How ethical and sustainable are UK universities?

Gloucestershire, Manchester Metropolitan and Nottingham Trent are among the highest-scoring universities in a new league table which ranks higher education establishments on their ethical and environmental ambitions and actions.

How ethical and sustainable are UK universities?

Gloucestershire University (pictured) received the highest overall score

Published by green campaign group People & Planet, the rankings cover the environmental efforts of 154 UK institutions across the areas of their green policy; sustainability team; auditing; carbon management; carbon reduction; energy sourcing; waste and recycling; education and water management.

The league table also takes four ethical factors into account, namely ethical investment; worker rights; food sourcing and engaging stakeholders.

Each university is given a score out of 100 for each of these 11 factors. An average of these figures is then generated, giving the institution an overall percentage score.

Universities with an overall score of 54% or more are awarded a “First Class Honours” for their efforts, while the minimum percentage scores for “Upper Second Class Honours”, “Lower Second Class Honours” and “Third Class” stand at 42.5%, 29% and 22% respectively.

Of the 154 universities listed, 33 received a “First Class Honours” ranking, with Gloucestershire taking the top spot and Manchester Metropolitan, Nottingham Trent, Northumbria and City, University of London, rounding out the top five.

Gloucestershire received an overall score of 80.6%, with People & Planet praising its efforts in achieving zero-waste-to-landfill status, divesting from fossil fuels and reducing its carbon footprint by 46% between 2008 and 2018.

The University was also praised for its work in integrating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into its course frameworks and for its ‘Live Smart’ scheme – a student-led programme which provides practical advice for students to help them minimise both their living costs and environmental footprint.

“This is a really special achievement for us on this critically important agenda, especially as the changes have been led by students and staff across our university community,” Gloucestershire University’s director of sustainability Alex Ryan said. “Higher education agencies incentivised universities to act on sustainability, but the serious long-term commitment and smart moves for change often emerge from the student community.”

The bigger picture

Despite strong progress from those at the top of its league table, People & Planet’s Loughborough arm has described the wider rankings as a “sh*tlist of universities”.

In comparison to the “First Class Honours” category, the “Third Class” and “Failed” categories cover 38 and 30 institutions respectively. 

Of the 154 institutions listed, less than one-third (49 universities) are on track to meet the higher education sector’s collaborative commitment to reduce absolute carbon emissions by 43% by 2020, against a 2005 baseline. This target was initially overseen by funding agency Hefce, which has since been replaced by the Office for Students (OfS).

Responding to People & Planet’s findings, OfS told the Guardian: “We are committed to being a low-burden regulator and will therefore only mandate data collection where it is necessary to support our regulatory functions. Currently, the OfS does not have a regulatory need for the data within the estates management record.”

“We fully support Hesa and providers working together to collect data on a voluntary basis where this adds value, but providers will have freedom to opt in to such collections. Where Hesa and providers engage in additional activities beyond those mandated by OfS, this will be subject to additional subscriptions.”

Another stand-out finding of the league table is that only half (78) of the universities included have either divested entirely from fossil fuel companies, or committed to doing so. Eight of these universities have made the move over the past 12 months.

People & Planet noted in a blog post that this divestment progress “is encouraging” and shows that “some institutions are beginning to put their money where their mouth is”.

“Divestment, of course, is only the beginning though: ethical investment in renewables is investment in their graduates’ futures,” the post continues.

“Moreover, many universities still appear more committed to greenwashing than meaningful action.

“We know that many of our universities won’t take this action without public student pressure. The People & Planet League Table provides transparency of universities’ ethical behaviour and without this transparency, it’s very easy for universities to shirk their responsibilities on climate change. It’s up to us to make sure they don’t.”

Sarah George

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