David Somervell is one of the longest serving members of staff driving sustainability in higher education, transforming its purpose and reputation within our universities.
Ahead of his retirement after over twenty five years at the University of Edinburgh, we celebrated his incredible contribution to sustainability in higher education with the first ever lifetime achievement Green Impact award, and spoke to him about the relationship between universities, education and social responsibility.
Tell us a bit about your career, and how the sustainability agenda has changed in higher education over the last twenty five years
I was employed in 1989 as one of the first energy managers in the sector. It moved from being something the electrical engineer was asked to do, to recognising that – at Edinburgh – it was a £4 million spend and was worthwhile having a dedicated person.
Then, in the mid-90s we had some clinical waste get into the general waste stream and the City Council came down on us like a ton of bricks. So we got this broadening of the agenda, as we’re starting to look after waste management too. Suddenly we’re on energy, waste and recycling.
A few years later in 2000, the Scotland Transport Act put an onus on anyone who had a new building to have a travel plan, which made us look at transport as well. We were able to get quite a few people out of cars and onto bikes. Finally, in that same year, we adopted the first sustainability policy. That’s where the ‘s’ word first comes in.
How did the role alter since the language shifted from environmentalism to sustainability?
Over the noughties, our academic colleagues thought “Yeah, that’s fine. But you carry on doing that sustainability work over there”. It became very associated with being ‘green’ and tree hugging.
But when you called it ‘social responsibility and sustainability’, they said “Oh! That’s what the university is all about! We’re here to make a contribution to society!”
Now, in our department at Edinburgh, we’ve moved from being environmental police, wagging our fingers, to the idea that inherent in everybody is a wish to do things right, and would prefer to live lightly if they could, if it’s easy for them.
Often, it only just takes being asked. That’s what I’m always struck by. That’s why I always encourage students to just write to their principal, just to ask “why don’t we have this or that?”
How do you see sustainability developing in education over the decades ahead?
There remains this concept that ‘Johnny or Jane is coming to university to get a better paying job’. This marketization, in England particularly, is very undermining of many of the qualities of education. We’re very fortunate in Scotland to hold to the principle of free undergraduate education.
If we’re seen to be money machines, then we’ll just be arm wrestling with the commercial institutions which are degree factories. If we’re to retain that spirit of inquiry, the essential core element of research and sharing knowledge, we need a new relationship with our neighbourhood, and our country, and our virtual stakeholders.
The student experience is vitally important to our reputation. So you have to work out what makes good learning, what makes a good educational experience. In my view, it’s experiential learning, rather than chalk and talk. It’s much more important for people to learn through their gut, as well as through their head. And where better to do that other than the community in which we’re set?
MSc students shouldn’t just go to the library and write something up. Instead they could go on a placement in an organisation, solve a problem for them, and write that up. That could be invaluable for them, and the host organisation.
I sense that we have to go beyond the impact agenda, and move towards how we earn our stripes in society; genuinely contributing, volunteering and solving society’s problems. That’s the biggest challenge. I hope we see the traditional notion of an ivory tower replaced with people seeing us with our sleeves rolled up.
We want our graduates to feel that they aren’t just chasing the dollar. They should feel that they’re actually contributing to society. And we’ve got to provide this opportunity for students – to get this experiential learning, to understand concepts of global citizenship, and learning for sustainability.