How can universities help students create a sustainable future?

The university sector has an essential role to play in tackling the world’s sustainability challenges – not just in developing research-based solutions but in influencing the attributes of students that graduate each year. In this blog, Dr Neil Jennings (Imperial College London) and Quinn Runkle (National Union of Students) discuss projects that have been successful at equipping students across all disciplines with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours required to address sustainability challenges while at university and in their future careers.

Barely a day goes by without a news story highlighting the impact of plastic pollution on wildlife in our oceans, of air pollution on our health, or the disproportionate effect of climate change on women and people of colour. The university sector has an essential role to play in tackling such sustainability challenges – not just in developing research-based solutions, but in equipping students across all disciplines with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours to address these issues while at university and in their future careers.

The good news is that students want sustainability skills and knowledge and that starting university offers an excellent opportunity to embed positive sustainability behaviours – because people are more willing to make changes to their behaviour when they are going through other significant life transitions (e.g. starting university, moving home).

The National Union of Students (NUS) have developed a number of projects in response to this demand, including their award-winning Student Switch Off campaign, which encourages students to adopt energy-saving behaviours by running fun competitions between halls of residence. Having reached over 1.1million students and saved the UK university sector over £2m in electricity expenditure since 2006, the Student Switch Off now runs in eight countries around Europe – showing how excellence in sustainability within the UK university sector can extend beyond international borders.

Campaigns like the Student Switch Off also show how the social, environmental and economic aspects of sustainability can be tackled simultaneously – particularly in the way fuel poverty and the associated impact on mental and physical wellbeing among students can be reduced.

Students are also involved in transforming their courses for the better. With campaigns like the Post-Crash Economics Society and ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’, students across the UK are demanding that their formal curriculum includes the same ideas as they engage with outside the classroom. The importance of education in creating a more just and sustainable future is also highlighted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in which Goal 4 focuses on Quality Education – a subset of which specifically calls for Education for Sustainable Development.

NUS’ Responsible Futures programme, supports universities and colleges to work with their students’ unions to embed sustainability throughout students’ learning within and beyond their course. 30+ institutions have now joined the programme and, as a result, over half a million students across the UK are now further exposed to sustainability during their studies.

A further reflection of this demand from students was demonstrated in February this year when students’ unions led the #SDGTeachIn campaign, which saw over 200 educators include the UN SDGs in their lessons, in response to requests from their students.

The National Student Survey now includes a question on environmental sustainability, which together with the People & Planet University League, should encourage universities to devote the necessary resource to provide students – as the next generation of citizens, employees and decision-makers – with the skills, knowledge, and values required to tackle the world’s greatest challenges. Failure to do so will represent a missed opportunity that could cost the earth.

Neil Jennings Quinn Runkle
Dr Neil Jennings is Partnership Development Manager at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College London ( Quinn Runkle is Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Programme Manager at the National Union of Students