Adopting a sustainability lens in everything we do – a Q&A with UCEM Vice Chancellor Ashley Wheaton

Posted on: 21 November, 2023

In this interview, UCEM Vice Chancellor Ashley Wheaton explains the inception of Globe and why UCEM is uniquely placed to make a difference on sustainability in the built environment.

As a sector that generates 40% of global CO2 emissions every year, the built environment has a key role to play in addressing our climate emergency.

In response to the challenges facing our sector, UCEM has launched Globe, a framework to drive sustainability through leadership, education and influence. This strategy aims to help the built environment combat its adverse impact on the climate crisis and adopt more sustainable practices.

Learn more: Globe – UCEM’s ambition to create a more sustainable built environment 

To find out more about the inception of Globe and UCEM’s vision to become the centre of excellence for built environment education, we sat down with UCEM Vice Chancellor Ashley Wheaton.

About Ashley

Ashley joined UCEM as Principal in 2013. He has led the institution through a period of prolific growth and significant change, notably through the gaining of the University College title and the securing of full independence.

Ashley holds a BA (Hons) in Economics from the University of London. Whilst at UCEM, he spent six years as a Non-Executive Director of BRE Group, and has previously held senior roles as Director of Global Learning Services for Microsoft and Chief Executive Officer of InfoBasis Ltd, a global Talent Management software company.

This interview was conducted by Nisha Sarki, Marketing Officer at UCEM, and Daniel Ashton, Content Marketing Manager at UCEM.

Q: Tell us about your role at UCEM

A: I’m Principal at UCEM. My role is all about ensuring the institution meets the aspirations of its vision and strategic plan.

“Ensuring that we are fulfilling our mission and purpose is a constant focus.”

My position involves a multitude of things. Firstly, it’s about ensuring that we’re meeting our institutional targets and KPIs, as set in our annual plan. It’s also about making sure we are fulfilling our mission and purpose, which is a constant focus. I also work to ensure that we’re meeting and adhering to the regulatory conditions of being a registered higher education provider. Of course, there’s also the operational management of delivery and finances, and making sure the organisation is successful.

Outside of that, I am involved in a number of external engagements – a lot of my role is about representing UCEM to both the built environment and the higher education sector.

Q: Alongside our vision to become the centre of excellence for education in the built environment, we have aspirations to become the most sustainable university in the world. Why did you choose this? Where did the inspiration for this come from?

A: We made a decision two years ago that sustainability leadership in the built environment was lacking, and that we had an important role to play in leading the sector and higher education in resolving what we all know is a deepening crisis – not just environmentally, but across all dimensions of sustainability.

“It’s very hypocritical to ask others to do things that you’re not prepared to do yourself.”

It’s very hypocritical to ask others to do things that you’re not prepared to do yourself. Our leadership is both of the industries that we are hoping to help and of our own institution and the items that we have within our control. We want our focus to be exemplary and to inspire others to follow suit, and not following our own example could be damaging in terms of our own credibility.

Q: Globe has five different dimensions. Why were they each chosen?

A: The aim of these five dimensions is to represent the total nature of our institution. It’s designed so that we can make discrete plans around what we’re doing in each of the five areas that add up to a much greater whole than the sum of their parts.

What we teach has to be the biggest one, because ultimately our influence over the built environment is most emphatically achieved through sending our students out into the world with the skills, knowledge and motivation to be highly sustainable built environment professionals – regardless of the profession they’ve chosen. That’s where our impact can be most felt.

The way we operate as a business needs to be taken into account because, as I said earlier, how can we have credibility if we don’t take our own medicine? We’re already doing well – the building we work in is a BREEAM excellent building. It’s highly sustainable. Due to the nature of our online proposition, our carbon footprint overall is small. However, it’s important that we avoid any criticism of something that we’re not doing, so the ISO14001 accreditation, for example, is a great endorsement.

The way we teach is more challenging because you have to take a few assumptions into account. You have to assume that online learning and the way students engage with us is more sustainable than a campus-based approach. Intuitively, people would agree, but that doesn’t mean there’s enough evidence. This is something we’re working towards understanding.

Who we influence is an important amendment to our influencing strategy, which we already had in place. We are actively looking at ways in which other organisations, professional bodies, and other industry bodies can be influenced to do more in this regard. Joining forces and collaborating with other institutions, along with influencing where we can through research but also through inclusion, involvements and events like the INSPIRE series is very important.

Leadership and governance is the capstone of all of this – if it doesn’t start from the top, and if it doesn’t have full support from the Board of Trustees, then it will fall apart very quickly. I would also like to see us adopt a sustainability lens and perspective in everything that we do. I don’t see that quite happening yet – it’s coming, but as an organisation, we need to adopt a sustainable approach as quickly as possible, regardless of what we’re doing.

Q: UCEM isn’t the only institution to have launched a sustainability initiative. What makes Globe different?

A: Firstly, we’re probably the sole ‘mono-technical’ institution in the system (after the demise of polytechnic institutions post 1992) – we have a by-design sector focus on what we deliver. And if there’s a sector that needs more help than the built environment, I would be astonished. It’s top of the list. It has more carbon reduction requirements than any other single sector, so that’s the first thing.

“The students that are studying with us get to apply these skills right now. They don’t have to wait until they’ve graduated and then find a job… That’s a unique characteristic of what we’re striving for.”

The second thing is that the reach we have with our students is again completely different to most other institutions. These people are typically practitioners – they’re in work. They’re doing this. This isn’t about creating a funnel or pipeline of people who one day may have an influence – they’re already in it. The students that are studying with us get to apply these skills right now. They don’t have to wait until they’ve graduated and then find a job. That’s a unique characteristic of what we’re striving for.

Then, I would argue that no other institution has a strategy that is as wholistic in nature as ours. I haven’t heard a single person talk about online learning or the way they teach as being sustainable. Understandably, many of them are still deciding which parts of their physical estate to upgrade next, and as such our combined approach is unique in that regard.

Q: Why did we opt for a wholistic approach to sustainability?

A: It comes back to my comment about leadership – we would be unable to lead if our approach had been too narrow. What we’d be doing would be sufficient, we’d be one of the people providing part of the solution. However, I don’t think that works here. The types of solutions that are required here are different around the world.

“My philosophy is bigger is better when it comes to ambition and mission, and particularly given the obvious and urgent needs in this area, why not?”

Some may argue that the scope is too big, and that we could be setting ourselves up to fail, because our ambitions are too grand to be realised. My response to these points would be ‘So what?’

If we have these bigger, long-term aspirations, we’ll make more progress and climb higher and faster than restricting ourselves to only what looks manageable.

I think the bigger you can make it, the better chance you have of achieving it. When Bill Gates said he was going to put a computer on every desk and in every home, it was never going to happen. But so what? He got a long way towards achieving it. My philosophy is bigger is better when it comes to ambition and mission, and, given the obvious and urgent need for action in this area, why not?