Press Release 2021

For immediate release

For interviews, data, further analysis; please contact: Jack Ruane

Manchester Metropolitan University Tops Ranking of 154 UK Universities by Sustainability and Ethics Criteria

2021 People & Planet University League shows higher education sector improving, but majority still failing on carbon targets

Today marks the publication of the 2021 People & Planet University League, which ranks 154 UK universities against sustainability and ethics criteria. The 2021 ranking provides the first opportunity to analyse how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the sector’s sustainability performance.

According to the most recent estates management record (EMR) from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 46% of the higher education sector is on track to meet the sector-wide emissions reduction target set by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), up from one third in 2019. While this is an improvement from the last ranking, it has undoubtedly been boosted by the lack of activity on university campuses during the pandemic. Despite this, 54% of institutions are still not on course to meet the target with one year until the deadline.

Manchester Metropolitan University has topped the People & Planet University League for the third time since the ranking began in 2007 with a score of 86.3%. It scored 92% of all available marks on policy-related criteria, showing it has put sustainability at the centre of organisational strategy. It has also performed well in carbon reduction, with a 64.77% reduction in scope 1 and 2 emissions since 2005.

Russell Group universities have shown improvement this year with King’s College London entering the top ten and the University of Oxford moving up 20 places to 25th to score a ‘First Class’ award. The biggest movers are Durham University who have jumped 66 places to 29th position and a 2:1 award. However, the most common classification for a Russell Group university remains a 2:2, including the University of Cambridge, who has dropped 15 places to 82nd. Post-1992 institutions continue to dominate the top positions, occupying 8 out of the top 10 places.

Every category, which are disaggregations of the People & Planet University League by institution type or geographical location, has a new top place holder, with the exception of Northern Ireland, where Ulster University has come first again. Manchester Metropolitan University is the new top-ranked in the UK, in England and in the post-1992 category. King’s College London is the new number one in London and among the Russell Group universities. Following their commitment to fully divest from fossil fuels this year, Edinburgh Napier University has also come top of the Scottish universities. Cardiff Metropolitan University has jumped a huge 63 places to enter the top ten and top the Welsh institutions.

Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance and the University of the Highlands and Islands have moved from the bottom positions and jumped an impressive 24 and 28 places respectively. University of Sunderland now occupies the bottom position.

This is the first edition of the People & Planet University League since it ceased to be mandatory for universities in England and Northern Ireland to report EMR data to HESA. Sector-wide bodies have been encouraging universities to continue submitting estates data, and HESA extended deadlines in order to accommodate the impact of the pandemic on universities’ ability to submit the data. The sector has shown impressive commitment to transparency, with 83% of higher education institutions continuing to return EMR data.

92 UK universities have made some form of fossil free commitment, and 82% of those have enshrined that exclusion in their investment policies. This is up from a third in 2019, which displays that the sector has made significant progress in developing active, robust and publicly available ethical investment policies in response to the student-led fossil fuel divestment movement. However, the Ethical Investment and Banking section had one of the lowest average scores, at only 31%, indicating that there remains room for improvement. Over half the sector still lacks policy exclusions for fossil fuel companies, 90% are still yet to prioritise reinvestment in renewable companies, funds and community energy projects. At present not a single university holds an Ethical Banking Policy that excludes banks that invest in fossil fuels companies and projects.

Various forced migrant groups, such as asylum seekers or individuals with limited forms of leave, may be excluded from student finance, despite having lived in and attended school in the UK for most of their lives. Only 42% of universities offer multiple full scholarships to various forced migrant groups for the duration of their studies. These students also face different challenges once on campus, yet only 19% of universities included these groups in their access and participation plans.

“The improvement of some Russell Group universities and the increased number of institutions on course to meet the carbon reduction target are positive signs. However, it’s disappointing that the majority of the institutions are still not on course to meet the 15 year long sector-wide HEFCE carbon reduction target before next year’s deadline. The sector must prioritize immediate and rapid decarbonisation, rather than celebrate target-setting as far away as 2050 in some cases.”
Says Jack Ruane, University League Manager at People & Planet

“In the age of the climate crisis, transparency and accountability on sustainability must not be seen as a burden, but as a necessity. We will continue to encourage the sector to submit estates management (EMR) data to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and call on the Office for Students (OFS) to work with the sector to provide regulatory leadership by mandating its reporting once again.”
Says Jack Ruane, University League Manager at People & Planet

“That 82% of divested universities have  enshrined this commitment in policy, compared to one-third two years ago, is significant and worthy of celebration. However, the overall poor scoring of the Ethical Investment and Banking section is a disappointing result in a year when the climate crisis is so high on the social, political and economic agenda with COP26. Universities must do more to sever all ties with the fossil fuel industry for both its climate-wrecking behaviours and it’s consistent violation of the rights of the frontline and Indigenous communities where it operates. Meaningful action from UK universities needs to include exclusions of fossil fuels from their investments, an ethical banking approach, investing in the just transition to a low-carbon world, ending graduate recruitment pipelines into the fossil fuel industry, and ensuring all these commitments are enshrined in policy at a senior level.”
Says Laura Clayson, Climate Campaigns Manager at People & Planet

“In the UK, hundreds of thousands of young people cannot access student finance because of their immigration status. While this is a structural issue, UK universities need to ensure arbitrary characteristics do not hamper access to education. It is unacceptable that 58% of the UK HE sector fails to offer meaningful support to students from migrant backgrounds through scholarships. Universities must do more to provide equal access and necessary support on campuses.”
Says Eva Spiekermann, Co-Director of Migration Justice at People & Planet


Jack Ruane, University League Manager:

Notes to Editor

(1) People & Planet is the largest student network in the UK campaigning for social and environmental justice. We envision a future in which spiralling inequality, instability, climate crisis and resource depletion are reversed, and a world in which the balance of power in society has fundamentally shifted to an equal world that benefits all of us. Our mission is to build an empowered generation of change-makers who are equipped with life-long skills, motivation and networks to be a force for change in achieving a more equitable and sustainable world.

(2) In 2021, the People & Planet University League ranked 154 UK universities – awarding them a First class degree, 2:1, 2:2, Third, or Fail – according to 13 criteria including: Environmental policy, auditing and human resources, and their performance in areas such as carbon reduction, waste and water recycling, student engagement, teaching and learning for sustainable development, energy efficiency, sustainable food and workers rights. The ranking combines information made public by universities online, with raw data obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) 2019/2020 Estates Management Record (EMR) covering the period 01 August 2019 to 31 July 2020

(3) The 2021 People & Planet University League was researched by a team of trained student and recent graduate volunteers between July-August 2021.

Universities had to demonstrate evidence of fulfilling the criteria in the 2020/21 academic year. This year some questions had longer timeframes in order to account for the inability to carry out sustainability work during the pandemic

(5) All information aside from HESA EMR data, had to be publicly available on the university website at the time of data collection, between July-August 2021.

(6) At 07:00 9th December 2021 the full People & Planet University League ranking will go live at this address: