They may be rather green on some issues, but our young eco-worriers are certainly driving the sustainability agenda, especially in the new universities. Many of the top performers in the People & Planet Green League 2009 have quite rightly responded to demands and made going green part of their marketing strategy to attract environmentally aware students.
The regulatory climate is also helping to force universities to take sustainability seriously: the Government has passed legislation committing the UK to an 80 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2020 (based on 1990 levels), and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which will soon set a sector-specific target, intends to link funding to institutions' performance in reducing carbon emissions by 2011 (as set out in the 2008 grant letter). Most importantly, there will be penalties for poor performers. Reflecting this, the Green League includes for the first time a score based on the existence, scope and quality of universities' carbon-management plans.
What is ironic is how little is still being done given that world-leading research in climate change and sustainability is taking place in many of our universities. Unfortunately, this work is not being translated into action in the institutions themselves (the subject of a Times Higher Education-Carbon Trust debate next week). The fact that 85 universities employ a full-time member of staff dedicated to sustainability, up from 70 last year, is described by People & Planet as "an amazing shift". But critics say this advance does not go nearly far enough and that environmental improvement should be written into the job description of every member of staff.
Nottingham Trent University sits proudly atop the Green League, up from 18th position last year after making a £1 million investment in carbon management. But compare the attitudes of the two institutions at the bottom of the table. Whereas the University of Wales, Lampeter says that it is "too small" to have a dedicated environmental manager, which loses it vital points in the league, the Royal College of Music, which is tinier than Lampeter, has got involved in the league for the first time so as to benchmark itself, has appointed a dedicated member of staff and has drawn up a five-year strategy to improve its performance.
One area that has escaped People & Planet's scrutiny so far is the carbon footprint of university staff, especially with regard to travel. Probably the most damaging activity to the environment is flying, something many academics do regularly. But there are those, such as David Sedley, professor of ancient philosophy at the University of Cambridge, who have decided to restrict their air travel. Professor Sedley almost always makes the trip to European conferences by train. He is aware that colleagues think this an "eccentricity", if a "harmless" one, but admirably he says he wants to be able to face his grandchildren "when they ask whether we really went on flying, even though we knew how much it was doing to destroy their environment".
Cars - and car parking - will come under the People & Planet spotlight next year when the Green League includes data on single-occupancy car journeys taken by staff. The green agenda drives on; staff, however, may have to take to their bikes.