Climate action and sustainable development: what students can do

University of Manchester student Rachel Grunnill shares ways that students can get involved with sustainable projects at their university

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Rachel Grunnill

Graduate Intern in The Office for Social Responsibility, University of Manchester
June 10 2021
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Sustainability is becoming more important across the university sector and students today are increasingly engaged in tackling social and environmental issues and expect their university to do the same.

Here are just some ways that students can be part of the change.

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Research your university’s actions on sustainable development

A great place to start is to consider whether the institution where you will be investing your time and money is committed to sustainability itself, as well as what opportunities it provides to help live a more sustainable life.

As a recent student, I have found the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings to be a useful tool in comparing how sustainable a university is on a global scale. The rankings assess a university’s performance in delivering all 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Using these rankings can be the first step in judging how committed a university is to becoming more sustainable.


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Join student initiatives committed to promoting sustainability

Once you’ve chosen a university that aligns with your values, or you’ve decided you want to help your university on the path to sustainability, you should think about what kinds of activities and projects you’d like to be a part of. 

As a student, I carried out NUS Green Impact auditing – which taught me the skills to evaluate and support environmentally and socially sustainable practice on my own campus.

Get to know the principles of sustainability

It can be useful to consider sustainability as a concept covering three principles: society, the environment and the economy. By exploring these principles, you can figure out which area of sustainability you’re most interested in getting involved with and work from there.

When thinking about the environment, try searching what kinds of partnerships and research projects the university is involved in. Is there any way you can tailor your own assignments to focus on creating a greener world? For example, the University of Manchester has an Applied Sustainability Projects scheme, in collaboration with various NGOs, that allows students to address key challenges in the environmental and sustainability sector as part of their coursework.

Plenty of volunteering projects and student societies undertake environmental work, such as tree planting or re-wilding. Why not join one of these?

If you’d rather address sustainability in terms of the economy, how about taking steps towards more responsible spending and ethical investments? Instead of buying fast fashion from big retailers, how about spending your money in your local community? Does your university have any sustainable shops or clothes-swapping events you could go to?

Want Not Waste is a student-run, zero-waste shop on the University of Manchester’s campus that was supported by the university to grow from a small stall operating out of our students’ union to owning its own independent unit. Student unions are great places for guidance, and sometimes even financial support, to help get your ideas off the ground.

The third principle to consider is society. You could volunteer your time mentoring or tutoring disadvantaged schoolchildren. These kinds of projects help reduce inequalities and enable access to education for all.

Are there modules or extracurricular courses that explore themes such as food insecurity, poverty or discrimination? While at university, I completed a series of Ethical Grand Challenges, which helped me understand how to address global issues such as racism and homelessness. If your university has similar courses, why not take the time to learn about these?

Student communities play an enormous role in addressing sustainability issues through campaigns, projects and committees. And if these don’t exist in your own university community, set them up! More often than not, plenty of students and staff alike will want to help create a positive impact.


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