Striking the balance: U21 university leaders tackle challenge of balancing sustainability with international goals at meeting hosted by NUS

How can universities strike a balance between advancing their sustainability goals and fulfilling their international objectives, whether it is providing students with travel and study-abroad programmes or expanding global partnerships?

The question of how universities can deliver sustainable outcomes and limit their environmental impact, while pursuing their international aims was at the heart of the Universitas 21 (U21) Senior Leaders’ Meeting hosted by NUS from 18 to 20 October 2023. U21 is a global network of 29 research-intensive universities that focuses on cross-border collaborations and knowledge exchange.

Led by the U21 Provost Professor Jenny Dixon and the network’s management team, the meeting brought together 43 senior university leaders and delegates from 27 member institutions from across the globe, including Fudan University, Universitas Gadjah Mada, University of Sydney, University of Zurich, University of California, Davis and the University of Johannesburg, among others.

Representing NUS at the meeting was Associate Professor Lum Sau Kim, NUS Associate Vice President (Global Relations). Aside from playing host, NUS’ efforts in sustainability along with innovation and enterprise also took the spotlight.

The gathering is the first bi-annual Senior Leaders’ Meeting to happen since the COVID-19 pandemic. “There are two critical issues at this meeting, and it is around how we progress equity, diversity and inclusion from the network point of view and similarly, how we progress the network's position around internationalisation and sustainability, particularly since the network has committed to being climate-conscious in its operations,” Prof Dixon said of the meeting’s significance.

Noting that NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye had also recently concluded a term as Chair of the network, she said: “It's really appropriate to have these conversations at NUS because NUS was a founding member of this network in 1997 and has been a very active and engaged member since then.”

In his speech at the conference dinner on the second day of the meeting, Prof Tan said it was a privilege for NUS to host the gathering this year, as he touched on the two focus areas showcased by the University – its green precinct which hosts the SDE1 and SDE3 buildings, and the NUS Agritech Centre run by NUS Enterprise.

“As part of the fight against climate change, NUS has developed a Campus Sustainability Roadmap 2030 – we are working towards a carbon-neutral, zero-waste and cool NUS, and to create a campus in a tropical rainforest,” said Prof Tan, noting that the green precinct is part of that effort. “Sustainability is a pressing concern that the world is grappling with. We look to the NUS campus as a living lab, where we explore, develop, test and roll out innovations.”

Making the most impact in sustainability

At a workshop conducted by Ms Ailsa Lamont, co-founder of the International Education Sustainability Group which provides the higher education sector with sustainability benchmarking tools and analysis, members deliberated on how the group can deliver on its joint sustainability commitment in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Stressing the need to harness the power of global higher education behind this effort, Ms Lamont cited a 2019 study by Professor Robin Shields – now at the University of Queensland – estimating that between 14 to 39 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions were associated with international student travel in 2014, comparable to the emissions generated by a medium-sized country like Croatia.

Driving home the urgency is the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as floods and wildfires – which have affected campus operations for some members – and recent surveys showing the growing importance of sustainability in informing students’ choices of where and what to study. 

Speaking on her university’s sustainability approach, Dr Lilian Ferrer, Vice President for International Affairs at UC Chile, shared how her university had redefined its student mobility programmes, such as by providing visiting students with a “green guideline” offering useful information on environmentally friendly actions they can take while being in Chile.

Others shared different ways to incorporate sustainability considerations in their operations, such as substituting flights with train rides for regional travel or making it count when travel is needed by ensuring that the journey fulfils more than one purpose.

“It was good to see how various universities in the network are trying to address questions of sustainability,” said Dr Bonny Ibhawoh, Vice Provost of International Affairs at Canada's McMaster University, who participated in the discussions. “One of the important conversations was about prioritisation – that universities may not be able to meet all the targets for all the SDGs and that some universities are prioritising and focusing on the areas where they think they can have the most impact in terms of sustainability,” he added.

Another workshop saw leaders sharing their perspectives on the different diversity, equity and inclusion issues faced by their individual universities, the appropriate benchmarks available to measure their progress, and how members can embed these principles across the network.

“Having the opportunity to come together as a network and explore these areas at a deeper level and to understand what we can do across the network to support thinking and sharing of best practices and insights in these spaces is hugely valuable. I think we all recognise that there is more that we can deliver in partnership in these spaces,” said Ms Rachel Sandison, Deputy Vice Chancellor of External Engagement and Vice Principal of External Relations at the University of Glasgow. 

Wrapping up the meeting were site visits to the NUS Agritech Centre hosted by Professor Chee Yeow Meng, Vice President (Innovation and Enterprise), and a tour of the SDE 1, 3 and 4 buildings by Professor Erik L’Heureux, Dean’s Chair Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture in the College of Design and Engineering (CDE).

At the NUS Enterprise session, Prof Chee spoke about the dynamic ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship NUS has built through its three flagship programmes – the NUS Overseas Colleges, BLOCK71 and the Graduate Research Innovation Programme.

“We are responsible for almost a quarter of all start-ups in Singapore, meaning one of four start-ups in Singapore actually bears the mark of NUS,” he said, explaining that this could be through the founders or key employees trained by NUS, the technology or intellectual property driving it, or the incubation support or investment provided by NUS.

The visit to the Agritech Centre, a sandpit for scientists, entrepreneurs and visionaries to present challenges, experiment, and explore market-based solutions in agriculture, gave the leaders a look at how its state-of-the-art facilities provide an optimised infrastructure and environment for urban farming innovation and production.

They also heard Prof L’Heureux share the transformation story of SDE1 and SDE3 – two 1970s buildings, among the oldest on Kent Ridge Campus, that have been redesigned and retrofitted with the incorporation of net-zero, low-energy green architectural elements. Leveraging the academic expertise of the CDE faculty, the two buildings have been integrated with SDE4 to form Singapore’s first building cluster targeting net-zero energy.

“I'm hoping that the decarbonisation design and technology that embraces the tropical climate configures into a cohesive piece of architecture that communicates important values to the next generation of architects and built environment experts educated here,” Prof L’Heureux told the session, where he also shared his insights on the promises and challenges of net-zero energy and the super low carbon adaptive reuse approach.