Sustainability 101: the role of universities

Izzy Bull

Izzy Bull

The education sector and higher education institutions in particular have the opportunity to take a leadership role in sustainability. Universities are employers, often linchpins in local communities, are part of the built environment, and of course their primary role is to provide an education and to undertake research. In terms of sustainability, universities can empower students to make significant contributions themselves. Many programmes and non-profits are student-led and organised. For example People and Planet, the largest student network in the UK campaigning for social and environmental justice, has led several campaigns to make universities commit to sustainable practices, such as Fossil-Free Careers which calls on University careers departments to stop recruitment into fossil fuel industries. 

University goals

Grassroots organising has proven its effectiveness in many cases. Universities are increasingly recognising that pursuing sustainable strategies is a necessity which reflects well on their reputations. Oxford established a £200 million sustainability fund in 2021, with the goal of net carbon zero and net diversity gain by 2035. Many universities have dedicated pages on their websites (like this one from the University of Manchester) outlining their plans and goals, like signing up to the UN SDG Accord.

Government strategy

The Department for Education has outlined its sustainability and climate change strategy to 2030, with goals including the training and retraining of graduates for green jobs, climate adaptation and decarbonisation in university buildings, and engagement of young people across all sectors. An accountability system for educational institutions will be created to ensure they meet the needs for local jobs in green and sustainable industries.

Climate research

Climate research depends on higher education. Universities, as research institutions of a high standard, provide much of the current knowledge and analysis of the climate crisis, as well as producing solutions for it. For example, many of the contributors towards the UN’s most recent climate report are affiliated with institutions of higher education

Sustainability rankings

However, there is also the issue that investment in sustainable practices is out of reach or capability of many institutions. As can be seen in the People and Planet’s Sustainability League Table, the majority of high-ranking universities are prestigious and high-achieving with a high number of students. This is not universal, however; in fact, there are several members of the Russell Group towards the bottom of the table. It is as much a matter of will within the administration as it is resources.

Any single university, like any organisation, will rank highly in sustainability when it is an all-round high achiever. At Grain, our benchmark criteria include not only environmental policy but areas such as workers’ rights and ethical investments.

Clearly there is still far to go, but great strides have been made in recent years. Universities continue to be at the forefront of climate research as well as educating students in fields necessary to combat the wide-ranging effects of climate change, from conservationists to environmental engineers. It’s also heartening to see that sustainability is being embedded into increasing numbers of courses across the whole range of universities’ offerings.

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