Institutions underestimate importance of sustainability for prospective students – new research reveals

Research | Education
Published: 24th May 2022
Area: Education

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Higher and further education institutions risk underestimating the importance sustainability holds for applicants when choosing a college or university, new research from law firm Shakespeare Martineau has shown.

  • Just half of educational institutions consider sustainability as an ‘important’ factor of their student recruitment strategy – despite 79% of prospective students saying that ‘clear strategies to reduce environmental impact, promote sustainable development and reduce waste’ is a influencing factor in the college or university they apply for.

  • 90% of prospective students would be proud to study at a green campus.

Around three quarters of prospective students would be influenced by: the use of green energy to power campus buildings (73%), sustainability being an important part of learning, teaching and research (78%), and decision makers at that institution factoring in climate change in all decisions (75%), when choosing their place of study.

However, institutions themselves undervalued these factors, with less than half (48%) agreeing they believe that factoring climate change into decision making would be important to prospective students.

Shakespeare Martineau’s survey of 1,000 16 to 19-year-olds planning on applying for college or university* showed nearly 7 in 10 (69%) are worried about climate change.

The majority (62%) of young people questioned felt that it was the government’s responsibility to address climate change, followed by individuals (37%) and big corporations (34%).

Almost 3 in 10 (29%) believed responsibility lies with educational institutions, but despite this figure being relatively low, an institution’s green credentials are a strong influencing factor in applicant decision making.

More than 130 representatives from the further and higher education sector were also questioned by the firm, with the results showing a severe disconnect between what applicants value and what institutions think are important to young people.

When compared to the responses from prospective students, institutions undervalued the importance of green energy (54% vs 73%), sustainability in learning and research (58% vs 78%), clear environment strategy (65% vs 79%) and ethical investment (45% vs 72%).

Interestingly, educational respondents overestimated how important a good social scene and night life is to students (92% vs 76%) and position on league tables for subjects (91% vs 82%).

The top priority for prospective students however – above and beyond even fulfilling academic needs – was ‘that the college or university provides support for my personal well-being and mental health’ (87%).

The research also demonstrated disparity between factors most important on a green campus for prospective students and institutions. While institutions ranked ‘minimal food, water and energy waste’ and ‘buildings are powered by renewable energy sources’ as top, applicants associated green campuses with ‘reducing carbon emissions to meet government targets’, ‘open green spaces’ and ‘working with the wider community to encourage green practices’ most with the term green campus.

Smita Jamdar, head of education at Shakespeare Martineau, said: “Climate change is on the minds of the world, but no one more so than young people who will have to live with the consequences of the actions of generations before. Our findings show there is disconnect between what students want and what institutions are delivering, but our research has also highlighted common themes in the barriers preventing greater green campus adoption, which we hope to tackle in our next research paper.

“What’s clear is that the solutions to this disconnect lie in cross-institutional activities, such as leadership and management, teaching and learning, research and innovation, and services and facilities. These will be challenging to co-ordinate and implement, but also offer a common, cohesive goal for the whole institution to work towards.

“What is great to see is that 90% of the students we surveyed said they would be proud to attend a green campus. But time is running out and changes urgently need to be made across funding, planning, energy, and governance if we are to help meet climate change targets and provide students with a campus, and a future, to be proud of.”

This data is the first set of statistics to be revealed by Shakespeare Martineau, with a full report on Green Campuses expected in September this year.

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