Throughout history, significant change has taken strong leadership. We will see somewhere in the region of 120 world leaders in Glasgow next month for the COP26 climate change conference, and that will occupy the front pages for its duration.

However, it’s clear that the scale of action needed in the face of catastrophic climate change requires strong collective leadership at every level. Where better to begin than education to relay the message of how urgently our behaviours need to change.

With that in mind, Scotland’s colleges are providing leadership on a strong collective front. Not only do they need to be the messengers, but they also need to pay attention to the message, with shifts in their own working models and practices.

Many colleges in Scotland have been working on this steadily. Following the Paris agreement at COP21 in 2015, colleges have been making good progress in reducing carbon emissions. In fact, since reporting began in 2015/16. The sector has achieved an overall 35% reduction in emissions. This is better progress than the whole of the public sector, which has reduced by 28% over the same period.

Clearly 35% is impressive but there is work to be done towards achieving the Scottish Government reporting expectations, and the sector’s own statement of commitment, to achieve Net Zero climate emissions by 2045 or earlier.

Bringing together the current thinking and setting out a joint agenda, College Development Network’s Climate Emergency Expert Group hosted the inaugural College Climate Change Conference, earlier this month.

Held online with representatives of the college expert group and partners, it gave a strategic overview of the climate change actions that the college sector should be engaged in.

It follows the development of the Scottish Colleges Statement on the Climate Emergency, which lists 10 key actions that colleges have committed to delivering.

“The college sector’s role in this is going to be huge,” says Jim Metcalfe, Chief Executive of College Development Network (CDN). “We have a role to make sure that our own institutions, campuses, and staff and student travel is Net Zero. We have a role to provide the skills to ensure the economy can reform itself to be Net Zero – how we teach and train and develop people. And we have a role in how to influence change in our communities – we are crucial anchor institutions across the country that can influence the way our regional economies can change for the better.”

Skills development is something that is absolutely crucial in the contribution of colleges. The vocational courses that many offer, those that have an impact on our everyday lives will clearly need to change in line with green technologies as well as manufacturing and building practices.

“To achieve Net Zero we’ll need new green jobs, which in turn means we’ll need to ensure we have people with the right skills to take up those jobs,” says Dr Mike Cantlay OBE, Chair of the Scottish Funding Council.

Providing an idea of scale, at the conference he pointed out that one change, the shift to electric vehicles, will require 65,000 people to be trained or retrained to support the new technology.

“That means we have huge reskilling and upskilling tasks ahead of us. Through initiatives such as the National Transition Training Fund, colleges are already providing great opportunities for reskilling and upskilling – and these examples demonstrate the responsive-ness and agility of the college sector. But our success will rely on our ability to inspire future learners to consider these new career options, and I commend the work of colleges in this crucial task.”

It's clear that colleges are playing a crucial part in our rapidly changing landscape and as Angela Cox, Principal and CEO of Borders College, explained at the conference, colleges, perhaps more than ever are acting as catalysts of change.

Also a lead Principal on the Climate Emergency within the College Principals Group, Angela Cox details some of the changes happening at Borders College.

“All students at Borders college will complete a carbon literacy module at the start of their programme but this is only a small part of their development,” she explains. “However, that needs to be brought to life in their subject learning. A small but good example is a project with Borders’ hairdressing students looking at the choice of dye products – synthetic versus organic and what happens when the waste product including peroxide is rinsed and flows into the water system.”

Angela Cox points to projects that are initiated by students, and through creating employer partnerships are also powerful catalysts for change. An example is a former Borders College plumbing student who invented a device to stop water leaks immediately while the fault was found. His company Kibosh now operates globally.

She says, “We are also sharing our carbon literacy module with our schools and housing associations and supporting the delivery through a train the trainer approach. Over time this means that students progressing to the college already have the basics and our projects become more innovative and collaborative through our community partnerships.

Angela Cox adds, “Colleges are in a unique and privileged position to take a leading role in achieving Net Zero. We have the power to influence the behaviours and values of our students, staff and communities. I am proud that Borders College is seizing the opportunity to help secure a sustainable future for the Scottish Borders and beyond.

College staff and students have spent a considerable amount of time creating this new culture for colleges, where the consideration of climate impact isn’t a tick box but goes to the heart of everything they do.

In November 2018 Dundee and Angus College was invited to take part in the pilot of the College Learning for Sustainability Champions course, run by EAUC and Learning for Sustainability Scotland.

Christine Calder, Academic Development Lead at the College explained at the conference how important it was for Dundee and Angus to be involved.

“One lecturer from each of our 19 curricular departments attended the course. This gave us a real opportunity to know who a friend of sustainability was in each department. 19 lecturers, working with an average of 16 students. That’s 304 people directly affected. Then if we add in the conversations that have happened in those students’ homes and with friends or the conversations that the lecturers had within their departments let alone their friends and families as well as students in other classes. That’s the ripple effect.”

Dr Katie Paget, Science Lecturer and Learning and Teaching Skills Mentor at Dundee and Angus College was one of the lecturers who was part of the pilot for the science team. She says, “In many ways the pandemic has brought the themes within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the limelight, and this gives us a powerful opportunity.

“This academic year we have embedded the SDGs into our Lecturer Professionalism Pathway. Within the course lecturers can reflect on, and share ways that they can embed such themes within their teaching and have the opportunity to try out ideas in a supportive environment.

“Our hope is that by weaving these into our curriculum with new lecturers during their early career, linking SDGs in their classrooms can become a foundation within their teaching, and not an extra.”

It's clear that the sector has put time and effort into creating a climate change strategy with clear goals and is working with a greater shared purpose than ever before.

“The sector is now focused on operationalising those actions and achieving against that statement of commitment, on campuses and in teaching across the country as a sector,” adds Jim Metcalfe, Chief Executive of CDN. “I’m hopeful and aspirational about this agenda.” ____________________________________________________________________

Roadmap outlines path towards Net Zero future

The National:

WORKING towards the same ends takes collective knowledge and purpose. To that end a Climate Action Roadmap for colleges has been developed by the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education, to support colleges at all stages of their progress towards Net Zero.

The roadmap was developed closely with college leaders, students, and partners to ensure that it was relevant to every college, no matter what stage it has
reached on its sustainability journey.

It’s a tool that can be a useful gap analysis, to show where you are doing well, but identify where improvements are required. The roadmap also factors in cost and time commitments for each action, which helps in that planning.

It covers all areas of the college, so you look at distinct areas in detail, such as leadership and governance, teaching and learning, estates and partnerships, and engagement.

The Climate Action Roadmap illustrates clearly what an emerging college could look like. It helps colleges to tailor actions to match strategy. This is seen as an opportunity, in advance of COP26 to show how Scottish colleges are leading the way on climate change.

From the date that every college commits to the roadmap, it has a full year to develop targets and show how those will be implemented.

The National:

Workshops to develop the roadmap were carried out in June, attended by staff, and partners of Scotland’s colleges. Billy Currie, Head of Corporate Services at Dumfries & Galloway College attended those workshops and says he could identify benefits for reviewing climate change plans immediately.

Some colleges across the sector have been working in this area this since 2015. Billy believes that one of the roadmap’s great strengths is its flexibility, where it can strengthen and consolidate the work that has already been done.

At the College Climate Change Conference he explained, “At Dumfries & Galloway we carried out something of a progress review. We have used the Colleges get to work on key climate actions roadmap to reflect on our previous climate change action plan, to see where we could identify successes.

“We could identify elements such as using renewable technologies in new builds, looking at our electric fleet vehicles, and identifying partners for our student transport. We also have an established waste network with zero waste goals for going to landfill.”

Billy Currie adds that an area that they could strengthen was governance. “We had already taken steps at Dumfries & Galloway in terms of setting our targets and annual reporting, both to the board and the cross-college Climate Action Group.

“By using the roadmap we were able to declare a climate emergency, signed by the Principal, the Board Chair, and the Students’ Association President. “The declaration document commits the college to taking continued action on climate change matters. “Climate change is now embedded into our systems and infrastructure strategies. We also have key performance indicators measuring what we’re doing year on year – these are monitored by the Board, senior leadership and the climate action group.”

Billy Currie adds that working on awareness among staff and students, particularly in subject areas, is crucial to achieving the sustainable development goals.

“Climate change action is embedded at Dumfries & Galloway College, and we now have a revised plan, which is more focused because of the roadmap. As well as identifying the key areas where we need to make changes, we can look at not only the college itself but how we fit in to the wider plan, regionally and nationally.”