The VII Compostela Dialogues in Higher Education bring together international experts to address the impact of the COVID-19 and sustainability in universities.

The University of Minho, host of the XXVI General Assembly of the Compostela Group of Universities, invited last 22 September international experts and academics to participate in the VII Compostela Dialogues in Higher Education, so that they could discuss the impact of the COVID-19 and the implementation of sustainability plans in the university sphere.

The first part of the debates, under the title of Sustainable Universities for a sustainable future, had as its main speaker the former mayor of the American city of Austin (Texas), Will Wynn. In his presentation Austin’s journey towards a carbon-neutral city (by 2050) he detailed how, at the end of his mandate in 2009, he created the Office of Sustainability, which is responsible for supervising and monitoring the results of the plan put in place to achieve this goal in 2050.

Over the last decade, Austin’s population has grown considerably and its gross domestic product has increased in parallel, so during his term of office, he wanted to demonstrate that the commitment to environmental protection and the reduction of greenhouse gases does not harm the economy. In this sense, Wynn pointed out that it is fundamental “to do a good job in communicating the goals and the rationale behind them to your community “. “Make sure it’s not all about the economics of climate protection. Also talk about social equity, healthy and local food systems and ultimately climate resilience and adaptation, as much as protection,” he explained.

Besides, the former mayor noted that “the university and its students are fundamental to the success of Austin”. Of Austin’s one million citizens, nearly 120,000 are college and university students, which in his opinion allows the city’s mayors “to be more aggressive in progressive policies like climate protection”.

Debate on sustainability in universities

Following this presentation, the debate on sustainability in universities was held, in which the universities of Worcester and Vigo shared their experiences and good practices concerning the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on their campuses.

The first to speak was Ross Renton, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Worcester (United Kingdom), who in his presentation developed the plan put in place to integrate the SDGs into its “ethos and values as an institution”. “We see ourselves as being not just a leader here on campus, and our students taking those values out into employment but also being a leader in our civic environment and also in our wider region and nationally”, he said. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that its efforts in the area of sustainability were rewarded in 2019 with a Green Gown Award, an award that recognizes annually the most outstanding initiatives in the area of sustainability in higher education and which has been granted since 2004 by the Alliance for Sustainability and Leadership in Education.

As in the first intervention, Renton stressed that the success of these strategies is based on the promotion of “social inclusion, sustainability and social responsibility. Really having that social value impact as an institution within our community “. He also explained the importance of measuring the impact of the actions to provide quantitative information and a narrative to help the community, staff and students understand the work being done.

Besides, the Pro Vice-Chancellor specified in his presentation that his first significant sustainability policy was defined in 2008 and that subsequently, the board of governors declared a climate emergency, along with other universities in the United Kingdom. He also explained that last month they approved their new sustainability strategy which aligns exactly to the SDGs.

Following that, the Director of the Green Campus Program of the University of Vigo (Spain), José Carlos Souto Otero joined the debate. At the beginning of his presentation, he indicated that this is an international program of the Foundation for Environmental Education, which distinguishes those campuses that stand out for their environmental care and prevention. Thus, all the activities carried out on the campuses that obtained this recognition must be “economically viable, ecologically sustainable and socially controlled”. After following the seven steps detailed in this program to adapt its Pontevedra campus to them and after passing an evaluation process, in the year 2015, they got the “green flag”. About this, he alluded to the “singularity” of this recognition, as it acknowledges “the work of the entire campus, not a single faculty” and “implies a greater effort because it all the community of the university”.

Finally, Souto specified concrete actions developed on the campus, such as the placement of photovoltaic panels on the roofs of two faculties, allowing them to cover the energy needs of the two largest faculties on the campus for several months of the year. The reduction of water consumption by 30%, following an information campaign, and the creation of a university consumer group to promote healthy and sustainable consumption habits.

Debate on the impact of COVID-19 on universities

The second part of the conference was devoted to analysing the impact of COVID-19 on universities and their community. The content of this debate will be incorporated into the publication The impact of the COVID-19 on university education, which will be available in the coming months on the CGU’s website.