Executive Summary 2020 Survey: “Students, sustainability and education”


Climate change is affecting every country on every continent. It is disrupting national economies and affecting lives. Weather patterns are changing, sea levels are rising, and weather events are becoming more extreme. Political and corporate climate action has been fragmented, slow and unambitious. Instead, young people and students have taken a lead with Nobel Peace Prize double-nominee Greta Thunberg, Fridays for the Future, MockCOP and sustainability youth organizations globally calling for strong science-informed climate action now. Critically, our education systems aren’t currently preparing learners and students with the knowledge and skills they need to be able to successfully tackle climate change and other sustainability challenges in future. 

In addition to this, the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on young people has been systematic, deep and disproportionate. It has been particularly hard on young women, younger youth and youth in lower-income countries. Young people are concerned about the future and their place within it. 

This has not been easier with the Coronavirus pandemic, systematically and disproportionately impacting young people. When Schools, colleges and universities have been closed and online education has become the norm, the youth has become concerned about the future, the societal challenges ahead and their place within it. 

Education is not just a human right but also an enabler and a driver for the achievement of all 17 of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) including climate action. Adequately equipping young people with tools, critical mind-sets and science-based knowledge is critical to achieve sustainability targets. 

About SOS International

Students Organizing for Sustainability (SOS) International supports student and youth groups globally to lead on sustainability and social justice. They connect, strengthen and scale impactful initiatives – so together we can go further, faster. Read more about SOS International here.

SOS International conducted a survey, with the help of multiple partners worldwide, to understand more about students’ attitudes towards sustainability and climate change in relation to their education and their future employment. 

The research was designed to inform education for sustainable development (ESD) and youth action in practice as well as in policy making, lobbying and campaigning activities. It is also expected that education sector bodies and influencers will use these insights to inform their work and to act as an initiator to include youth and student voices into their work. It builds on similar work by the UK’s National Union of Students, Erasmus+ and Zurich amongst others.

Education organisations and global student networks were invited to support the research by promoting the survey, and in turn receive data which supports them to take an evidence-based approach to their work, as well as enabling benchmarking as well as building business cases to ensure sustainability work is well-resourced (see more here). 

What did we do?

The research consisted of an online quantitative survey, which was promoted via youth and student networks, and education institutions globally.  Promoters were asked not to mention sustainability, green issues, climate change or the environment in their communications so as to avoid bias. The survey took on average 17 minutes to complete and was live in the field from March – October 2020. 

Who answered us? 

6946 students studying in higher education across the world answered us. They were given a chance to win €100 to encourage response. Widespread calls to support the research, through respected channels including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Association of Universities (IAU). Respondents were most effective in Europe, Africa and Oceania. SOS International is particularly interested in working with organizations from outside of these regions in the future to enable a truly global response, building on the data produced through this research. 

What did we find?

The remainder of this summary presents the headline findings from the research. Through the survey, students tell us…

Students are concerned about climate change

90% say they are concerned about the effects of climate change, and also agree that governments from across the world should do whatever it takes to address climate change. 75%  of people used “worried” as the word that best describes their feelings about climate change and their future. This has been recognized by the University of British Columbia, that such worries can contribute to mental health challenges for students worldwide. 

This concern is translating into their voting habits too with 81% of respondents saying they would vote for a government that increased action on climate change. Interestingly, fewer students believed that climate change will negatively impact themselves and their lifestyles. This could perhaps be due to the types of respondents coming from Europe where climate change has not yet materialized as extreme as it has other places. Conversingly, 11% of respondents feel “relaxed” about climate change and their future. That said, a large majority of 72% believe that climate change will negatively impact their futures. 

Given the high level of awareness about climate change, and the recognition that education is a vital tool to tackle global challenges, it is surprising that only 49% of respondents have heard of the UN SDGs and know what they stand for. A further 33% have heard of the name ‘SDGs’ but do not know anything about them. Additionally, 16% have not heard of the SDGs at all. Given the framework is for everyone – from individuals to organizations to governments to multinational corporations – more needs to be done to ensure that not only awareness of the SDGs is increased but also education and resources to enable students to foster the skills, attitudes and agency needed to realize the goals. 

Students want to see this reflected in their education

Alongside this concern, students want to see change. Students have high expectations of sustainability in their education and the education system is not currently meeting sustainability needs. 

UNESCO states that “Education is an essential element of the global response to climate change. It helps people understand and address the impact of global warming, increases “climate literacy” among young people, encourages changes in their attitudes and behaviour, and helps them adapt to climate change related trends.” 

Our research shows that there is very strong student demand for education to be repurposed in this way. 92% of the respondents agree that sustainable development should be universally taught and promoted by colleges/universities. 85% agreed that they would like to learn more about sustainable development, and 73% agreed that it should be actively incorporated into and promoted by all courses. 

But climate and sustainability education isn’t yet reaching the classroom

This demand isn’t yet mirrored in the number of organisations who are embedding sustainability in their work – whether in their curriculum, on their campus or in their community. 

We see that 79% agreed that their studies helped them learn how to have a positive impact on the world, while 53% agreed that their studies have taught them how to make lifestyle changes to help the environment.  

However when it comes to sustainable development and how much it has been covered by respondents’ courses, we find that only 26% of respondents report sustainable development as being covered in depth by their course. Moreover, 40% reporting low to no coverage at all. This can seem surprising when compared to the 79% that agreed that they’ve been taught how to have a positive impact on the world. When we take a closer look at the individual issues respondents tell us they’re learning about, they’re most commonly report experiencing learning that includes issues such as ethics and human rights, while fewer students learn about climate change, ecological systems and ethical trade. 

Whilst there’s still significant progress to be made on ensuring education for sustainable development is thoroughly embedded within curricular, institutions are making more progress in other areas. 46% of respondents told us their institution is taking enough action on limiting their negative environmental impacts and 48% feeling they had opportunities to be engaged in this work. This is reflected in the number of institutions signed up to the Global Climate Letter for Universities and Colleges

Engaging students and limiting negative impacts are both important and laudable activities but truly embedding sustainability across an organisations’ campus, curriculum and community isn’t a new concept and there’s plentiful openly available expertise available on how to to this well provided by student led organizations such as those in SOS International’s membership as well as others including UNESCO, OECD, ARIUSA, Asian Sustainable Campus Network, ACTS, AASHE, EAUC and ISCN

Almost half of respondents reported that their university was where they were mostly encouraged to think and act to help the environment and other people when considering their journey through education so far. Others had learnt the most at primary school (9%), secondary school (18%) or college (21%) whilst only 6% answered that they had not yet learnt this at all . This disparity might indicate a lack of a coordinated approach to sustainability in education systems across levels/institutions although some are making some headway with this. 

Students are thinking about sustainability after graduation – in the workplace as well as in their education

Not only are students’ expectations for their places of study high, they also see the benefits of working for organizations that take the sustainability agenda seriously. In fact, they see this as being more important than their overall salary with them being willing to accept less pay in order to work at companies with more sustainable footprints. 

90% of the respondents would accept a starting salary 5% below average at a sustainable company. 67% are willing to further accept a starting salary 15% below average for a more sustainable workplace. We also investigated the factors respondents prioritise when considering  future career or job prospects with ‘contribution to social value’ being rated as having greater importance than ‘benefits (financial or other) offered by the company’. 

The message for businesses and other employers is clear: your future employees care about your approach to sustainability and social responsibility. Careers advice professionals also have a role to play in helping develop clear pathways for students who are considering a career that promotes sustainability whether through their specific role or through the organization they work for. 

In summary

There is a real urgency to the challenges we face: climate change, building back better from COVID-19, meeting the SDGs. 

To meet these goals, we need an education system that will equip young people with the knowledge, skills, attributes, and values to create a more just and sustainable future for all. 

UN SDG 4.7 is “By 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” 

Students expectations for their education and future employment are high – we now want to see governments and academic institutions and regulators rise to the challenge. 


 Go to detailed results and full report