Universities must court students keen to be green, writes Rebecca Attwood.
Universities will have to go green to stay competitive, according to the student campaign group behind a new league table that ranks universities on their environmental credentials.
Carbon emissions, recycling rates and energy from renewable resources are among the factors used by People & Planet to compile the first Green League for The Times Higher - and the findings suggest there are wide discrepancies across the sector.
While most (78) universities now have a green travel plan, 57 have full-time environmental staff, 28 carry out fully comprehensive environmental auditing; another 28 have no publicly available environmental policy, according to the survey. Recycling rates vary from 68 per cent (Southampton University) to zero and average just 16 per cent across all UK universities.
In January, a survey by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and Forum for the Future found that almost half of young people intending to study education, social sciences, architecture and building and planning believed a good track record on sustainable development was "important" or "very important" in choosing a university.
Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students, said the table would be a crucial tool in making the whole sector more accountable and transparent. "Students have a huge stake in the environment so we are extremely pleased to see so many leading the way and pushing their universities to get in tune with the green agenda," she said.
Mike Pittilo, principal of The Robert Gordon University, which came in 100th place, said the university was already taking action.
He said: "Our environmental policy will be published soon, and sustainability is a core theme of our £115 million estates masterplan. We are confident that the designs proposed by our consultants, with input from staff and students, will give RGU one of the most environmentally sustainable campuses in the UK."
There is increasing interest in the environment on campus, according to Michelle Dixon, environmental adviser at Hertfordshire University, which made third place. She said: "When I started here four years ago, I was the only environmental officer and the phone rang once a day - now it is constantly ringing. I am now one of a team of five."
Jane Roberts, principal lecturer in environmental policy at Gloucestershire University, welcomed Gloucestershire's success in reaching joint fifth place but said she was surprised the table took no account of education for sustainable development in the curriculum. "The major impact we will have on the environment this century is through our graduates - the skills we equip them with and the values we promote in the curriculum," she said.
Wolverhampton University disputed the results, claiming that its score should have been 21/50. It said it had completed a partial environmental audit and had part-time environmental staff.
David Eastwood, chief executive of Hefce, argued that universities were doing a huge range of good work in many different areas but said they still had much more to contribute. "Higher education has a key role in developing innovative responses to the sustainability challenge, and innovation is not helped by over-regulation and backward-looking league tables," he said.
LEEDS MET GREENEST OF THEM ALL
Leeds Metropolitan is the greenest university in the UK, according to the ranking compiled by People & Planet.
From its car pool to its sustainable construction policies, the university is striving to reduce its environmental impact.
Mark Warner, environmental projects manager at Leeds Met , said: "As one of the biggest universities in the country, with 52,000 students, our biggest environmental impact is going to be their future decisions."
Students moving into its latest sustainably designed hall of residence will receive advice on how to live in a sustainable community.
Brian Bolton, campus services manager, said: "Environmental performance in such a large business takes many committed individuals and teams within the organisation taking ownership of their areas.
"The real champions in our recycling initiatives are the cleaning staff and external cleaners who literally go through the rubbish and bins and continually look at ways of improving the proportion of our waste that is recycled."
Environmental initiatives are backed by the Environmental Policy Steering Group. The university also works closely with the students union and course leaders to promote sustainable literacy in its courses.
An impressive 85 per cent of its energy comes from sustainable sources, and to show how highly the university values its commitment to the environment, its environmental audit will soon be published alongside the university's financial audit.
Leeds Met has developed an environmental management system that conforms to the international environmental standard ISO 14001. It has also set a number of targets, which include saving 4 million kWhs of electricity by July 2010, reducing waste to landfill by 70 per cent, and increasing the diversity of trees and shrubs in Headingley woodlands by 25 per cent to improve habitats for birds such as the green woodpecker and other wildlife.
Mr Warner said of the university's position in the table: "I think it is fantastic and a very good testimony to the work that everyone in the university has been doing."
Environmental roll of honour: good practice in sector
* Anglia Ruskin University used to send all students requesting information on full-time undergraduate courses a full-colour 196-page prospectus. Now they receive a 60-page prospectus personalised for each student, which cuts paper use and postage costs.
* Southampton University's £3 million combined heat and power system reduces the university's carbon emissions by more than 2,000 tonnes a year. The system has provided a net saving of £32,000 in the past year.
* Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Development Futures embeds sustainability in the curriculum, across the campus and in the local community. Through the project, university experts are helping the village of Belstone, Dartmoor, to become a "green village".
* Oxford Brookes University boasts that all its electricity comes from a renewable source, hydropower. As well as paper, cans and glass, the university recycles paper cups, computers, CDs, fluorescent tubes, cooking and engine oil and mobile phones.
* King's College London's refurbishment of its Strand campus restored the building to make maximum use of natural light and solar heat. This will cut its electricity use and save 383 tonnes of carbon dioxide and £77,000 a year.
* Queen's University Belfast is using recycled paper for printing and photocopying
* Bristol University offers a course unit in sustainable development that any student may take. Content ranges from energy generation to congestion charging.
* Bradford University this week announced a £3.1 million Hefce grant to support its "Ecoversity" scheme, which aims to ensure that environmental sustainability is incorporated into its students' learning and living experience.