New sustainability course informs first-year res students

04 May 2021 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Lerato Maduna. Read time 8 min.
“This was the first of many experiments on how to create greater awareness among students on sustainability.” – Manfred Braune
“This was the first of many experiments on how to create greater awareness among students on sustainability.” – Manfred Braune

A new online orientation course introducing first-year residence students to environmental sustainability on campus and beyond has been presented by the University of Cape Town (UCT) for the first time. The course is part of UCT’s residence orientation programme.

The recent fires that started in the Table Mountain National Park above upper campus, spreading to key buildings on campus and elsewhere, showed how close the relationship is between humans and their environment.

Hosted on Vula, the four-module course introduces students to sustainable living as well as the university’s sustainability programmes and focus. This includes the responsible use of resources such as energy, water, materials and impact on the environment in terms of carbon emissions, waste and surrounding wildlife on UCT’s five campuses and in neighbouring communities.

It also looks at the relationship of the students to the built environment they inhabit on campus. The aim is to help first-years understand and manage their environmental footprint as students at UCT and as citizens of the world.


“Sustainable living also underpins student health and wellness.”

The course, “Environmental Sustainability Orientation at UCT”, was developed by Manfred Braune, the director of Environmental Sustainability in the Office of the Vice-Chancellor, and Glenn von Zeil, the manager of student housing in the Department of Student Affairs, assisted by the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT).

Sustainable living also underpins student health and wellness, said Braune.

Sustainability is key to all UCT activities and one of three pillars that anchor UCT’s Vision 2030, a strategy to create a fair and just future through fully realised human potential. (Excellence and transformation are the other two pillars.)

Although the first-years signed up for the course during their orientation period in March, other students are welcome to access the course content, Braune added.

As part of the 28 000-strong student corps on campus, each student had a role to play in sustainable living, he said, starting with responsible management of their waste production and energy and water consumption.

Sustainable living

Each of the four modules consists of one or more videos and reading material and ends with a short question to test knowledge. At the end, there is a multiple-choice quiz and two group activities relating to sustainability at UCT. There’s also a chatroom for discussions and questions, as well as more videos and reading material, which includes UCT’s full Environmental Sustainability Strategy.

To reinforce the health and wellness factors immediately at play, the online course features a section on COVID-19 protocols and guidelines for students, especially those in residences.


“UCT is committed to setting ambitious goals for its campuses of net-zero carbon, energy, water and waste-to-landfill by 2050.”

UCT has a large footprint, Braune said: over 200 buildings, about 1 million square metres across five campuses, with about 28 000 students and 6 000 staff – approximately 1 000 are employed just to look after UCT’s properties. Energy costs the university approximately R100 million annually.

“UCT is committed to setting ambitious goals for its campuses of net-zero carbon, energy, water and waste-to-landfill by 2050,” he said. “This means annual reductions of roughly 2% to 5% in those areas. A key component to this strategy is enabling the campus to become a living lab for our students and staff as we work towards these transformative goals.”

While the course reminds students of the energy, water, waste and health issues of the indoor and outdoor campus environments, it also stretches their awareness to the university’s wider “in situ” ecosystem: the Table Mountain National Park on its borders, and the city environs.

“It’s about our interface with the indigenous flora and fauna, and the wildlife that sometimes comes onto campus.”

Each has a role

The course links students to UCT’s world-leading research hubs and departments that are closely aligned with environmental sustainability. These have contributed significantly to research and to growing human capital in this area.

On the world stage, UCT is committed to the Talloires Declaration of 1990, a 10-point action plan from the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future. The declaration is a consensus statement by 31 university leaders and international environmental experts from 15 Global North and Global South nations.

UCT’s practices and research foci are also geared towards the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


“When you graduate, you will leave a positive footprint behind through your influence and experiences here.”

Underscoring students’ individual responsibilities via a video message to introduce the course, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said, “When you graduate, you will leave a positive footprint behind through your influence and experiences here. And this will include your footprints on the environment where we strive to leave the air we breathe, nature, wildlife and all forms of life on and around campus, in a healthy state for the next student cohort – and for generations to come.”

Professor Phakeng said that as an African university, UCT had a part to play in creating sustainability for a continent susceptible to droughts, disease, famine and poverty. 

“All of that makes us so much more vulnerable to environmental catastrophes. And so thatʼs why this is so important, especially in our context, as South Africans and as students and the UCT community.”

Shades of green

UCT’s strategy acknowledges that there will be shades of green; not every aspect can be “ultra-green”, said Braune.

“We have to balance affordability and what we can do in terms of other applications around heritage buildings, and so on.”

Two key projects are in the pipeline to boost UCT’s sustainability initiatives:

  • Buildings: Every new building on campus will have a Green Building Council of South Africa minimum four-star rating. UCT’s new Avenue Road Residence is the first residence in the country to achieve a green-star rating. The d-school, under construction on middle campus, is targeting a six-star rating.
  • Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Project: Over the next few years UCT will roll out rooftop solar PV panels on new and existing buildings, where feasible.

Environmental campaigners

Once students had completed the course, they set off to demonstrate what they had learned, documenting their efforts on social media, tagging UCT’s student Green Campus Initiative. One team, #5EnvironmentalAvengers from Tugwell Hall, cleaned up a public park across the road and posted a photograph with a reminder: “Let’s keep our environment clean.”

Another, #TeamShuttle from Leo Marquard Hall, got to work collecting litter in the precinct. They posted: “Let’s keep the earth the safest place. Students, we can do this by recycling litter every day.”

#TeamSparklez from Tugwell Hall posted about water savings, reminding their peers: “Instead of brushing your teeth while the tap is running, just use a cup and save water.”

Valuable lessons learned

Braune said: “This was the first of many experiments on how to create greater awareness among students on sustainability. I discussed this with the res student environmental committee leaders following the orientation course and received valuable feedback. There are still many students who do not relate to the topic of sustainability and how it is typically portrayed and communicated, and so there is a need to further engage with students to understand how the university can more effectively reach them.”

Braune said that one of the first steps will be to host a workshop with these student leaders to develop ideas on creating more awareness.

“UCT and the Office of the Vice-Chancellor look forward to engaging students further on this topic.”

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