Chris Willmore is a senior academic fellow at the University of Bristol, and has been closely involved with the Students’ Green Fund project at the University of Bristol Students’ Union.
Recently, she has received some funding from HEFCE to develop sustainability work as part of Bristol’s status as Green Capital of Europe 2015 – and she has chosen to continue to fund the staff support for sustainability at the students’ union.
We spoke to her about why she wanted to support the work of Students’ Green Fund and student-led sustainability in Bristol
Why, as an academic, have you been so involved in expanding the sustainability work at Bristol?
I'm a lawyer by background, and have always focused upon the way law tackles (mainly environmental) sustainability, and then taught environmental law and sustainability for twenty years. This helped shape my belief that sustainability literacy develops key skills of a university education.
It helps create evidence centred decision makers – people who use evidence to take decisions; develops adaptive capacity and living with uncertainty and strengthens change agent skills.
Sustainability encompasses the key challenges we face socially, culturally and environmentally. So for me the question is the other way around: how could I be involved in education and not be concerned with sustainability literacy as a key part of equipping students to create our future?
You recently used some of your funding to support staff capacity for sustainability at the SU. Why did you want the union’s support on this? Can’t the institution do it alone?
It shouldn't do it alone. Education is a partnership.
Students see things in a different way from people my age. We need to work together to devise approaches to learning which meet future needs and that means working in partnership.
Working with the students’ union was a positive deliberate choice that we wanted to do it together.
Why do you think HEFCE gave you £250,000 to develop the Green Capital project? What will you be trying to achieve?
Students do amazing things, already but I think the attraction of the project was the idea of testing out what students could do on a big canvass. This is two universities, two unions and a whole city working together.
10% of Bristol population are students at one of the two universities involved, so the question was: what impact can all these students have upon the city they live in as change agents working with local communities and businesses? The potential is enormous, so we're acting as a test bed for different ways of engaging students and the city.
The aim is to get data to help other students’ unions and universities wanting to mobilise to help create inclusive sustainable cities.
What do you think other academics around the UK could be doing to promote sustainability in partnership with their students’ union? And why should they care?
The learning experience at university isn't just the formal curriculum. Students learn as much from the place and what they do in their spare time as they do from formal study (shocked as many academics would be).
So if we want to help the student learning experience, academics have to be interested in all the things that shape student learning at university. That means everyone has to work together - academics thinking about what their discipline brings to sustainability and their curriculum; the estate has to be designed to enable us to live more sustainably, and students have to have opportunities to explore sustainability in their informal curriculum - clubs and societies.
Students’ unions enable us to reach people we might not otherwise reach. There are loads of ways in which people start to engage with sustainability, so we need a rich mix of opportunities. There is a risk this might just looks chaotic, so we have to work together to build a coherent set of opportunities and messages.
Our graduates are the biggest impact a university has on the planet. So why wouldn't we all want to work together to skill our students to tread more lightly on the planet?