Principal Thoughts: Coronavirus – lessons for our planet and an update on UCEM’s position

Posted on: 2020-04-06

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. This month, Ashley reflects on the past month’s activity relating to sustainability and provides an update on how UCEM is mitigating the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

In dark times, small chinks of light shine through.

With the current coronavirus pandemic affecting the planet, there have been some positives to come out of it. Air pollution in London has plummeted (as is likely to be case across the world), certain animal species have benefited from the quieter landscape and countless acts of kindness have been committed to ensure the most vulnerable people in society are cared for at this time.

Sustainable actions of benefit to our warming planet are having to be taken, whether through limiting long-haul flights, allowing our parks and beaches time to breathe or reducing travel full stop.

The main priority, of course, is to save as many people as possible from the deadly effects of this transmitted disease but if the planet can benefit from the situation we find ourselves in currently then there is a great opportunity to emerge from the battle we currently find ourselves in better equipped to face our next challenge – protecting life as we know it.

Sustainability is so important and the subject ‘took over’ our social media channels last month. We are hugely committed to being sustainable and ensuring future generations can survive and thrive for generations to come.

Climate change pledge

The key headline from our sustainability-themed month was the news that we had joined forces with 27 Built Environment professional bodies to pledge working together to tackle climate change. The initiative was drawn up by the Construction Industry Council (CIC) – an organisation which our Director of Research, Innovation and Partnerships, Aled Williams represents as a Champion on Higher Education – and I was delighted to sign the pledge on behalf of UCEM.

A statement was published on behalf of all 28 signatories recognising that the breakdown in global climate and biodiversity is the most serious issue of our time and that the Built Environment is a major contributor. The initiative is symptomatic of the harsher scrutiny Built Environment organisations are placing on themselves and this move cements a huge gear change in how the sector views global warming.

NUS Responsible Futures audit

Before the social distancing measures were brought in by government, we were visited by several of our students and apprentices who carried out a two-day audit assessing our sustainability credentials. The audit was organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) as part of its Responsible Futures initiative. We are currently an NUS Responsible Futures accredited institution following our successful inaugural audit in 2018 and March’s inspection will determine whether we gain reaccreditation.

I was interviewed by the students as part of their key stakeholder meetings and I was hugely impressed by how seriously they all took the audit which demonstrated their commitment to sustainability and how they are keen for UCEM to lead on the issue. It was pleasing to hear that the group was shocked (in a good way!) about what we do here at UCEM to further the sustainability agenda.

Somehow, in-between their packed schedule, two apprentice auditors took part in our latest Digging Deeper podcast on sustainability and another auditor, Ashley White, who is on our Surveying Technician Diploma apprenticeship, wrote a thought-provoking piece on why she became an advocate for sustainability following her travels around the world. Quotes from our student auditors peppered our social media content which was great to see.

Callum Brown's NUS Responsible Futures quote graphic Ese Emefe's NUS Responsible Futures quote graphic Vicki Grimshaw's NUS Responsible Futures quote graphic James Doyle's NUS Responsible Futures quote graphic

The Responsible Futures initiative is a fantastic way of collaborating with students to bring about positive changes in the way we embed sustainability as an educational institution. We feel we do a huge amount at UCEM in being sustainable but the audit is a great way to continue to improve and consider new ideas of doing things. It offers a great opportunity for us to show our students what we are doing which, more often than not, they wouldn’t realise without taking part.

I was a huge believer in the initiative when we took part for the first time in 2018 and still am now, though it’s a shame that the number of institutions taking part hasn’t grown as exponentially as I would have expected by now (something I’m hoping to work with NUS on growing). If the feedback is anything to go by then I fully expect we will be reaccredited with flying colours and remain the only online university in receipt of the quality mark.

We also heard from our Tutors during the month with an introduction to our first tutor with a remit solely focused on sustainability in Brian Quinn, our Associate Tutor, Dr Kevin Waldie, musing on what he has learnt about sustainability from his distinguished career in the international aid sector, and Dr Renuka Thakore reported back from two Conferences: the Sustainable Futures Conference and Dive Deep & Dream Big.

The bigger picture

There are more immediate concerns to be dealing with currently, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. We are having to come up with creative solutions to carry on during the pandemic and there are lessons to be learnt on what matters to us as a society.

When restrictions are lifted, we could all return to how things were before but I’d like to think that we will not take what we have for granted in the same way and will try a little harder to modify our lifestyle for the sake of the planet.


It would be remiss of me not to say a little about the outbreak of coronavirus.

When I wrote my last update, we couldn’t have foreseen quite what was ahead of us, and the past month has been a trial for us all. Up until the middle of March, we were fully operational at our HQ in Reading and now, everyone at UCEM is working from home.

Most of all, I hope that as few people as possible contract the virus and that everyone is staying safe and healthy at this time. My thoughts go out to everyone who has been affected, particularly those in the sectors we represent – the Built Environment and Further and Higher Education.

As an online university, we are in a good position to continue providing education for our students and apprentices in the Built Environment but we are not immune to the impact of coronavirus and we continue to operate under the framework of our COVID-19 action plan which is continuously under evaluation and review.

In the meantime, we will continue to provide the highest quality online education and will be working hard to consider the best ways of supporting the sector to meet what is likely to be a more bespoke demand over the coming year.

At UCEM, we are committed to contributing to a better Built Environment sector through excellence in online education. We deliver approved apprenticeship programmes, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. For more information take a look at our Study With UCEM page.

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