universities sustainability
Universities must ramp up sustainability efforts in 2020. Source: Shutterstock

The competition is fierce for universities when it comes to recruiting undergraduate students for full-time programmes, whether domestic or international.

They’re not only competing with other universities, but also with corporate training programmes, apprenticeships and part-time online courses.

In the US, undergraduate enrolment is on the decline, and a number of small liberal arts colleges have been forced to either close or consolidate with other colleges and universities in recent years.

So what can universities do to ensure they’re staying relevant in the digital age and be more attractive to students?

Getting ready for Gen Z students

In these tough times, universities have to keep up with the times and appeal to Gen Z students. While there are a number of areas to improve on, one particular area for universities to focus on in 2020 is sustainability.

Far from just a buzzword thrown around to show that universities are “going green”, surveys are showing that sustainability practices by universities are extremely important for today’s college students.

The recent Sustainability in Higher Education: What More Can Universities Do? survey by QS revealed that “An overwhelming majority agree that universities could do more to be environmentally sustainable.

“A staggering 94 percent of respondents want to see universities do more, while only two percent believe they don’t need to do more and four percent are unsure. This mixed report card suggests that while prospective international students believe that universities care about the environment and exhibit environmentally friendly behaviors, they can still do more.”

The survey was based on responses from more than 3,700 prospective international students who are currently looking to study in the UK, Australia, Canada, or the US.

Other studies and surveys show that despite major efforts by some universities to incorporate more sustainability efforts in their everyday practices, many are lagging behind.

According to the 2019 People and Planet University League, a ranking of 154 UK universities on their sustainable development, “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.

“This flies in the face of popular opinion among students of all ages who are regularly taking to the streets to call for action on climate change.”

Today’s youth are passionate about sustainability

Many of today’s youth are troubled by the global climate crisis, buoyed by factors including Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg’s environmental campaign that gained traction on social media.

Last month, Ipsos MORI, on behalf of Amnesty International, surveyed over 10,000 people between the ages of 18 and 25 (Generation Z) in 22 countries for the “Future of humanity” report.

Respondents were asked for “their opinions on the current state of human rights in their country and the world, which issues they feel are most important and who they feel is responsible for addressing human rights abuses.”

When asked to pick up to five issues from a list of 23 major issues that are currently facing the world, “41 percent of respondents said climate change was one of the most important issues facing the world, making it the most commonly cited globally, followed by 36 percent who chose pollution and 31 percent who selected terrorism.”

Their findings suggests universities should not only ramp up sustainability and social responsibility efforts in 2020, but make them known via marketing or social media campaigns to attract international and domestic students.

This handy toolkit by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) provides university staff and students with a variety of strategies, tools and resources, based on global case studies and from practices, intended to inspire, encourage and support universities to “develop and implement their own transformative strategies for establishing green, resource-efficient and low carbon campuses.”

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