Sustainability: What students want from the Higher Education sector

09 Apr 2021
By Jade Monroe, Interim Director of Education at SOS-UK

Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK) is the National Union of Students’ sustainability charity. Jade Monroe, Interim Director of Education, shares what students want from the Higher Education sector on sustainability, and how that aligns with universities’ plans to become more sustainable.

Since 2010, we have surveyed over 70,000 students to understand more about their expectations and experiences of sustainability whilst in education, and our findings over 10 years show that demand from students in this area is strong as ever [1].

Almost 90% of students tell us that they are concerned about climate change - making it a higher concern compared to the general population - and over 50% say that how seriously a university takes environmental and global development issues influences their choice of where to study. 

At the National Union of Students’ conference last year, students passed a policy calling on UK universities and colleges to act on the climate emergency: this included asking for every university and college’s carbon reduction plans to be published and calling on institutions to commit to being net-zero by 2030 [2]. Work is underway on this, with universities increasingly looking to respond to this student demand and ensure that they reduce their carbon emissions - however, many institutions are still in need of support to progress them on this journey. 

Whilst universities are looking to become more sustainable, increasingly students are also taking action to reduce their individual carbon impact: taking up a meat-free diet, cutting out single-use items (such as plastic bottles, coffee cups and plastic bags), and reducing energy and water consumption where they can. Students have reported that they feel proud when they see their institution and accommodation providers also demonstrating their commitment and support to these areas. Examples of this include water bottle refill points on campus, coffee cup reuse schemes, meat-free menu options or clear, comprehensive recycling facilities. 

In addition, students have been clear on their demand for sustainability to be woven into their learning. Over 80% of students in our research said they wanted to see their place of study incorporate sustainability into courses, providing not only additional knowledge, skills and employability, but also helping to make sure that sustainability is taken into the huge range of industries and sectors that students go to work in. Embedding sustainability across the board in higher education is an opportunity that goes far beyond tertiary education: it equips a generation of students with sustainability skills and knowledge that they can use to drive the societal change that is so urgently needed. 

At SOS-UK, we’ve been thrilled to see how students and young people have not let environmental issues fall off the agenda despite recent challenges. Students have been really embracing new ways of working and adapting to ensure that they can still progress the issues that they care about. Over the last year, hundreds of thousands of students have engaged in sustainability campaigns and opportunities, showing remarkable commitment to create a better and more just future. 

There are so many opportunities for students to get involved, from making personal lifestyle changes to calling on leaders to make bigger changes - and, when done collectively, these things all really add up to make a difference. 

Jade recently featured on our environmental sustainability episode of Accommodation Matters - you can listen and download it here:

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Jade Monroe has over 10 years of experience in engaging students and staff in sustainability programmes, and leading on sustainability education and behaviour change within universities and student residences. She is currently Director of Education (interim) at Students Organising for Sustainability UK (SOS-UK), the National Union of Students’ sustainability charity, representing 7 million students in higher and further education.