‘Sustainability and student recruitment – what can universities learn?’

Smita Jamdar, from law firm Shakespeare Martineau, says universities should heed the findings of surveys that repeatedly show how important climate action is to students

New research has revealed that just half of educational institutions consider sustainability an important factor in their student recruitment strategy, despite 79% of prospective students valuing a potential university’s environmental strategies before they apply.

These findings, based on research conducted by the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, show a clear gap between what universities offer and what prospective students want. So why is this the case, particularly when competition for students is fiercer than ever before?

Climate change is on the minds of people all over the world, but no one more so than younger people, many of whom feel they are already facing the consequences of the actions of the generations before them. The research shows that 69% of students are actively concerned about climate change, so universities should be proactive in responding to these concerns. One of the best ways for universities to capitalise on this eco-mindedness and increase their sustainable practices is to formalize the concept of a green campus.

A meaningful green campus requires coordination across the institution with a green focus everywhere from the curriculum and the estate, right down to the food served on campus and the partners selected to work with the institution. The research findings reinforce the appetite within student bodies for this kind of innovation; 90% of 16–19-year-old prospective students would be proud to study at a green campus. The statistics are telling: students are actively voicing their desire to attend a university that demonstrably cares about the environment.

So why are universities not already more aligned with what students want? The main barrier to wider adoption of green campuses, as highlighted by the research, is a lack of funding and investment, a recurring issue amongst the 130 institutions surveyed.

Universities rightly recognize the importance of listening to what their students want. By ensuring that they are taking a proactive approach to climate change and a greener future, institutions can demonstrate to students that their views and values are aligned

Universities, therefore, need to think about how to free up the investment needed to achieve a green campus, by creating a sustainability action plan (SAP) or a development policy to ensure that there is room in their financial budget to incorporate sustainable targets.

With 90% of students considering a university to be innovative if it was a green campus, putting an SAP into action can increase the attractiveness of the institution, whilst ensuring manageability.
Resistance to change within the institution was another barrier identified by the research, with 31% of respondents reporting that this was an issue they faced. Adopting a united approach to green issues, where possible, is crucial and institutions should encourage staff and students alike to embed a culture of sustainability into university life, in all cross-institutional activities, such as leadership and management, teaching and learning, research and innovation, and services and facilities.

This is clearly a challenge, given the scope and scale of our universities and may be difficult to coordinate and implement, but having all student and staff stakeholders on the same page is essential in pushing through meaningful change.

In terms of practical elements, there are many ways a campus can be made ‘greener’. Most universities are already incorporating the easiest and most cost-effective features into their campuses, such as meaningful efforts to phase out the use of paper, encouraging sustainable transport for students and ensuring resources are available to make this as easy as possible. Simple practices such as recycling as much as possible, serving take-away food and drink in biodegradable containers and educating staff and students about the importance of green practices ensure that a green agenda is being advanced.

Increasing and improving the green spaces available to students and staff is another area that should be considered, with the research showing that 78% of prospective students would find green spaces and promoting biodiversity an influencing factor before applying. These changes may seem obvious and straightforward but improving the green credentials of the institution could be the key to attracting prospective students, especially for metropolitan universities and colleges with smaller urban campuses.

Universities rightly recognize the importance of listening to what their students want. By ensuring that they are taking a proactive approach to climate change and a greener future, institutions can demonstrate to students that their views and values are aligned. Building a green campus will demonstrate an institution’s responsiveness to student concerns, and even the simplest changes can be significant. Set as part of a strategic and institution-wide approach, the impact will be so much greater.

In a world where the topic of climate change is inescapable, now is the time for universities to listen to the voices of the future and act.

Smita Jamdar is a partner and the head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau.

Read more: Jisc urges universities to address environmental impact of IT

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