Why I like the NUS

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Here is a case study I've written* about the sustainability work of the NUS.  Can there really be a better organisation in the UK at promoting involvement in sustainability? **


STUDENTS AS CHANGE AGENTS  The National Union of Students UK


The National Union of Students (NUS) is a confederation of around 600 institution-based students' unions in the UK, with devolved sub-groups in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It provides a national voice for students in UK universities and colleges, and helps students’ unions to work effectively at improving the experience of all students.

The charitable arm of NUS, NUS Charitable Services, seeks to drive improvement within students’ unions, focussing on issues such as equality and diversity, strategic development, and sustainability. The NUS Department for Sustainability is based in the NUS Charitable Services and works on behaviour change, educational and institutional development programmes within and across universities and colleges.


Over time, behaviour-change activities have evolved into more ambitious institution-wide and national activities.

Green Impact: helping students' unions to green their campuses, curriculums and communities, delivering 70,000 greening actions a year – 47 universities and colleges and 100 community organisations are involved, training up over 1,000 students as mentors and auditors each year. NUS won the UNESCO-Japan ESD prize in 2017 for this programme.

Student Switch Off: an inter-dormitory energy-saving competition giving students a chance to win prizes. This saves 1,300 tonnes of carbon a year – 150,000 students are involved at 44 UK and 7 international universities.

Student Eats: student-led food production and enterprises – on 505 campuses.

Responsible Futures: an externally-assessed accreditation mark to assist institutions in helping students to gain the skills and experience they need to thrive in a global economy at a time of climate change – 26 universities and colleges are involved.

Dissertations for Good: a matching service between academics and social causes to help get social value out of student research, delivering 25 Dissertations for Charities in 2017/18.

Campaigns: NUS runs several sustainability campaigns each year, such their divestment campaign Emissions Impossible, the Last Straw (on single use plastics) and the SDG teach-in.

NUS is now building on this solid base of activity by organising annual Student Sustainability Summits, political engagement, and international collaboration through Students Organizing for Sustainability, an informal alliance it co-founded.


  • All these activities have been well-received and have resulted in tangible savings in materials, fuel and carbon emissions, helping universities and colleges work towards their ambitious targets.
  • Although difficult to quantify, many students have developed practical skills and have had their awareness raised and motivation enhanced in relation to climate change and other pressing issues.
  • A wide range of academics within institutions have re-focussed their teaching programmes to address sustainability.
  • The impact has been much stronger within universities than in vocational colleges.


Long-term work to seek the opinion of students has been crucial. These surveys have helped to establish that UK students want their institutions to take sustainable development seriously, to ensure that what they are taught has an appropriate sustainability focus and that sustainability infused within established programmes, rather than presented in free-standing units or courses.

The key to the effectiveness of this work is leadership.   This led to Jamie Agombar, the manager of the programme, winning the Inspiring Leader award in the Guardian's 2014 University Awards scheme. The citation for his nomination said:

“His energetic, focused, and incisive leadership has had a significant impact on the involvement of students in university efforts to address sustainability. … he champions a vision of students leaving tertiary education committed to resolving social and environmental issues through what they do in their lives."


NUS – nus.org.uk/en/who-we-are

NUS Sustainability – nus.org.uk/sustainability

NUS sustainability programmes – tinyurl.com/ybx4o8y7

HEA / NUS / Change Agents Student Surveys – tinyurl.com/ycxpregp

Students Organizing for Sustainability – tinyurl.com/y88xcwed

The Guardian University Awards Scheme – tinyurl.com/qgmzhxh



*It's actually a 2018 update of something written for a UNESCO UK publication.

**The answer is surely 'No'.

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  • I am always encouraged when students make their voices heard. And I am even more excited when I see these student groups surviving for a long time because it shows leadership that is a part of the organizations culture. Sadly, I find that all too often, these action groups and voices fade quickly when the driving force (usually a few voices) move on to other things leaving the original group languishing for lack of leadership.