A greener future: environmental sustainability and international student recruitment

UK universities and higher education institutions are re-examining their recruitment strategies and models, with a focus on long-term sustainability and the need to diversify international student recruitment.

This major blog series, ‘Strategies for sustainability: diversifying international student recruitment’, focuses on a range of factors that institutions need to consider as they reshape their strategies and recruitment programmes – sustainability in finance, environmental impact, progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and institutions’ values overall.

The series covers: what data tells us about the rising importance of South Asia and West Africa to UK admissions departments; insights into other emerging international markets; the value of engaging with a broader range of students’ prior learning experiences and pathways; sustainable values and societal impact; English language proficiency; environmental sustainability; sustainable presence and practice; and the bigger picture including how success can be measured.

The sixth article in the series considers institutions’ strategies relating to climate action and reducing carbon emissions.


Environmental sustainability is embedded in institutional strategies, with the vast majority of UK higher education institutions setting objectives related to climate action and reducing carbon emissions.

UK universities have committed to reducing emissions in line with national targets and reporting progress in a transparent way, as well as addressing climate change in their teaching and research.

Measuring impact

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a useful framework for assessing progress on different areas. SDG13 relates to climate action.

Many universities have signed the SDG Accord or use elements of SDG Accord reporting to measure and demonstrate progress.

The Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings assess universities against each of the UN SDGs.

The methodology for assessing progress towards SDG13 on climate action measures institutions’ performance across a number of areas:

•             Research on climate action

•             Low-carbon energy use

•             Environmental education measures

•             Commitment to becoming a carbon neutral university.

Coherent strategies

In order to achieve progress on environmental targets, all areas of activity across the university must be considered.

Approaches to activities such as international student recruitment, student mobility and overseas travel need to reflect commitments to act on climate change.

Many institutions already link their international strategy to their sustainability strategy; many others are reviewing their international strategy to ensure it is aligned with sustainability goals.

Reducing emissions from recruitment activities

In a recent survey by Universities UK [PDF], over 90% of respondents from UK universities said that a greater focus on sustainability and climate action would have an impact on international student recruitment. Over 30% felt that the impact would be ‘significant’.

There are a number of measures that can be taken to reduce the environmental impact of international recruitment.

For many institutions, there is now an increased focus on establishing a presence within key markets, with greater involvement for staff based in-country and the establishment of regional hubs responsible for student recruitment. These approaches are supported by virtual events, which enable prospective students to meet academic staff.

New approaches

Personal contact is important in the recruitment process. Digital campaigns and virtual events have a significant role to play, but online engagement cannot replace all face-to-face activities.

Increasing the use of staff based in-country and establishing regional hubs enables universities to maintain a physical presence and personal contact with prospective students, while reducing the need for UK-based staff to travel. Working closely with local partners can also achieve this.

For some UK higher education institutions, having an in-country presence represents a significant new challenge. It requires a fresh approach, with a need to quickly develop new expertise if emerging opportunities are to be maximised.

Support for sustainable recruitment strategies

Ecctis is developing new services to help our members devise and implement new, sustainable, diversified recruitment strategies.

Our partnership with SJRennie Consulting Ltd and AfaraEd enables UK institutions to work with us to develop solutions in the following areas with a specific focus on Sub-Saharan Africa:

•             Market entry solutions and strategy for market newcomers and institutions looking to scale up their operations.

•             Developing the business plan for target countries to include: number of globally mobile students; country economic indicators; key industries and economic growth plans for the country; skills gap identification; academic qualifications, and English language levels.

•             Developing sustainable recruitment pathways that build in diversity and take account of risk including: local foundation and pathway providers; local and international K12 schools; agents; direct students; scholarship bodies; ministries; identifying, scoping and TNE opportunities; working with High Commissions and trade bodies; digital solutions, and exhibitions and trade events.

•             On-the-ground recruitment of key staff and providing an independent infrastructure for them to thrive

•             Logistical, on-the-ground support

•             Lead generation, application volumes, application quality, conversion, enrolment and retention

•             On-the-ground and virtual itineraries including all logistics

•             Ongoing consultancy, mentoring, networking, advice and support.

Read more:

You may be interested in reading the other articles in this blog series, and you can do so using these links:

What data tells us about the rising importance of South Asia and West Africa to UK admissions departments

What analysis of our data can tell UK higher education institutions about other emerging international markets

The value of engaging with a broader range of students’ prior learning experiences and pathways

Sustainable values and societal impact

The role of English language learning in a sustainable international recruitment strategy