The Role of Student Associations in the Push for More Sustainable Universities

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We hear the word ‘sustainability’ countless times a day. Virtually every field of work and research is becoming increasingly interested in sustainability of one kind or another. If you’re a public Canadian organization or institution in 2019, and sustainability is not a core component of your brand, you have officially fallen behind. The relatively recent introduction of environmentalism to the public agenda, coupled with the even more recent public focus on mental health care, has forced our nation’s leading institutions, particularly universities, to embrace and prioritize these new areas of public concern.

Canada’s top universities have added countless academic programs, courses and services in order to ensure they keep up with the rest of the country’s focus on social and environmental sustainability. The University of Toronto, McGill University, and the University of British Columbia have all published official mandates outlining impressive short-term and long-term plans to boost the social, economic and environmental sustainability of their campuses. That being said, many of the goals and targets outlined in these ambitious plans are heavily reliant upon the consistent consultation and coordination of grassroots members of the university community—on-campus clubs, academic departments and the many student-run societies that form the backbone of schools’ undergraduate communities.

For many undergraduate students beginning their post-secondary education, student-run societies are seen as an opportunity to meet like-minded people, get involved in the community, and develop leadership experience that they can carry on to the ‘real world’ following graduation. The societies themselves are also quite impressive; they are student-led organizations responsible for representing the interests of thousands of undergraduates, throwing countless events and offering hundreds of involvement opportunities year-round. However, societies from even some of the country’s largest institutions continue to struggle with their mandates surrounding sustainability.

The problem stems from more than just structural and budgetary restrictions. UBC’s Science Undergraduate Society (SUS), one of the largest societies on campus representing over 8000 students, has struggled to increase levels of student engagement with social and environmental sustainability initiatives. As an organization that is completely run by undergraduate students, it’s not shocking that the university has not yet provided the SUS with a total renovation and environmental retrofit of the its home base, the Adbul Ladha Student Science Centre (ALSSC). But sustainability-focused education, practices and engagement have simply not been prioritized within the SUS in the ways that people might expect from one of UBC’s largest student associations. This speaks to a much larger challenge being faced by the university, and others of its size and reputation; if the school’s relatively small organizations are not required to incorporate sustainability into their core mandate, how will schools meet their grandiose, large-scale goals of reducing emissions 100 percent by 2050?

By establishing a standing mandate that specifically focuses on elements of social and environmental sustainability, undergraduate student societies move themselves, and their schools, closer to the goals that we have set out to achieve as a country. Without a strong and actionable mission focused on environmental and social sustainability, student societies will remain relatively ineffective as drivers of change in on-campus sustainability. This problem is exacerbated by the another key issue that student societies face; the annual rollover of executive team members. With new students taking on leadership roles each year, it is often difficult to ensure that the priorities of one year are carried over to the next. However, the establishment of a formally recognized sustainability mandate would certainly mitigate this problem. Some of the other obstacles standing in the way of student societies improving their engagement with sustainability are budgetary, and largely out of the control of the executives. However, education and the dissemination of information should not be a problem in the age of digital technology that we know and love. The overall lack of socially and environmentally focused education provided to students is hard to overlook. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter make the promotion of sustainability focused events and initiatives as simple as the click of a button—they’ve been used to mobilize mass groups of people over much less (see: making a photo of an egg more popular on Instagram than Kylie Jenner’s most-liked selfie).

Ultimately, it comes down to whether we are willing to do more than just using the word ‘sustainability’ to brand ourselves. Universities can continue to write impressive and somewhat far-fetched reports on their goals of “offering a better life for people and the planet”, but more reports need to be created and used by the grassroots actors, like the SUS and other student societies of its kind, providing them with concrete information on what is being done, and more importantly, what else needs to be done in the future. Students have proven countless times that they have the heart, motivation and ability to drive change where they see fit; perhaps all they need are the tools to do so.

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Hannah Geiser is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs student at the University of British Columbia. With a diverse professional background ranging from Canadian border security to digital marketing and communications, she aims to utilize the intersection between public policy and effective communication strategies to engage with audiences on topics related to global and domestic security.