Student pressure is making universities greener

By agency reporter
November 15, 2017

The 10th annual People & Planet University League table reveals how a decade of student pressure on campus has transformed the sustainable development of Higher Education in the UK. Yet some universities – big, old, small and specialised  – are failing students and future generations by not taking their responsibility seriously.

This year's league table proves how a public pledge 'The Green Education Declaration' made in 2012 has been successful in holding more than half of universities to account on sustainability, five years after 40 Vice-Chancellors signed it. Yet 40 per cent of the universities that signed are ranking low in the 2017 league table  – which measures environmental performance at higher education institutions.

Manchester Metropolitan ranks top, University of Gloucestershire second, and Nottingham Trent University are placed third. The London School of Economics is the top Russell Group university, ranked fourteenth overall. The top 30 universities receive a 'First class' degree style classification.

Imperial College London is classified as a 'fail' after ranking 141st in this years table. Naomi Pratt, a student in Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London said, "Imperial’s results in this league are shocking, especially for a ‘world-leading’ institution which markets itself on global outlook, sustainability and environmental responsibility. But they are also unsurprising as oil and gas industries seem woven into the fabric of the university, blatantly contradicting the aims of the college and undermining the research into renewables and climate change undertaken here."

Other universities at the bottom of the table include Writtle University College and University of Aberdeen.

Top of the Scottish league is Edinburgh Napier University, followed by the University of Edinburgh. The University of Glasgow is ranked lowest for environmental sustainability in Scotland. Of the eight Welsh universities, half are ranked in the top 30 with Cardiff Metropolitan most sustainable in Wales.

This year People & Planet proudly look back on a decade of publishing a unique University League and celebrate its efficacy in changing university culture for sustainability. The idea of a league table came from a 2003 student campaign calling for universities to ‘go green’ on over 60 campuses around the UK. A student research project determined the key factors needed for a university to take action on the environment, and this became the first set of criteria in 2007.

Hannah Smith Co-Director for Research and Campaigns at People & Planet said, "The league table was a eureka moment; universities love rankings, and finally we would produce one led by students! By 2010 it was clear that this was going to be a game-changer, with all the numbers moving in the right direction, towards sustainability.

"We had clear aims: to make transparent the sustainable development of publicly funded universities, to create competition in the sector that would drive environmental and ethical performance, and to empower students and prospective students with the understanding of whether and how an institution was taking responsibility. The number of universities employing environment staff doubled and in 2013 we celebrated a milestone  – 100 per cent of all universities had finally set policy on their environmental impacts. Our table has consistently and unashamedly held universities to account over the last decade".  

In 2012, the student-led People & Planet 'Green Education Declaration' was signed by 40 Vice Chancellors at UK universities  – they pledged to meet carbon reduction targets, integrate sustainable development into teaching and learning, and call on the government to support them to resource a low carbon future. Five years on, findings from the People & Planet rankings show that the declaration has had an impact, with 60 per cent of declaration signatories ranking in the top third of the league table for overall sustainability.  A third of universities pledging to green their curriculum are proving their commitment by scoring over 70 per cent in the education for sustainable development section of the league methodology – a First Class score.

The University of East Anglia (UEA) is among them, scoring 100 per cent for education for sustainable development, and ranking 30th in the league table. 

Lewis Martin, a second year student studying Politics and International Relations at UEA is one of many students across the UK urging their universities to act on climate change. On the findings, he said, "I'm proud to see that UEA are meeting their pledge, students have been campaigning for the University to divest from fossil fuels for four years and last week they confirmed they have! We're demanding UEA make this statement public and enshrine their divestment in policy – severing our ties with the fossil fuel industry is just as important as education for sustainability"

However, the other half of universities are failing on their promise – ranking low in the table for carbon emission reduction, with falling numbers of dedicated sustainability staff, and neglecting to equip students with the education and tools needed to meet climate and social justice problems. The University of Kent signed the declaration in 2012, but today ranks 101st of 154 universities, with a score of 20 per cent for green education. Students at Kent are currently campaigning for their university to improve workers' rights in their supply chains. Other universities failing to meet their green education declarations include University of York and Goldsmiths University of London.

Over 10 years, the People & Planet University League has driven and tracked significant changes in university sustainability measures. The number of the universities carrying out regular environmental auditing has increased by 100 per cent, and this year a record third of universities have their environmental monitoring certified by an independent auditor. This year the table also shows the number of universities taking action on sweat shops has almost tripled since 2016, whilst 59 universities have now made a commitment to not invest in fossil fuels, up from zero when the indicator was first measured in 2013.

But considering the urgency of climate change and social inequality, other action has been frustratingly slow or even regressing. The amount of renewable electricity that universities bought tripled in the first five years of the league table, yet worryingly this year's results show that this trend has reversed, with the average amount of renewable electricity bought by universities three times less than at its peak.

See the full People and Planet University League tables here

* People and Planet


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