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How can statistics support the education sector in its aim to cut carbon emissions?

The scientific consensus is stark: "Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems." The UK government accepts this, and states that "If we take action to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, there’s a good chance that we can limit average global temperature rises to 2˚C above pre-industrial levels." Universities are critical to tackling the climate emergency, and many of them have already made commitments to take further action. Aspirations are useful, but how are concrete actions recorded, and how is progress tracked?

The environment, like education, is a devolved matter, and progress on reporting differs across the country. HESA already collects UK-wide data on the HE sector’s environmental performance in its Estates Management record (EMR). This dataset includes comprehensive data on emissions from energy generation and use, and some indirect emissions, too. It also contains a variety of essential information about the Higher Education physical estate. While the collection specification is fairly comprehensive, we don’t manage to collect complete data. Arguably the vast size of the EMR creates complex reporting burdens, with limited associated benefits.  Returning the EMR is optional for most HE providers, and the subscription packages, costs and staff time involved are barriers for some. As a result, we are missing data from all FE colleges, many other smaller providers, and a few larger ones too. HESA’s statisticians are motivated to use their professional role to help our sector address the defining challenge of our age. What can be done to improve the reporting tool and fill these data gaps?

Practical progress is already being made through a number of projects. The first is a piece of work being undertaken by sector sustainability leaders the EAUC. They are defining a standardised carbon emissions reporting framework for tertiary education. This meets a target the sector has set to agree a common framework for emissions reporting covering the whole business of providing HE. We encourage responses to their consultation, which remains open until Friday 21 October. See EAUC’s website for details of the proposals and to share your views.

The second important piece of work has been undertaken by the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE). Through consultation with their members they have suggested a lean dataset of core information that they require about university estates, a subset of the EMR’s most important variables. AUDE has also indicated alignment with the EAUC’s work on carbon emissions. This work provides greater focus on the most important concepts of interest to a key user group – the professionals who manage the vast HE estate. While data on staff and student headcounts and finances are available in other HESA datasets, AUDE’s list of variables comprise the most important facts about the physical estate.

The third important development is that a range of sector organisations are co-ordinating and meeting regularly to identify ways to improve sector emissions data. HESA’s contribution has been to evaluate the impact of the emerging proposals on the EMR. We have undertaken analysis to identify an approach to data collection that could result in a leaner estates and environment dataset. We want to remove the barriers that currently result in gaps in our data, and to drive up the quality of the information we produce, and we’re currently assessing options to do just that. We are currently looking at what needs to be done to improve our collection instruments and user support. We are also looking closely at the business model that supports the EMR, as it is not sustainable in its present form. Expect more from us as we develop our thinking on how we will take up the challenge.

We are also considering how we should improve our outputs. What data analysis would support better understanding of the challenges faced and the contributions made by the sector in the race to Net Zero? Previously HESA has published part of the EMR as Open Data, without analysis. We’re now keen to explore what sorts of statistical products would be of value to our users in future. Would a regular statistical bulletin be helpful? What insights should it offer users? Let us know what would be most helpful in your role by emailing [email protected] 

Dan Cook

Dan Cook

Deputy Director, Data & Innovation