments of Carbon Week – seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

The Environmental Association for Universities & Colleges (EAUC) revealed that sustainability is a strategic priority at just one quarter of UK further education institutions. English Higher Educational Institutions are therefore struggling to reach the 43% emissions reduction pledge set for 2020 – current reductions sit at just 12%. As the number of educational institutions increase, Bryers believes that now is the time for the sector to increase efforts and share best practice.

“Collaboration is worth pursuing,” Bryers concluded. “Information is the main collaboration to use in order to make a change, and if you can share the initiatives that work well for one university, others might have the confidence to take on those ideas and create a change.”


Andrew Bryers at edie Live

Andrew Bryers will be speaking at the Energy Efficiency Theatre at edie Live in May, discussing the engagement and behavioural requirements for promoting sustainability, alongside associates from Global Action Plan and the Energy Institute.

If you manage your company’s energy, sustainability, environmental or corporate responsibility, then two days at edie Live will give you a free pass to all the learning, peer-to-peer networking, innovative suppliers and inspiration you need to drive sustainability through your organisation.

View the full edie Live agenda and register to attend for free here.


Matt Mace

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