UK universities are below their US and Canadian counterparts in a sustainability global league table that ranks them on their environmental footprint and contribution to society, as student climate campaigners warn that nearly half are falling behind their emissions targets.
The rankings place the University of California, Berkeley, at No 1, followed by two Canadian institutions, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, with Edinburgh University the top-performing UK institution in fourth place as a result of its strong sustainability research.
The second-highest UK university was Glasgow, in 13th place, which the rankings compiler QS said performed well in equality, thanks to having a large number of female leaders and taking a transparent approach to governance.
Next is Oxford, in 16th place, Newcastle at 18th, and Cambridge, which claimed 19th spot.
Andrew MacFarlane, the QS ranking manager, said the UK had performed “exceptionally well”, with the second-highest proportion of institutions in the top 100 after the US.
“On average, [UK universities] demonstrate good ratios of gender diversity, both at the staff and student level, published commitments to diversity and tolerance as well as climate mitigation and governance, an impressive research focus that speaks to many of the UN’s SDGs and evidence of transparent governance,” he said.
However, Quinn Runkle, the director of education at Students Organising for Sustainability, warned that nearly half of UK universities were not on track to meet carbon emissions targets and two-fifths had yet to commit to divesting from fossil fuels.
“While it is positive to see UK universities performing well in the overall ranking, I think this is a reflection of how far the sector still has to go. Coming at the top does not necessarily mean institutions are doing all that must be done, rather that they are just doing more than others,” she said.
She added that sustainability rankings could be a helpful tool in driving change and she hoped such measures would be included in overall league tables.
“Worldwide just 3% of people attend university but graduates make up 80% of leadership positions so universities have an enormous duty to ensure decision-makers get it right when it comes to sustainability,” Runkle said.
Fiona Goodwin, the chief executive of the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, said “sustainability is an increasing factor of choice for where students apply”, adding that she hoped the Department for Education’s new sustainability and climate strategy would provide the leadership and drive for universities to do more.
QS’s survey of 3,000 students found that 82% of applicants researched their prospective institution’s sustainability work, while 87% considered its track record on equality and diversity. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of students from western Europe cited the climate emergency as the biggest issue for young people.
The rankings are based on two categories: environmental impact, including institutional sustainability and teaching and research on the climate crisis, and social impact, which measures the institution’s equality and diversity, and how social justice features in curriculums and research.
Edinburgh’s high ranking was a result of it producing research aligned with the UN’s sustainable development goals, a good record on diversity, a strong environmental sciences department – including a climate institute and courses such as Msc climate change – and lots of partnerships with universities from the global south.
Planned initiatives include a carbon sequestration programme, which will sequester more than 1m tonnes of CO2, total divestment from fossil fuels, scholarships for people from the areas most affected by the climate crisis to investigate ways to combat its effects and work supporting the Scottish capital’s net zero target.
Dave Gorman, the director of social responsibility and sustainability at Edinburgh University, said the institution aimed to “raise our ambition year on year”, adding that it hoped to further develop on this over the next decade by widening its sustainability focus to include social responsibility, biodiversity, resources and the circular economy.