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The green new standard for student decision-making criteria

pine forest at sunrise

When we consider the defining characteristics of Gen Z, activism is top of mind. Environmental activism is an especially potent issue, with sustainability shaping up to be perhaps the zeitgeist of this cohort and the present era on the whole.

Research even shows that sustainability is an increasingly important driver for student decisions as it pertains to where they attend university. The Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland recently commented that higher ed is “no longer about being best in the world, but being the best for the world.”

The Times Higher Education’s 2021 Impact Rankings reflect that sentiment with the inclusion of a sustainable cities and communities category “to measure universities’ research on sustainability, their role as custodians of arts and heritage and their internal approaches to sustainability.” These rankings assess how universities stack up against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I asked Mark Tweddle, a senior higher education consultant at THE, for some additional insights about the implications of this shift and the staying power of the higher ed sector’s commitment to sustainability as a consequence of student attitudes.

“It doesn’t take long to search for headlines about how Gen Z is leading the way on sustainability and eco-friendliness. They’re conscious of their buying decisions, so I think there’s almost an assumption that sustainability is a massive decision-making factor for students now. And so we carried out this survey of 2,000 present prospective students to dip our toes in the water and see what comes back,” Tweddle says.

The Times Higher Education’s findings

The results were not scant. Interestingly enough, 9% of students said that the reputation and commitment to sustainability of a university is the most important factor for them in deciding where to study. “Just short of one in 10 students places a great emphasis on that factor, which is not an insignificant number, by any means,” he reports. 

While it’s important to disclaim that the small sample size of the survey across mainly UK-focused markets dilutes its global relevance, it’s still a great gauge for the direction of student viewpoints.

Tweddle also believes that this number may grow in the future, particularly if universities increasingly orient and communicate their activities relative to the SDGs.

“We asked students to rank each of the seven factors; which is the most important, which is the least important, and everything in between. I don’t think it’s any surprise that the university’s quality of teaching or the reputation for quality of teaching comes out on top, followed by other real fundamental factors like cost of tuition, as expected,” he comments.

Of course, sustainability still shakes out lower on the list. “I think in future years, it might be the third or fourth order factor for students, ahead of things like the location or position in rankings league tables.”

As figureheads like Greta Thunberg continue to emerge, raising awareness about these issues with well-researched vigor, the momentum that Gen Z has built will surely proliferate.

Individual dedication to the cause

The credence that students give to these factors along their university decision-making process derives from a place of personal commitment.

The staying power of sustainability in higher ed will be foretold by the prominence of students’ individual sustainability goals, as evidenced in another chart from THE’s Innovation & Impact Summit.

Given that 80% of those surveyed agreed that it’s important to live their lives in a way that is consistent with being a sustainable citizen, I sought out the perspective of such a student.

I spoke with Ranan Parashar, who’s in his second year at the EDHEC Business School in France. His course is the MSc in Marketing Management, but their MSc in Global & Sustainable Business offering was an enticing factor through his decision-making process because he knew he was interested in taking supplementary sustainability classes.

EDHEC’s 2020 Le Figaro Étudiant ranking as the third greenest French business school is one that he’s quite proud of, as it reflects the school’s commitment to the ideals he himself embodies.

“I knew that I was going into marketing studies, but I was also looking into universities that actually paid attention to sustainability. That was a hot topic when I was coming from India to study because sustainability is something that’s going to take up a lot of space in the business in the coming years. Especially in the internship that I’m doing right now—we are talking a lot about sustainability,” he remarks.

Between the expansive green spaces on campus, the available courses, and their sustainability rankings, Ranan felt like EDHEC was, on paper and in practice, the best choice between the five universities he applied to.

Our conversational data at Unibuddy is consistent with these attitudes, showing a massive spike in mentions of the key terms “sustainability” or “sustainable” in 2020.

Being that Ranan is a Unibuddy student ambassador at EDHEC as well as an outspoken advocate for the cause, I was keen to get a first-person perspective beyond the numbers.

In terms of conversations he had personally engaged in around the topic on the platform, they were primarily relative to his course. “I have to say, I’ve seen a trend among many of my friends as well to take up the course because somewhere down the line they have realized that businesses are changing and it’s not only a cliche to marketing. Sustainability is something that is coming up.”

The stickiness of sustainability through the international student journey

Given the facts, figures, and sentiments, are we poised yet to make an educated guess on the staying power of sustainability as a major concern in higher ed?

Will the pandemic-induced technological revolution that enacted wide-scale disruption impact progress regarding environmental consciousness within the sector?

“From a personal point of view, I think it’d be a huge missed opportunity if not,” says Tweddle, “It’s an opportunity for universities to realign and redesign programs to communicate themselves in a different way, and meet those sustainability concerns of the students.”

“Everything has been thrown up in the air and the sector has done amazingly well to adapt to that. Going forward, some universities are considering doing carbon offsetting for international students as a potential marketing opportunity. It’s something that would speak to an international student’s concerns over traveling thousands of miles to be an international student,” he elaborates.

As it pertains to these particular students, travel is obviously a huge contributor to the carbon footprint universities inadvertently create. At Unibuddy we believe that this issue can be mitigated by implementing innovative tech strategies to help students connect, but the question stands whether we may see perseverance in these carbon offsetting practices too.

That said, this initiative has actually already been in place for years at some institutions. In an Inside Higher Ed article dating back to late-2019, Elizabeth Redden writes, “Some colleges and study abroad providers purchase carbon offsets to mitigate the environmental impact of study abroad-related travel. The Foundation for International Education, for example, announced last week that it would be offsetting all round-trip student travel from the U.S. to the United Kingdom and Ireland starting this spring.”

The University of Maryland, College Park, for example, started implementing carbon offsetting for this purpose as early as 2017, investing 85,000 USD between 2017-2018. American University did the same in the 2017 school year.

Given that digital student engagement platforms and carbon offsetting alike have been burgeoning trends in international student recruitment since before the dawn of COVID-19, the jury is out on which will gain the most steam fastest to become a mainstay.

From policy to pandemic and onward

Student interest in sustainability extends all the way to Capitol Hill in the US. Since congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the detailed climate proposal that is the Green New Deal in 2019, students across the country have been vocal proponents of progressive environmental policy.

One student at Ocasio-Cortez’s alma mater, Boston University, provides some insight in an article by the university’s media publication. The standing environmental affairs director for BU Student Government at the date of release comments, “What makes the Green New Deal so exciting is that it factors in the concept of environmental justice. Oftentimes, those at the margins of society are those who are most affected by the symptoms of environmental issues, like pollution, land and water mismanagement, and climate change.…Moving to a carbon-neutral society will in part reduce inequality that is perpetuated by environmental factors.”

Not only is the interest in both the Green New Deal and sustainability on the whole a product of increasing interest in the state of the planet, but the state of human conditions.

That said, COVID-19 should have been a key indicator of repositioning regarding the role of sustainable initiatives in the college decision-making process.

“I think that the context of the global pandemic has shown us the vulnerability of the planet and of humanity, and it’s hit us that we can’t ignore the big problem,” Tweddle says.

“It’s perhaps brought into focus that action is needed—the time for talking needs to be over and hopefully there’s some positivity that comes out of this past year in that we do see a driver of action from the powers that be to move the needle.”

Indeed, the pandemic has shown us the fragility of our shared human experience, and there’s been a collective alteration in our perception of what we truly value most—what we can and can’t withstand and what we do and don’t require.

“I think that universities, if they haven’t already, will start to adapt to that and know that they need to talk up their environmentally-friendly credentials to show students what they’re doing in order to quell those fears and position themselves in a positive light,” says Tweddle.

The bottom line? Students have had more time than ever to reckon with their concerns over the climate crisis in the past year, and their university choices are, in fact, beginning to reflect that.

If change begets more change, we’ll surely find that sustainability will be a part of the conversation until a more environmentally equitable sector is forged in its wake.

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