Project Description


Opportunities for a Greener Academia
A European example: the European University Institute in Florence (WWW.EUI.EU)

The European University Institute is a unique international centre for doctorate and post-doctorate studies and research. The core activities of the Institute are based on the work of four Academic departments (Economics, History and Civilization, Law, and Political and Social Sciences); two Research Centres (Robert Schuman Centre for advanced studies and Max Weber Programme for post-doctoral studies); the new School of Transnational Governance; the Historical Archives of the European Union; and, last but not least, workshops. All the academic activities (seminars, lectures, workshops…) are carried out with the support of administrative services.

With  the Covid-19 crisis, the restrictions and limitations imposed by the ongoing lockdowns and relevant preventive measures have little by little tested the resilience of our entire community (researchers, professors, staff).  Everyone has had to adapt quickly to a “new normal”: the need to work, teach, and learn remotely.

Community feelings, in this respect, were and continue to vary. It is clear that the unforeseen and unavoidable transfer to e-learning platforms and remote learning have sped up a process that had already begun at the EUI in its more advanced research centres. Nevertheless, this transfer was not gradual, and, above all, not planned. Remote teaching (and learning) is often associated with a lack of human interaction,

which is perhaps its greatest drawback. In this respect, hybrid teaching has shown to be an acceptable compromise. Online and face-to-face teaching are combined, with a reduced physical presence in the classroom and an internet-based connection for other students. The result is the creation of a cohesive experience in which half of the class sessions are on-campus while the other half have students working online.

The EUI chose to invest in this new challenge. The institution installed new Zoom rooms (videoconferencing system developed by Zoom integrating hardware and software) across the  Campus and implemented a format exclusively designed for EUI needs (by mixing existing technologies) in all seminar rooms.

A more general reflection, generated by the monitoring of running costs in a situation where the presence on Campus, although limited, was never totally eliminated, made it clear that this could be a wonderful opportunity to increase the sustainability of the Institute and all its activities.

Universities have various options to implement sustainability in their core businesses: among others, Students’ daily routine and life on Campus represents one of the main challenges.

Hybrid teaching implemented in a structural way (by taking advantage of the new technologies developed both at the global level and in-house) has proven to have a relevant impact on the sustainable management of campus life. Several research studies carried out in previous years assume that hybrid teaching leads to a lower energy consumption and production of Carbon Dioxide in online/hybrid campuses, due to the low proportion of students who must be physically present on campus (also known as improved environmental performance). The carbon footprint decreases considerably because of the reduced presence on site, not to mention the positive impact of travel reduction related to faculty and researchers who are no longer obliged to attend lectures and conferences abroad.

The main findings of a 2008 research study, published by Robin Roy, Stephen Potter, and Karen Yarrow in the “International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education”, (related to the Environmental impacts of higher education (HE) courses with campus‐based and distance /open‐learning methods), showed that the reduction in student travel and utilization of the campus site gave the following results:

  • Distance learning HE courses involve 87% less energy and 85% lower CO2emissions compared to full‐time campus‐based courses.
  • Part‐time campus HE courses reduce energy and CO2emissions by 65% and 61%, respectively, compared to full‐time campus courses.

Another interesting and more recent research study[1] investigates the relationship between hybrid classes, where a percentage of classes are online, and transportation-related CO2 emissions at a commuter campus. An increase in hybrid courses resulted in a decrease of student trips to campus and associated CO2 emissions (i.e. an increased percentage of online meetings by 10% caused an average reduction of 5 to 10000 daily kgs of CO2 emissions).

Clearly, transport contributes to local air pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases. As universities move toward more sustainable behaviors, reducing journeys to campus could become a priority for such Institutions.

Of course, hybrid and remote teaching are not perfect, environmentally speaking. There are hidden issues related to an increased use of technology: alas, going digital is not 100% green…Digital devices, like most technologies, also have an environmental impact: devices use electricity and are made of materials such as metals, glass, and plastics. These materials are be mined, manufactured, recycled, and disposed of.

It is easier to assess the impact that flying, travelling, and commuting have on climate change, while we are less likely to evaluate our digital behaviors in the same way. The transition to a greener and more sustainable future, which also includes digital

[1] Modeling the relationship between transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions and hybrid-online courses at a large urban university (SJSU), Matthew Little , Eugene Cordero , International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2014.

technologies as a relevant part of our daily routine, is a complex operation, but Higher Education Institutions should feel morally responsible for commencing the process.

The mission of HE (Higher Education) is to shape individuals to meet societal needs, leading by example: academic institutions with a strong vocation for applied research should always promote the effectiveness of actions aimed at influencing change and fitting the wants and the needs of the future, holistically embedding the concept of sustainability.

That is, the EUI, has no other choice but to embrace the opportunity which came from these  by unexpected, somehow tragic circumstances. The opportunity should not be missed,  to concentrate efforts towards the reshaping of teaching models following an ever-developing (and perhaps changing) model of sustainable impact, getting ready to adapt tools (and behaviours) to more flexible modalities.

Laura Bechi

She is the User Support Coordinator of the Real Estate and Facilities Service at the European University Institute.
Since 2018 she is also in charge of coordinating the Environmental policy of the EUI.
She has been a member of the US-IUE Florence since 2012 and is also a member of the USF Federal Committee.

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