A systems-thinking approach to developing education at University of Birmingham. By Chris Bouch and Matt Beveridge

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This blog describes research involving the University’s Hospitality and Accommodation Services and Birmingham researchers from the EPSRC-funded iBUILD project, into a process aimed at satisfying students desire to live sustainably on campus, while at the same time capturing as wide a range of value for all stakeholders as possible.

Looking back through The Big Conversation’s most recent blogs, it is interesting to see the wide range of perspectives that authors have adopted.  One thing that comes through clearly in many of the blogs, however, is the need to listen to students and build their needs into an approach to education that delivers both for them and for the University.  This is something that Birmingham University’s Hospitality and Accommodation Services (HAS) has been working on over the past year or so with regard to sustainability.

HAS looks after student accommodation, among other things.  Naturally, HAS surveys students who stay with them, to find how accommodation services can be developed to meet emerging aspirations.  Feedback in 2015 indicated the need for closer attention to sustainability aspects of campus life.  HAS responded with the ‘Green Community’ initiative, which was launched in autumn 2016.  The Green Community is currently based on the Centre Court hall of residence; it offers a unique living arrangement for those undergraduates who have the desire to learn about sustainability and the enthusiasm to live in a way that supports the environment.  Students who choose the Green Community are given the opportunity to develop their own ideas for initiatives and activities that promote a sustainable lifestyle.

The Green Community has been a great success from the word go; however, as currently configured, its reach is quite narrow.  HAS now wants to roll the initiative out more widely across campus, but this will need greater clarity about what new value will be captured.  A systems-thinking approach is required: one that identifies the interfaces the Green Community has, or could have, with the University’s operations as a whole, and explores the extent to which each interface offers an opportunity for value capture.  Researchers on the iBUILD project have been applying systems-thinking to explore development of alternative business models for local infrastructure.  They are now working with HAS to apply the approach to development of the Green Community initiative

Early results from the research indicate a plexus of issues with the potential to generate value.  Examples include opportunities to feature sustainability more strongly in taught courses; and opportunities to build the campus curriculum, linking taught courses with initiatives the University is pursuing on issues such as transport, catering and waste management, in the delivery of its environmental policy.  A series of focus groups are due to take place over the next few weeks, involving students, academics, University facilities managers and the University’s suppliers, to explore these links in more detail and identify the value attached to each.  Further work will be required to create the Green Community ‘business models’ that will spell out how value is actually to be captured.

The process is not just for the Green Community; it could be usefully applied more widely on campus to maximise value capture through the integration of formal, informal and campus curricula with student aspirations and implementation of the University’s environmental policy.

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