Unite Students: A more sustainable place to live

31 Mar 2021
By Jennifer Steadman, HE Comms Executive at Unite Students
Unite Students has announced new sustainability commitments. While we are no strangers to reducing our impact on the environment and supporting students’ wellbeing and access to higher education, the past few years’ focus on environmental and social issues has strengthened our resolve to do more.

Perhaps the best-known focus of sustainable initiatives has been the environment. Generations of students have supported environmental causes, but rarely with as much impact as in the last few years. 1.4 million young people around the world are estimated to have taken part in climate school strikes from 2018-19, inspired by Swedish climate activist and student Greta Thunberg; these efforts inspired an estimated 6 million people to take part in September 2019’s worldwide climate strikes. 

Many of the students who engaged in school strikes are now at university, or will be in the next few years. Sustainability charity SOS UK’s 2018/19 Sustainability Skills Survey found that 86% of first year students agreed that sustainable development was something that universities should actively incorporate and promote. Universities have become increasingly engaged in environmental sustainability in the past decade; according to student social and environmental justice network People & Planet, 86 universities have committed to divest from fossil fuels since 2014.

That’s why we have committed to target net-zero carbon operations and construction by 2030. Both new and existing buildings will be improved to reduce our energy consumption, and we’ll be investing in certified carbon offsets to neutralise the impact of residual emissions as well as strengthening our efforts to buy renewable energy. We have also committed to creating resilient, resource-efficient buildings and operations, which we plan to do by improving energy and water efficiency and, crucially, by engaging students in our plans and helping them to adopt sustainable living habits. 

However, being sustainable is about far more than just environmental concerns; it also means looking at social and economic needs, including issues like social justice, equality, diversity and inclusion, and wellbeing. Student wellbeing has been a priority of ours for almost a decade, and we already have a wellbeing framework in place, but we want to continue to hone our approach and meet the changing needs of current and future students - and so our sustainability commitments include a commitment to enhance the health and wellbeing of our employees and the students who live with us.

Much has been made in recent years of a lack of proportionate representation in the higher education - both among teaching staff and in leadership roles - of women, people of colour, and those from less privileged backgrounds. The students living with us come from across the globe, with very different life experiences and backgrounds, and in order to best support them in their living experience and empower them to succeed, we have committed to providing opportunities for all. This will also benefit our employees and the local communities we are a part of.

These commitments will improve both university partners’ and students’ experiences with Unite Students - but we want to go further still and lead the student housing sector in raising standards as well. Embedding sustainable behaviours as best practice across the sector will benefit everyone, and help us all to play our part in shaping a sustainable future.

More details on our targets, timescales and plans to achieve these commitments will be available in our Annual Report, to be published next Wednesday. 

Doing the right thing is one of our organisation values, and we’re excited to push ourselves to have a more positive impact on the sector, the environment, and most importantly, the lives of our staff, university partners, and the students who live with us. 

We’ll be sharing more information and insight on different strands of sustainability over the coming months, but for now, you can learn more about how sustainability affects the Higher Education sector in our latest Accommodation Matters podcast on environmental sustainability:

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Jen Steadman is a Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students. Prior to this, she was the inaugural Editor of GSL News, covering the student experience for the higher education sector.