Benchmarking sustainable development in higher education

“82% of prospective international students either actively seek out or will be seeking out information on an institution’s sustainability practices”

2023 is set to be the 10th year in a row which will see global average temperatures reach at least 1C above what they were in pre-industrial times.

Governments and organisations across the globe are once again looking to ways in which they can become more sustainable to help stem the onset of climate change. Universities are no exception; and indeed, they are uniquely placed to help deliver environmental change.

New solutions to the climate crisis will be developed by those about to pass through higher education and it is important that this year the sector supports students and staff who are highly invested in the issue.

The Department for Education’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy outlines the government’s aim to make the UK “the world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030”. Through research, teaching and engagement with the communities around them, universities have the potential to create new technologies, services and ways of thinking which can create a fairer, greener and safer planet.

And students are already expressing their interest in playing their part to help solve climate change.  At the end of last year, QS published Sustainability Rankings for the first time, which enable students to understand the environmental impact universities are creating.

This issue is becoming more important to students with 82% of prospective international students reporting that they either actively seek out or will be seeking out information on an institution’s sustainability practices.

In addition to concerns about the ways in which universities are promoting climate action, students also said that they expect universities to be invested in the same social causes that they are. In fact, 49% of prospective students reported that a university’s social impact is a very important consideration when deciding which institution to study at.

One of the most important values was that universities support and respect human rights, according to 72% of respondents.

With attitudes changing amongst future generations of learners, particularly around climate change, this data can help universities to better understand how they compare to other institutions worldwide across a range of key indicators for environmental and social impact.

Much like the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which encompass ambitions around issues such as ending poverty through to securing clean energy, it’s no longer enough for universities to promote initiatives in isolation. They must be able to demonstrate an institution-wide approach to promoting environmental and social causes in order to appeal to the next generation of students.

And there is plenty of good news for UK universities, as the second most represented country in the QS Sustainability Rankings, with 67 universities featured. The University of Edinburgh placed 4th globally, whilst the University of Glasgow came in at 13th, closely followed by the University of Oxford in 16th place. Moreover, UK universities feature highly for both social and environmental impact.

For example, the University of Exeter placed 21st globally for environmental impact. It’s recent Future17 initiative fosters sustainability through a multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary global challenges education programme for student, focused on developing skills and tackling the UN’s SDGs.

The most successful universities are those who ensure that sustainable development is built into all activities. Whilst students said they were most concerned with on-campus activity, such as reducing single-use plastics or providing green spaces, universities should utilise data and insights to understand just how embedded sustainable practices are across all aspects of their work – from research strategy through to pedagogy.

As universities plan for the future, they should do so sustainably, ensuring that students, staff and other stakeholders are brought on this journey with them. Indeed there are many potential gains to be made across the sector by demonstrating their progress against key indicators for environmental and social impact.

The conversation around sustainable development is not going away, with pressures from government and students on universities to demonstrate their commitment and credentials for both environmental and social impact. Universities who lead the field can also hope to see benefits, attracting more students that embody their own vision and values. In fact, one in five students said they would be willing to pay more in tuition fees to a university which is investing in this area.

The first step for the sector is to thoroughly understand what is expected of them externally, from prospective students and from wider stakeholders. But in order to understand how well they are progressing towards sustainability targets, it is important to have a clear, consistent performance framework against which they can benchmark and compare the broader sector and individual universities position within this.

Universities should therefore continue to push for more sustainable development, and to make sure that this work is being shared widely. The UK’s higher education sector already has a positive story to tell in terms of research, teaching and community engagement but in order to affect change, it is important to understand exactly where we are on the path to progress. Universities globally can step up to the plate to demonstrate what good practice looks like, and data and insights into their work can play a crucial role in facilitating this.

About the author: Jessica Turner is CEO of QS.