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Sustainability in HE and FE - State of the sector research

A look at the state of sustainability within our universities and colleges from the perspective of staff working across the sector.

Between 2015-2018, we were partnered with the EAUC, University and College Union (UCU), the Association of Colleges and the College Development Network to carry out research on the state of sustainability across further and higher education. Staff from across the sector completed an online survey annually so we could track how things were changing and developing.

The findings of the research demonstrate the need for students’ unions to work with their institutions on making improvements on all aspects of sustainability.

2018's Sustainability in Education research, based on a sample of 566 staff members from universities, colleges and students' unions in the UK (139 of which identify has having a formal remit or responsibility for sustainability) found:

  • 91% of respondents felt that the Government needed to take action in UK universities and colleges to ensure commitments to sustanability are being met, with 73% calling for mandatory action and 18% calling for voluntary action.  This external pressure to deliver is seen as needed in order to ensure sustainability is prioritised across the sector, in particularly as respondents who describe their institution's approach to sustainability as a strategic priority has fallen from 30% to 22% in 2018.
  • 93% of respondents feel it is important for students to leave their time in formal education with the knowledge and skills required to address sustainability challenges.  Over two thirds (68%) see students as placing the greatest importance on addressing sustainability when considering a range of stakeholders within institutions, and 25% recognise empowering students on sustainability as an important issue in 2018/19.
  • When asked about the Sustainable Development Goals, 83% of respondents agreed that post-16 education is important in achieveing them by 2030.  However, over a quarter of respondents (28%) did not know anything about their institutions' commitment to the SDGs.
  • Respondents that worked in Further Education or Further Higher Education were most likely to have an interest in sustainability but were not involved in delivery (45%) – this is likely because Further Education has far fewer sustainability roles available due to their tight budgets. Further Education respondents were also most likely to rank their institution as not doing enough on sustainability despite Further Education respondents being the most likely to say sustainability was an opportunity to save money. This highlights the requirement for better sustainability drivers in Further Education from regulatory bodies such as Ofsted.
  • The main barriers preventing institutions from doing more on sustainability were perceived to be; 1) Lack of staff resources/capacity (40%); 2) Institution prioritising other issues (37%); 3) Lack of financial resources’ (32%).  In response, to address sustainability within institutions, respondents highlighted a number of solutions. The top rated of which were; 1) Encourage behavioural change for sustainability on campus (39%); 2) Make a strategic priority (33%); and 3) Increase dedicated financial resources (29%).


Sustainability in HE and FE - State of the sector research