How to really know if a university is working to protect the planet | Top Universities

How to really know if a university is working to protect the planet

By Laura Lightfinch

Updated August 10, 2022 Updated August 10, 2022

Whether it’s virtual or in person, an open day can be the perfect opportunity to find out if you see yourself studying at a university. But have you thought about using an open day to find out how a university is protecting the planet?  

With climate change at the forefront of many students’ minds, it’s time to start asking our educators what they are doing to play their part in the climate emergency and to create a more sustainable environment for the world’s future leaders and thinkers (that’s you!).  

It’s about so much more than recycling schemes and printing less. We live in Greta Thunberg times, when people are standing up for their futures and holding businesses and influential leaders to account across all areas. 

We spoke to Jane and Josh, students and Eco Ambassadors at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), to find out the best questions to ask.  

Does the university have sustainable development goals and how are they working towards them? 

Jumping straight in with the biggie. Sustainable development goals (SDGs) are the new buzzword for anyone taking sustainability seriously. Introduced by the United Nations as an urgent call to action for countries around the world, SDGs are now being adopted by businesses and organisations big and small. They’re the clearest way to see how a university is actively working to make sustainable change across everything that they do.  

Josh, who studies Wildlife Conservation at NTU, feels that transparency and honesty are the key to understanding a university’s environmental efforts. “Lots of universities produce reports of their sustainability plans and achievements, but as a student I don't want to read a long report. I think universities should promote their initiatives to everyone openly.  

“I’d be looking to see if a university is talking about sustainability on social media, on the website and at open days too,” he said, “and if I was choosing where to study now, I’d want to know what the top three things are a university is doing to be more sustainable.”  

See how IE Business School in Madrid is working to be more sustainable

How is the university making the campus sustainable? 

While some of the oldest university buildings have been standing since the 1700s, there are ways to make even the most historical spaces sustainable, and to make conscious choices when planning new buildings too.  

But on top of turning the computers and lights off at night, how does a university reduce its energy consumption and where is the energy coming from in the first place? Think renewable energy sources, carbon offsetting and designing new buildings to be eco-friendly. University buildings can take up a big proportion of a city’s real estate, so how do they give back to the land they’ve taken?  

“On top of one of the NTU buildings, we have a rooftop garden,” said International Business student Jane. “It’s beautiful and it’s a green space that has been built specifically for the students to have a bit of nature in the city. But as well as students benefiting from the garden, it’s providing an inner-city space for wildlife like birds, bees and other insects to enjoy too.”  

Is sustainability part of the curriculum? 

You can imagine that a geography, conservation or environmental science student would have the opportunity to take classes on sustainability and climate, but is the university working to make sustainability part of the curriculum for everyone, whatever your degree? With climate change having an impact on most areas of life, it’s an important topic for all students. 

As a business student, Jane believes that learning about sustainability is crucial for anyone working in business. “On my course, sustainability is everywhere. This year NTU introduced a new module called Sustainability in Enterprise and I had the opportunity to work with small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in Nottingham to audit their carbon footprints and help to provide solutions for reducing their environmental impact,” she said.  

“My current career aspiration is to become a carbon consultant. There are new jobs out there now that nobody would have thought about five years ago and being able to adapt to things like sustainability only puts you in a good position for your future.”  

How can students get involved in environmental efforts? 

What sustainability societies are available for students to join? How are students encouraged to engage in the university’s sustainability initiatives and does the university listen to student ideas and suggestions?  

Both Jane and Josh are members of their university’s Eco Ambassador scheme, which encourages students to take sustainability actions into their own hands and challenge the university on how they can improve current practises and policies. Jane is also working towards her silver sustainability award, an initiative that celebrates students' environmental efforts through a points system for undertaking different sustainable tasks.  

A member of the Conservation Society, Josh has had the opportunity to work with the university to ensure conservation initiatives were implemented into a new building at the Brackenhurst Campus, where he studies. Home to the School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, the countryside campus is an outdoor classroom, where Josh has been helping advise on wildlife plans like providing swift and bat boxes, and to protect amphibians living around the pond area.,  

Are there sustainable food options on campus? 

How does the university reduce food waste while making sure that food and beverages on campus are affordable for students too? Are there zero waste options in the university cafes and vegan options available for those who choose to reduce their carbon footprint by opting out of meat and dairy? Providing fair trade products is another way to embed sustainability into campus life.  

“Sustainability isn’t just about the environment,” Jane added. “It’s about people and profit and making choices to ensure that we can maintain our livelihoods into the future. Choosing fair trade options is an important part of that.”  

If you’re visiting an open day in person, it’s a great idea to check out some of the university’s eateries and see what’s on offer for yourself. 

What research is being done to develop knowledge and find solutions to the climate crisis? 

Although academic research might not impact your studies directly, it’s handy to see how a university is working to understand and solve big world issues. Are academics researching innovative solutions? Do they work with communities both locally and globally to understand the impact of climate issues? Are they challenging current sustainability models for better alternatives?  

You should be able to find these stories on the university’s website, but if you’re able to speak with an academic at an open day, you might find that there are interesting research projects in your chosen subject area.  


So now you know how to ask your potential place of study how they’re protecting the planet and how you could get involved too. Be aware that a university might need to get back to you about a question later. Universities have lots of different teams working to bring you the best experience, so the person you talk to on the day might not have all the answers at hand. But, if it’s as important to them as it is to you, they’ll ensure you get a response later on.  

This article was originally published in February 2022 . It was last updated in August 2022

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