A sustainable future for higher education is essential, but how? HERSC members discuss


The Higher Education and Research Standing Committee (HERSC) of ETUCE member organisations met on the 1-2 March 2021 to discuss the future of the higher education sector. Participants focused on the role of social dialogue in higher education, the climate emergency, and the reality of university and business cooperation.

In order to cope with challenges of the future, strong social dialogue in higher education institutes is key. The meeting provided education trade unions with an opportunity to discuss social dialogue for improving the working conditions of academics and quality education. For meaningful social dialogue in place there needs to be sufficient trust between social partners, the capacity to organise, and an extension of the bargaining agenda. In relation to the new Social Dialogue Work Programme 2022-2023 the participants agreed that social dialogue should be used to promote and guarantee sustainable practices and ensure fair working conditions. Social dialogue is essential in combatting the climate crisis.

Representatives of the European Students Union initiated a debate on how teachers and students could work together at institutional level by fighting for the decarbonisation of higher education institutions, at national level by fighting for the inclusion of sustainability in quality assurance, and at European level by reforming the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). National examples were also given by education trade unions on their work in climate change, including that of UCU. After the presentations there was a discussion on the climate emergency, where HERSC members highlighted the negative impact “greenwashing” is having in higher education institutions and the need for a just transition towards increased green employment. Examples of actions taken by education trade unions in their promotion of sustainable practices include providing training seminars for their members, establishing committees for environment within their organisations, and linking the climate emergency to collective agreements to improve the working conditions of academics.

The members agreed that sustainability is not only related to climate. Sustainable funding is essential in order to maintain quality learning, teaching, and research in the higher education sector. HERSC members learnt how rather than calling for increased sustainable funding, upcoming EU initiatives are promoting project-based funding and the increased involvement of businesses in universities. Participants addressed the positives and potential downfalls of university-business partnerships within their own national contexts. Overall, the consensus was that education trade unions are not opposed to such alliances but they are concerned how these partnerships were implemented and function in real terms. The views of the higher education and research trade unions is that businesses should not be involved in curricula design, public research should not be a subcontractor to private companies, and the involvement of the companies in higher education and research should not impact academics’ fundamental values such as academic freedom and integrity. Potential pitfalls were also suggested, such as if the organisation funding the research does not support these standards.

HERSC members also joined the international community in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and sent out a message of support to colleagues in Ukraine and all those standing up for peace.