Universities and the Environment

As she launches into her Seeking Sustainability campaign week, President Kate Roberts discusses universities and the environment, considering what role they have to play, and in what areas they should be enacting change.

This week I am running my Seeking Sustainability campaign, aiming to find out what students want when it comes to sustainability at Royal Holloway in order to shape upcoming discussions and decisions with the University. If you haven’t already, please fill out the survey to give us your view (it should only take five minutes).

Take the survey now

In this blog, I want to talk about universities and the environment, considering what role they have to play, and in what areas they should be enacting change. Sustainability is everyone’s issue, from individuals to institutions, at the Students’ Union we aim to improve our own sustainability alongside holding the University to account when it comes to these issues.

Should universities have a role to play in sustainability?

To me, it is quite clear that every institution, large or small, should consider environmental sustainability in everything they do. The scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, making it very clear that if we don’t act now, there may not be a world habitable for us in 100 years’ time. It has become a moral obligation to do everything we can to stop the rise of global temperatures, and universities are no different. It is also very true that the collective action an organisation as large as a university can take, will be able to have a more significant impact than the actions of individuals, but equally, there are so many individuals at a university that collective drives to make small individual changes can also have a big impact on the overall community’s sustainability.

At Royal Holloway, there have been a number of previous actions taken to improve sustainability. One example of these is that the Council of the University (their governing body) declared a climate emergency in 2020, and have continued to consider the environmental impact of decisions made since this.

There was also a new Statement of Investment policy introduced in 2019, following action from the Students’ Union then-President Clem Jones. The policy takes into account the importance of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) factors and, in particular, issues such as climate change.

The Principles of our Statement of Investment Policy include a commitment to the decarbonisation of the College’s endowment investments and aims to set targets in the following three areas:

  • Reduction of future emissions
  • Reducing exposure to carbon intensive companies
  • Making investments in sustainability-themed investments, for example, climate change mitigation, low carbon technology, social housing, sustainable infrastructure and energy efficiency

The College’s Investment Sub Committee performs a bi-annual analysis of the endowment’s carbon footprint and monitors progress towards the targets.

Over the last year the University’s entire endowment investment portfolio has been transitioned from two previous fund managers (Rathbone and Aberdeen Standard) to a new fund manager, Rathbone Greenbank. Rathbone Greenbank is a dedicated ethical and sustainable fund manager.

The characteristics of the portfolio have already changed markedly with much more comprising sustainable, responsible and ESG investments:

Sustainability characteristics

The portfolio’s exposure to carbon-intensive companies (based on CO2 emissions per million pounds of sales) has improved significantly and is over 40% less than a benchmark index called the MSCI All Countries index.


I am really pleased to see how much the University’s investments have changed over the last few years and the renewed focus on sustainability. However, we would like to see more action taken over the next few years.

What’s next?

The University have recently developed a new three-year strategic plan, with a specific strand surrounding sustainability strategy being developed over the next few months. I have been involved in these discussions throughout and I am looking forward to inputting the results from the survey we are running this week into these conversations.

If you want to have your voice heard in the development of the new sustainability strategy, make sure you fill out the survey we are running this week!

There are so many aspects of sustainability at university, and we want to hear all of your thoughts and fantastic ideas relating to any of these areas. This could include; our natural environment, our operations (carbon, water, waste, etc.), travel and transport, food, research, teaching, student engagement, financial management, and communications. If you have any further comments or thoughts beyond those you have shared in the survey, please email me at president@su.rhul.ac.uk.

Sustainability and Education

One of the key questions around sustainability at universities over the next few years will likely be surrounding sustainability and education, namely how much sustainability education should be embedded in the curriculum. It is likely that being climate literate will be an incredibly useful skill in the job market over the next 10-20 years, as companies and organisations turn to become much more sustainable, and it is likely that sustainability will touch on your career in some way, even if you do not move onto a typically sustainability-focused role or career. Therefore, it seems as though it may be useful for all students to have an understanding of sustainability, in the context of their specific discipline. Do you want to see sustainability embedded into the curriculum at Royal Holloway? Or do you have other ideas on how sustainability and education interlink? Let us know in the survey.

Sustainability and Research

Evidently, one of the main areas in which sustainability is already a significant part of the University is through research. The University have a huge number of lecturers focusing on this area, with an aim to increase the interdisciplinary work being undertaken through the introduction of a research cluster focusing on sustainability. The School of Business and Management also currently includes the Centre for Research into Sustainability (CRIS). CRIS is a multidisciplinary, international group of researchers and educators, who are actively engaged with the understanding of social/ethical, economic and environmental sustainability in contemporary society. This centre, alongside researchers in a number of other schools including Life Sciences and the Environment as well as Law and Social Sciences, contribute to a wealth of sustainability research that can help inform the actions taken by the University to improve sustainability.

Sustainability and Resources

Another significant area of work around sustainability at universities is centred on resources, notably carbon, water, and waste, as well as the integration of sustainability into all new buildings on the campus. The recent developments on campus, including the Shilling Building and Emily Wilding Davison Building, both contain solar panels on the roofs to enhance green energy on campus as well as abide by the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) rating. There is a lot of work that can be done in this area, which will likely have a significant impact on the sustainability of the campus. If you have any thoughts or ideas around the sustainable use of resources, please let us know in the survey.

Green Recovery of Higher Education

It cannot be overlooked that this is a pivotal time for sustainability discussions at universities, and across numerous organisations. The pandemic has created a fundamental shift in the way we conduct our everyday lives, and whilst there will be aspects of our current lifestyles that we very much do not want to keep, there will be other areas that will now stay with us and help contribute to a green recovery. We have seen how changes can be taken overnight, and how different ways of working and studying provide different benefits. I believe that now really is the right time to think more innovatively about our sustainability as a university and make significant commitments and actions towards becoming more environmentally friendly.

Final comments

Last reminder (I promise!), please do fill out our survey with your comments so that student voice can be central to the development of the sustainability strategy.

Please do also attend our panel discussion, this Wednesday (6-7pm) where we will be talking about Universities and the Environment with some fantastic guest speakers. I look forward to seeing you there!

Check out all the events