An increasing number of UK universities are severing ties with the fossil fuel industry in response to student-led campaigns, as revealed by the annual survey of sustainability in higher education. The sustainability university league, published by the student network People and Planet, indicates that 72% of the universities surveyed have committed to divesting from fossil fuels, marking an increase from 65% the previous year.
Jack Ruane, the university league manager at People & Planet, acknowledged the progress but emphasized that more efforts were necessary. He noted a heightened engagement from a broader range of universities, including those in the prestigious Russell Group, as institutions recognize the growing demand from students for sustainable and ethical practices.
The Fossil Free campaign, initiated in 2013, has been driven by students who argue against educational and research institutions investing in companies contributing to global heating. Student activists have employed various methods, including petitions, lobbying university management, political education, and non-violent direct action, such as occupying university buildings.
This year’s league table assessed 151 institutions across 13 categories, encompassing environmental policy, ethical investment, carbon management, and workers’ rights. For the first time, universities were questioned about sustainable travel policies, particularly in reducing emissions from aviation for staff travel.
Seven universities pledged to cease recruitment pipelines to the fossil fuel industry, reflecting a growing trend among young people who reject employment opportunities with major oil companies.
The University of Reading secured the top spot in the league table, attributed to improvements in carbon emissions, workers’ rights, and ethical investment. Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Bedfordshire followed in the rankings.
Post-1992 universities performed well, receiving 66% of first-class awards and claiming three of the top five positions. Among Russell Group universities, only King’s College London made it to the top 10, though 58% of these institutions received a 2:1 award or higher.
The Royal Veterinary College ranked at the bottom of the table, with 3.4%, while other smaller and specialist universities scored less than 10% overall. The University of Gloucestershire witnessed a remarkable improvement, jumping 80 places, while the Robert Gordon University and the University of Birmingham also experienced significant advancements.
Regarding workers’ rights, 45% of universities are now accredited living wage employers, up from 33% the previous year. However, 49% of universities have more than a quarter of their staff on fixed-term contracts, highlighting the precarious nature of employment within the sector.