The importance of sustainability in students’ university choice

“Considering 45% of 16 to 25-year-olds are suffering from climate anxiety, it’s understandable that they want to study at an institution which shares their vision for a sustainable future”

2023 saw the launch of a new league table for higher education institutions based on sustainability. The QS sustainability rankings set out to measure a university’s ability to tackle the world’s greatest environmental, social and governance challenges.

Likewise, the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which were introduced four years ago, aim to assess universities against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

But do students really think about an institution’s approach to climate action when deciding where to apply?

The answer is a resounding yes. According to Times Higher Education research, prospective international students are more likely to choose a university based on its commitment to sustainability than for its location.

Considering that a global survey in The Lancet revealed almost half (45%) of 16 to 25-year-olds are suffering from climate anxiety, it’s understandable that they want to study at an institution which shares their vision for a sustainable future.

Demonstrating climate commitment

If sustainability is now a key factor in attracting and retaining students, institutions need to demonstrate they are taking genuine, targeted climate action.

The institution which holds the top spot in the QS Sustainability Rankings is the University of California, Berkeley. The university has drawn up a sustainability plan with an ambitious and wide-ranging statement of goals covering aspects such as travel, buildings, health, research and energy.

Second and third place in the rankings go to Canadian institutions, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, both of which are building sustainability right through their operations, from their academic course content to their student accommodation.

Prospective students are looking at factors like these and weighing them up when they make their application decisions.

Strategies for net zero

The higher education sector certainly has a key role to play in responding to the climate emergency. Ground-breaking research is taking place in universities across the world to find alternative energy sources and reduce harmful waste. And academic faculties are educating a whole new generation of experts who will go on to drive innovation and explore new ways to tackle climate change.

But could institutions be doing more to make their operations sustainable?

In the UK, the Royal Anniversary Trust launched its Platinum Jubilee Challenge which proposes a series of strategies to accelerate the tertiary education sector towards net zero. The initiative has identified three action pathways for universities to address in reducing emissions.

These pathways encompass the built environment, travel and transport, and supply chains – which together make up 80% of the UK higher education sector’s overall carbon footprint.

Perhaps surprisingly, supply chains are by far the biggest contributor to an institution’s carbon emissions, causing 36% of emissions compared with travel at 24% and buildings at 19%. Taking into account the sheer complexity of a university’s supply chain, ranging from research equipment, teaching materials, data storage, catering and business services, perhaps its impact isn’t all that surprising after all.

Sustainable procurement

Fortunately, there are many ways universities can build more sustainability into their supply chains.

Institutions could explore circular economy principles to bring down costs and reduce waste by monitoring the purchase of new equipment.

As part of its environmental strategy, the University of British Columbia is updating its zero-waste action plan to prioritise emissions reductions. The university is also identifying ways to embrace the circular economy on its campuses by promoting sustainable procurement and reuse.

There are opportunities for universities to refresh their procurement policies by adopting sustainable criteria for tenders to support responsible purchasing in all areas of their operations from laboratory equipment to food and beverages.

One area which offers scope to reduce emissions is IT and data storage. When universities move their systems to the cloud, the shift away from large servers and onsite datacentres can significantly reduce carbon emissions. In fact, moving to a cloud solution has the potential to reduce an institution’s IT related carbon emissions by 90% over a five-year period.

Institutions could also look into offsetting their carbon emissions. Offsetting has attracted criticism in the past but there has been considerable progress in the sector, led by the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC), to provide a vetted higher education friendly scheme.

Some vendors are including carbon offsetting as a core part of their commercial offers to the sector, enabling institutions to work towards their carbon reduction goals while supporting climate action.

By putting sustainability at the heart of their operations as well as their research, institutions will address the challenges of the climate crisis and attract students who share their goals.

About the author: Pete Moss is a former manager at Staffordshire University and now a director at Ellucian.