Here’s a rather staggering statistic: UK universities produce one world leader in every 50,000 graduates!

I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of that improbably impressive contribution to global leadership four years ago, when I was thinking a lot about the role of students in helping to accelerate our journey to a more sustainable world. In ‘The World We Made’, I have students taking decisive direct action in 2018:

“On 14th July, 2018, the Enough! movement exploded into life in France, the USA, India and Russia, and then went global. Huge numbers of young people were mobilized by Avaaz (which was still the largest online campaigning community at that time) to fashion a collective rallying cry, with young people occupying government buildings, parliaments, stock exchanges, newspapers and TV companies, banks, oil and mining companies, town halls and civic centres – an irresistible tide of shared fury and compassion.”

I still believe this may well come to pass. Awareness of the potential impact of accelerating climate change is growing all the time, as is a feeling of astonishment that the combined efforts of government and business alike fall so far short of what the science now tells us is so urgent. And although the signs are now quite positive, it’s by no means certain that the Conference in Paris will go far enough in filling that gap.

Short of global insurrection (which I have to admit is not everybody’s preferred route to transforming our corrupt and moribund political systems!) there is of course a massively important role for students – and for the student unions and other bodies that represent them. Including, pre-eminently here in the UK, the National Union of Students (NUS).

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time with the Sustainability Team at the NUS headquarters in London – in their very green building! There are about 20 of them in all, almost all young, mostly women, and all passionate about driving sustainability in the world of HE/FE.

And they’ve got their hands full. A recent survey (commissioned by the NUS and some of its key partners) of more than 500 staff involved in sustainability roles in UK universities and colleagues revealed growing concerns about financial and staff resources – and a worrying insight that a lot of Vice-Chancellors are downgrading the significance attached to the whole sustainability agenda. Piers Telemacque, Vice President Society and Citizenship, NUS, said,

“This important survey gives us a benchmark from which we can see how things change over the years ahead. I’m really worried about the effects of the anti-renewables and sustainability slashing rhetoric from the Government of late, which goes against the hopes and aspirations of our students. This data is a rallying call to our member unions to call on their institutions to do more on campus sustainability, ethical investments and education for sustainable development.”

He’s spot on when it comes to the lack of action on the part of universities in terms of reducing emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Back in the days when government and HE were working hand-in-hand to show real leadership on sustainability, a target was set for the sector of a 43% reduction in absolute CO2 emissions by 2020. Research from the sustainability consultancy Brite Green has shown that they’re on track to achieve an utterly miserable 12%.

In an interview with the Times Higher Education that I did a few weeks ago, I raised my own fears that things could all too easily go rapidly backwards here, given the Government’s total lack of interest in any aspect of today’s climate and sustainability agenda for higher education. But that in no way exempts Vice-Chancellors from accountability for what their own universities are doing here – regardless of the Government’s failure.

Part of the role of the NUS is indeed to hold universities (and individual Vice-Chancellors) to account for this state of affairs – at the same time as they ramp up their excellent campaigning on persuading universities to get out of all fossil fuel holdings in their endowments and other investment funds. Steady progress is being made here, but the number of universities fully signed up to a ‘divest-invest’ strategy (get out of fossil fuels; get into renewables and the green economy) is still very small.

After a painstaking Freedom of Information process carried out by the NUS, the dirt is about to be ditched, giving student unions all the ammunition they will need to build a case for divestment in their own university.

But Jamie Agombar (Head of Sustainability at the NUS, and the driving force behind all this good stuff) and his team are well aware of the fact that you have to make good things happen as well as seek to stop bad things happening. And the best way of doing that is to get student unions focussed on practical improvements in areas like energy efficiency (through the hugely successful Student Switch Off campaign), on sustainable food (through their ‘edible campus’ strategy and the inspiring Five Ideas campaign), and on building international solidarity through their Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS) initiative launched at the Eden Project on 9th October.

Right at the end of my session with this great group of young sustainability champions, I heard for the first time about a really neat little project – Dissertations for Good. This seeks to harness student coursework and dissertations for the benefit of society, connected students with off-campus organisations to develop student research that helps progress social goals and causes.

That’s just one of the ways in which the NUS helps students to make an impact on the world around them. Volunteering programmes in Student Unions deliver around 750,000 volunteering hours annually, with 63% of students having taken part in formal volunteering at university, and 95% of these motivated by a desire to improve things or help other people.

And that’s what’s now so urgently needed: tens of millions of young people all around the world intend not just on making the world a better place, but on organising politically to pit their energy and creativity against all those vested interests still so implacably intent on blocking progress towards that better (more sustainable) world.