Newcastle University drops 16 places on sustainability ranking

The Courier examines Newcastle University’s decline in Times sustainability rankings, reviewing any points for concern.

Anna Nix
13th November 2023
Image source: Flickr, Simon Cotterill
In 2022, Newcastle University placed 8th in the Times Higher Education (THE) sustainability ranking with an overall score of 96.5. This year, the score has dropped to 93.5 and the University placed 24th. THE is the only sustainability ranking for universities worldwide that assess them against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There are 17 SDGs, and the universities must submit data on SDG 17 - Partnerships for the goals, as well as at least three others of their choosing if they wish to be evaluated. The score of their best three SDGs along with SDG 17 is then calculated which equates to the overall score based on which they are placed in the THE sustainability ranking. The areas on which universities are scored are research, stewardship, outreach and teaching.

Last year, the University’s best three SDGs, with their scores, were Industry innovation and infrastructure, SDG 9 (96.9); Sustainable cities and communities, SDG 11 (91.5); Responsible consumption and production, SDG 12 (90.6) and SDG 17 (96.1). This year the top three SDGs were SDG 11 (84.7); SDG 12 (88.1); Climate action, SDG 13 (79.5) and SDG 17 (91.5) which placed Newcastle University on a joint 24th place with National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan.

When asked about the University’s placement, Professor Richard Davies, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Global and Sustainability, said, “Sustainability is an important issue we have addressed for some time at Newcastle and to see other universities around the world joining us on this mission is to the benefit of everyone, everywhere.   

“A record 1,700 universities submitted data for the latest rankings, and we are delighted that we are leading the way in driving forward this urgent agenda, embedding inclusive and equitable social and environmental justice through our research, teaching and engagement.”

The University contributes towards the SDGs through their research as well as their individual partnerships. The University also supports its graduates through Founderships. A recent start-up the University supported was Solidarity Farm Community Interest Company (CIC), founded by John Harrison. Its purpose is to reconnect young people with education and social interactions through agriculture and other activities surrounded by nature.

Newcastle University is also trying to support the various SDGs through SDG 4: quality education through student participation. The University pledged to “strive to embed awareness and understanding of the SDGs in the student experience by developing a curricular and extracurricular offer that addresses the SDGs” as stated in their Newcastle University Sustainable Development Committee.

Students can take part in the Student Environment and Sustainability Committee (SESC) which is chaired by The Ethics and Environment Officer. The SESC also gives feedback to the Environment and Sustainability Committee.

Newcastle University’s students can also annually be seen participating in the Global Pop-Up Newsroom. Students are joined by universities worldwide and take part in a global conversation about important topics that are also covered by the United Nation’s SDGs. The year of 2022 was focused on stories surrounding the climate change. Whereas this year, students will be reporting on stories around human rights and the live stream will take place around 10 December, Human Rights Day. Each year in March, students are also reporting on stories for International Women’s Day.

Students of Newcastle University were instrumental in protesting the Rosebank Oil Field on Saturday 7 October. The protest was organized by the Extinction Rebellion Society (XR) in collaboration with Amnesty International Society amongst other community groups. The Courier contacted XR regarding their sustainability policy, to which the society are encouraging change. The society shared their support in offering plant-based options that are cheaper than meat as well as reviewing their offer of £1 meals which are ‘not suitable for religious groups or vegans and are polluting products.'

“The university needs to divest from fossil fuel and other polluting industries..."


Ella Spray, Vice-President of Extinction Rebellion Society continued, “The university needs to divest from fossil fuel and other polluting industries. Giving fossil fuel companies a new stream of graduates to be the next generation of climate criminals does not fit with ‘sustainable’ goals.” XR continues to urge the University to stop advertising new jobs in oil and gas companies to students.

The University is working on the Fossil Free Careers campaign, which would exclude oil, gas or mining companies from recruiting Newcastle students on campus or online. Last year, a petition from both staff and students was published for those who supported this change in policy.

The Newcastle University Students’ Union has been striving to improve their approach to sustainability after students criticized their policy in February this year. NUSU invited controversial brand SHEIN to one of their Discover Newcastle fairs. Students were able to win a rack of clothes as well as a £200 voucher. For sustainability, SHEIN is known to be one of the worst brands in the fast fashion industry, regularly accused of being unethical and as well as using hazardous chemicals to produce their clothing. 

Shortly after the fair NUSU released a statement saying they “have decided to amend [their] approach to promoting fast fashion brands within the Student Union building”. Since then, the NUSU shared a Fast Fashion Pledge on their website saying they will not promote five popular brands that produce fast fashion in the academic year 2023/24. The brands are Primark, H&M, Oh Polly, SHEIN and Boohoo. The pledge is to be reviewed annually in April/May after which actions for the following academic year will be decided.

NUSU’s fast fashion policy is not the only sustainability-related sphere to have undergone changes in the past year. The waste management in the Students’ Union was altered after a partnership with Wetherspoons, which opened its services in Luther’s bar. Graham Hattam, Commercial Director at the SU, shared that their policy had to change completely as this was the first time Luther’s served food. He explained that their EPOS systems help analyse their sales which then helps to manage and prepare only the food required for the day’s trade. He continued to say, “We are also proud to highlight that over 98% of our annual waste, which includes food, is either recycled or diverted from landfill.”

A Newcastle University student who works for the Wetherspoons in NUSU, who has chosen to remain anonymous, informed The Courier about their training. They stated: “A lot of the drinks that we learned how to make, particularly the ones on tap, were thrown away after training. Which is understandable due to health and safety policies, however, it is a shame that so many drinks had gone to waste.” They shared that some beer, water and mixers like juice had gone to waste during their training.

Graham explained that due to legal and ethical requirements to train new employees in food hygiene regulations the training “can only be done […] in a real-world environment, which unavoidably does result in some waste”.

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