5 Insights Engaging University Students on Sustainability

Over the last month, we brought in eight industry experts to five leading Chinese universities across Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, where they shared their experiences and had discussions with over 160 students on a variety of sustainability-related topics. At East China Normal University thirty Bachelor, Master and PhD students majoring in environmental engineering joined a discussion with speakers from Gensler and ComplexCity Lab on the design of smart cities using big data. The speech series is part of a bigger platform we have developed to bridge corporates and universities in China, with the ultimate goal to increase the capacity of students to lead organizations through the challenges of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

While most students participating in the events have backgrounds in business and finance, their reviews about being part of the sustainability conversation have been overwhelmingly positive: on a scale of 1-10, 93% rated the event contents 6 and above, and 98% said they would love to keep learning about the topic.

To understand more about how well students understand sustainability, we have asked them to answer a series of questions following each talk. Here is what they said.

Water usage is the biggest challenge the world is facing today

When asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 which issues they feel are the greatest global challenges today, water use comes top, followed by resource consumption and affordable healthcare. Unemployment and inflation are rated the lowest, indicating that students are relatively positive about the current macro economic situations in the recovery from the financial crisis.

Air pollution and food safety are the biggest threaten to daily life

When asked which issues they feel are the most important to their daily life, air pollution and food safety come top, whilst climate change was of least concern. This is interesting given air pollution and climate change are both a products of coal burning and other fossil fuel activities and gives insight into the disconnect that many have in understanding the impacts of future climate change on one personal well being.

Government should take leadership

Almost half of all respondents believe that government should take the leadership on these issues, followed by individuals and businesses. This confirms the results of a previous survey we’ve quoted, where the vast majority of Chinese respondents believe that government has the biggest obligation and power to solve the sustainability challenges we face today.

Students can be game changers

76% of respondents believe they have the power to change. Interestingly, while almost all non-Chinese students believe in the potential power they have, only 67% of Chinese think alike, indicating a significant lack of confidence in individual leadership among the Chinese young generation.

Recycled products remain a small market

When asked to describe what sustainable activities they do on a regular basis, a large number of students choose to take public transport, bike or walk, thanks to the highly developed public transportation systems. Students engaged least in the purchasing of recycled products, followed by a reduction their meat consumption. Both are in fact quite understandable, given the Chinese culture is one that gives high priority to freshness and new looks, and that meat has been an essential part of people’s eating habits.

University students represent China’s future thought leaders and decision makers. As a result how they understand sustainability and engage in responsibility will have significant effects on China’s long term economic and social future. These attitudes will have considerable impact, not just within the Chinese economy, but also throughout global system and it is therefore critical for companies seeking business success in 2025 and beyond to proactively engage students in conversations related sustainability and future business strategies.

In the next blog post on addressing sustainability in Chinese universities, we will go on to discuss the keys of areas of focus when communicating business strategies with students.

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