People & Planet University League 2007: why and what it tells us

Introducing The People & Planet University League 2007

The People & Planet University League 2007 has, for the first time, collected and ranked environmental information on 120 UK universities. It aims to promote transparency of information and encourage senior decision makers to push environmental standards up across the sector.

The need is great. A recent report by Business In The Community found that the Higher Education (HE) sector scored an average of only 55% on the BITC environment index, compared to the business average of 83%. This puts HE behind the performance of the utilities, consumer services, telecommunications, industrial, and financial sectors.

Many staff and students within university communities who are working hard to achieve change have too often been sidelined in their push for environmental improvements. This league table aims to give strength to those voices by providing an additional incentive for senior decision makers to take heed of their calls.

People & Planet first discussed the possibility of a green league table in autumn 2006. With the strong encouragement of a number of partner organisations, NGOs and university environmental staff, we decided to give it a go. It builds on the creative - and successful - campaigning of our student network for their universities to Go Green, and a ‘going green table’ which documented 56 universities’ progress on the four Go Green campaign aims.

Why a league table?

  • In January 2004, and again in September 2006 in the Going Green Report People & Planet promised the world that it would “applaud genuine progress and expose inaction” on environmental performance in the Higher Education (HE) sector, and would “sustain this effort until good environmental performance is the norm, not the exception.” At the time there was little information published and collated on which to do so - which is where our league table project stepped in. It was crucial to have transparent information in this context. The publication of The People & Planet University League 2007 fulfils the promise we made - highlighting the leading lights, and exposing those institutions who fall far short.

  • The publication of this league table will do more than anything to establish a competition mechanism between UK universities on their green credentials, which will help drive standards up. The Funding Councils refuse to take a ‘prescriptive’ approach to making the HE sector go green, so it is therefore imperative that they allow public information provision to drive improvements. “Inevitably, sustainability will become a ‘must-have’ as part of the corporate brand and the environmental agenda will begin to exert a significant impact on universities,” says leading HE marketing and management consultant, Rosemary Stamp. This league table will exert that pressure.

  • Lastly, The People & Planet University League will interest sixth form students and future university applicants. In an age of ‘choice’, students in the education marketplace should, but currently don’t, have the information to make an informed choice based on their values. A recent UCAS/Forum For The Future survey revealed that 45% of young people “intending to study education, social sciences, architecture, and building and planning said a good track record on sustainable development was important or very important in choosing where to study.” Yet, until now, no centrally collated data on universities’ environmental performance has been publicly available by which those young people can make a judgement. Centrally collating environmental information about universities will aid transparency and further increase pressure on universities keen to recruit those engaged young citizens.

What The People & Planet University League tells us

In researching The People & Planet University League 2007, and in prior work in the sector, P&P has seen some fantastic work being done in universities.

Our ‘leader board’ top 15 universities all display excellent practice in the sector, and a commendable institutional commitment to seeing their environmental performance improve. They set the standard that others must follow. Environmental performance isn’t about perfection - it’s about continuous, systematic progress. So whilst even the best clearly have much work still to do to make necessary and dramatic cuts in their environmental footprints - they’re on the right course.

Non-‘traditional’ and ex-polytechnic universities dominate the Firsts, with all of the top five spots (excluding Queen’s Belfast in joint fifth), and ten out of the top 15. Though they also take up a large proportion of the Fails, many have been sites of dynamic environmental innovation. The 39 Russell Group/1994 Group (‘traditional’) universities meanwhile took up five of the excellent performing places, and a bulk of Seconds, with five Third/Fails. All regions had some excellent-performing institutions - two Scottish universities, one Welsh, and one Northern Irish university secured a First.

Our guide is not the final word on judging the ‘greenness’ of each institution however: it can only be a starting point. During this research, People & Planet has come across some superb and innovative environmental initiatives on the ground that dedicated staff and students are working hard to implement. But the league table, in collating quantitative data, cannot hope to show the detail. Many of these individual initiatives are however rightly collated and celebrated by the Green Gown Awards - download the report. Praiseworthy case studies can also be found in our Going Green Report, on the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) website and at heepi.org.uk.

In our research, measures of quality, such as how comprehensive an environmental policy is, or how effective a comprehensive environmental review is, could not be determined — we could only account for the presence or lack of policy/audit. And, for example, the table does not distinguish between those universities who employ whole teams of effective environmental staff (such as Leeds Met, Hertfordshire and Bristol), and those whose environmental personnel are limited in number, scope and seniority.

There is still a long way to go in the Higher Education (HE) sector.

One striking point is how much variance there is across the sector. Clearly a good number are excelling, yet there is a lot that separates the Leeds Met’s and Plymouth’s of this world from those in the Third and Fail categories.

The People & Planet University League shows up a significant anomaly: whilst it is university academics who continue to warn us about the catastrophic effects of climate change and the current generation of students who expect to inherit the consequences, very little consideration is being paid by some university Vice Chancellors to the environmental impact of their universities. Some institutions, for example UEA and Aberystwyth, don’t appear to be drawing on the expertise available on campus — they score badly despite the high quality of their environmental research. Moreover a massive 27 universities don’t even have an environmental policy — more than a decade after government reports (in 1993 and again in 1997) recommended that all institutions should adopt and publish environmental policies and action plans. Overall, the data shows that the average recycling rate for the UK Higher Education (HE) sector is a meagre 16%.

Yet with their unique position in society, the skills and expertise on campus, and the ability to affect millions of students and future leaders around them, universities could and should be at the forefront of society’s efforts to achieve sustainability.

Lastly, the table demonstrates the need for public and better information and more consistent monitoring of environmental impacts. The Estates Management Statistics (EMStats) (from which data on the percentage of total energy from renewable sources, percentage of waste recycled, and carbon emissions per head come) are impressive and vital in collating a plethora of environmental information about universities’ estates. We used EMStats because it is the only comprehensive source of environmental (and other) information on universities’ performance. However we were shocked to see that this data appears to have significant flaws.

There were a number of gaps in the data: regrettably not all universities have fully completed and submitted all the information required. And there was wide variation between the results, which is partially explained by differences in environmental efficiency and differing structural differences on campus; but also, we can only assume that universities have used different methodologies — it’s not clear they’re measuring the same thing. In some cases the information given by the same university clearly uses a different methodology between years. One institution reported to People & Planet that the data it submitted to EMStats was inaccurate; another institution appears to have cut energy emissions per head between 2004-5 and 2005-6 by an improbable 88%. This shows the need for further developing a consistent and detailed methodology for universities to use, the need for comprehensive auditing, and ideally a system where external auditing could verify data. This will become ever more essential as legislation comes into play that requires carbon reporting and reductions.