Are UK universities sustainable enough?
Which UK university is considered the most sustainable? Source: Shutterstock

What does it mean to be a truly green university? The term ‘green university’ is a broad term used to describe all types of activities that fall under sustainable development.

The recent decade has seen many universities worldwide strive to become ‘greener’, as they’re usually responsible for a large population that can have a big impact on the environment in their day-to-day habits.

But the green university concept goes beyond separating waste and using energy-conservation systems. Universities also have an important responsibility to educate students on sustainability issues, as well as play an important role in the development of society, such as migrant issues and workers rights.

According to IMTO News, “The concept implies introducing courses on sustainable development, university redevelopment, and promoting ecological awareness to students and staff.

“Traditionally, “green” universities conduct their own eco-festivals and events, introduce separate waste collection and energy-conservation systems, and include programs on sustainable development into the curricula.”

In the UK, one league table measures the ‘greenness’ of universities, starting in 2007.

The People & Planet’s University League is the only comprehensive and independent league table of universities ranked by “environmental and ethical performance.”

How do they come up with the results? Fifty percent of the data used comes from information made public on the university website, the other 50 percent from information published within the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Estates Management Record (EMR) and other independent and external verification agencies.

Universities are measured based on 13 indicators. The biggest weight is given to carbon reduction (15 percent), education for sustainable development (10 percent), environmental auditing and management systems (10 percent), human resources and staff (8 percent), energy sources (8 percent), waste and recycling (8 percent), and water reduction (8 percent).

This is followed by ethical investment and banking (7 percent), managing carbon (7 percent), workers rights (6 percent), staff and student engagement (5 percent), environmental policy and strategy (4 percent), and sustainable food (4 percent).

The latest league table found that out of the 154 UK universities that were ranked on sustainable development, only a third are on track to meet carbon reduction targets by 2020.

The results showed that many universities in the country showed improvements in teaching and learning in the ‘sustainable development education’ section.

However, according to the press release, “The majority of universities have slowed down or plateaued on what was an energetic period of commitment and without government incentive it leaves universities allowing strategy, actions and even jobs for sustainability staff to lapse and not be replaced.”

At the top of the league is University of Gloucestershire, with a total of 80.6 percent – considered “first class” by People & Planet’s degree-style classifications.

“Gloucestershire have ranked highly in the league since its inception and continue to impress and innovate, scoring highly across most criteria and by reaching their carbon reduction target early, having already reduced carbon by 46%.

“The university have divested (removed their investments) from all fossil fuels companies and believe in system change coming through their teaching and learning.”

The top university last year – Manchester Metropolitan University – came in 2nd, while Nottingham Trent is ranked 3rd.

“The top 3 universities are steaming ahead with an impressive lead on scores which People & Planet say is down to senior management taking responsibility with vision and commitment to realising the opportunity for planning in university wide sustainable development.”

This league table is a good way to assess the sustainability efforts of universities, allowing experts and education professionals to compare and learn from other institutions in order to meet these targets and identify areas where they are lacking.

However, the release stated that upcoming higher education cuts to data collection may mean that “we’ll never know”.

“As part of the research, People & Planet analyse carbon emissions data collated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for all publicly funded UK universities and publish their results toward the sector wide target of 43% cuts on 2005 emissions by 2020.

“But just 1 year before the target date, the Office for Students are planning to drop carbon emission records for English universities, making it impossible to see whether universities have met a crucial carbon reduction target and leaving students shocked and frustrated in a period where many of them are organising strikes to demand action on the climate crisis.”

For the full league table, please click here.

Liked this? Then you’ll love…

Jobs of the future: How do I become a sustainability manager?

How to promote a sustainable mindset within your school community