Slipping sustainability rankings could affect the University's global standingsLouis Ashworth for Varsity

The University of Cambridge has fallen 105 places in twelve months in global university sustainability rankings, to 124th place.

The 2024 rankings, released in December, show a dramatic fall from Cambridge’s 2023 position of 19th. It is also significantly lower than their overall QS world rankings, in which Cambridge ranks second in the world, only falling behind MIT.

However, QS announced earlier this year that a university’s sustainability score will now be worth 5% of their overall world ranking, causing fears that this could affect Cambridge’s international prestige.

A spokesperson for a student campaign group described the result as “dismal” and representative of the University’s “dithering and delay” on climate change.

QS has altered their methodology between these two years, as in their 2023 rankings only environmental impact and social impact were taken into account, whereas in 2024 governance was newly introduced as a distinct category.

For 2024, environmental impact and social impact are worth 45% each of the overall sustainability score, and governance is weighted at 10%. Cambridge’s overall score across these categories is 79.2 out of 100.

Cambridge’s lowest score of these three categories is for governance at 37.9. This category includes sub-categories such as ethics culture, student representation in governance, and transparent financial reporting.

For environmental impact, Cambridge’s score was 77.2. The main sub-categories were environmental sustainability, environmental education, and environmental research. Out of these, Cambridge had a relatively low score of 62.7 for environmental sustainability which reflect the University’s climate change and net zero commitments, emissions efficiency, and policy on climate strategy.

However, Cambridge’s scores for environmental education and environmental research were much higher at 82.6 and 82.9 respectively.

Cambridge’s highest score across the three main categories was for social impact at 88.7. Equality was the sub-category with the lowest score at 79.3, which includes student and faculty gender ratios, disability support, and their equality, diversity and inclusion policy.

Conversely, Cambridge particularly excelled in the sub-category of employment and opportunities, scoring 99.8/100.

As a part of QS’s aim to make sustainability a valued measurer of a university’s overall world ranking, sustainability now has the same 5% weighting as categories such as employment outcomes, international student and faculty ratio, and international research networks.

In addition, faculty student ratio and academic reputation have had their weightings reduced by 10%, making them worth 10% and 30% respectively in this methodological rejig.

The most recent 2024 QS world rankings show the large impact of these methodological changes. For example, the University of California, Berkeley has risen from 27th in 2023 to 10th in 2024 in the world overall, due to their strong performance on the sustainability league tables where they rank second in the world.

MIT, Cambridge’s main competitor for the top spot, performed much stronger than Cambridge on the sustainability league table, ranking 15th in the world (109 spots above Cambridge).

Two UK universities have ranked in the top ten for sustainability, with the University of Manchester ranking third in the world with a total score of 98 and Imperial College London ranking sixth with a score of 97.

People & Planet, the largest student climate and environmental justice network in the UK, also released their 2023/4 UK-wide sustainability rankings in December, ranking Cambridge joint 72nd with the University of Leicester out of 151 spots.

Cambridge has risen in rank from 84th the previous year, but has still been classed as a 2:2 class university. This survey places more emphasis on environmental impacts than the QS Sustainability ranking, with Cambridge achieving 100% on sustainability staff and 80% on environmental policy, but 16% on ethical careers, 16.8% on water reduction and 25% on waste and recycling.

A spokesperson for Cambridge Climate Justice (CCJ), a student led activist campaigning for climate justice, spoke to Varsity about why Cambridge ranks so low for sustainability, despite being one of the wealthiest universities in the world.

They commented: “It’s no surprise that Cambridge University’s sustainability performance is so dismal when it’s been kicking the can down the road on its love affair with Big Oil. From votes on votes to working groups taking months to decide nothing, there is a pattern of dithering and delay, all while fossil fuel money diverts attention to harmful distractions like carbon capture and storage.”

They continued to express their scepticism on Cambridge’s ability to meet their 2048 net-zero carbon target: “The University’s climate targets already fall short of what is required, and it’s hard to imagine it will be able to achieve them when its senior leadership can’t even agree on replacing polluters’ dirty money.”

Universities’ sustainability strategies are likely to become increasingly scrutinised by prospective applicants. A 2023 QS International Student Survey released in September revealed that international applicants are “actively seeking” information on universities’ environmental sustainability.

Over 40% of current Cambridge students are international, with international student ratio also being a factor in many university rankings. Consequently, Cambridge’s weak sustainability standing could also indirectly impact this in the future.


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The CCJ spokesperson also talked to Varsity on the damage this does to Cambridge’s global prestige: “Students, academics and the community alike know that you cannot be a world leader in academic research while simultaneously being a world leader in corporate greenwashing.”

They proposed immediate changes that Cambridge must make, which “have been made clear, even by the University’s own commissioned report. They should get a move on, finish the job and implement a Fossil Free Research policy immediately.”

A University spokesperson said: “The University of Cambridge was one of the first universities to adopt Science-Based Targets for sustainable goals, including its ambitions to be net zero by 2048 and have a net zero endowment fund by 2038.”

They continued: “Our commitment to sustainability means that there are initiatives, projects and research right across our University. The current strategy was developed from a survey of what was important to our students and staff. The University has already begun work to develop an updated strategy, which includes the proposal of a new Pro-Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for sustainability who can lead on this strategy.”