Jamie Agombar

The “inspiring” leader who uses scientific rigour to change behaviours and create a million agents of change.

When Jamie Agombar (MRes Science of the Environment, 2000, Graduate)  joined the National Union of Students in 2003 to become its Ethical and Environmental Officer, he was the only sustainability member of staff. Today he heads a department of 25.

“The reason we have grown is because we use a theoretical approach and test what we do with scientific rigour; skills I learnt at Lancaster,” said Jamie, who was a students’ union officer while completing his Research Masters on the Science of the Environment.

“Before I arrived NUS was reactive, responding to what students didn’t like, but now we are much more proactive; we don’t wait for students to come to us, we offer students ways to get involved.”

During his year at Lancaster, Jamie was the Ethical and Environment Officer for Lancaster University Students’ Union, setting up the University’s first student food growing scheme.

“That experience was very influential for me. I saw the great work students’ unions do, their ability to create change, even at a small level and that those students who got involved, changed their behaviour in other ways as well,” said Jamie.

So when he arrived at the NUS, Jamie focused on how to change behaviour. He got Government funding to carry out an action research project to discover the barriers and motivators to sustainable behaviour for students.

It became clear that students are much more motivated by what their peers think and do, than by saving money.  So Jamie worked with students to create the Student Switch Off campaign, with students in halls competing to see how much energy they can save. The campaign now saves 1,400 tons of carbon a year. Even more importantly, it helps change long term behaviour, with most students continuing to be conserve energy after moving into private accommodation.

“Research shows that a moment of change in your life is a good time to take up new habits, to instil good attitudes and behaviours longer term. One of biggest changes in anyone’s life is when they leave home and become independent for the first time.”

Following the success of Student Switch Off, Jamie’s team created Green Impact, an environmental accreditation and awards scheme to encourage sustainability in university staff: covering everything from switching off lights and computers to buying fairtrade food and energy efficient equipment or increasing biodiversity.

Again he’s focused on an evidence based approach, doing pre and post intervention surveys to see what works, and measure how the scheme changes staff behaviour at home as well as on campus. And he’s started taking the Green Impact scheme out into other sectors, including every police station in Lancashire and hospitals in Bristol.

Now Jamie, who last year won the 2014 Guardian University Inspiring Leader Award, is expanding NUS’ ambitions further.

“While behaviour change is important the real win is around curriculum reform, to get sustainability embedded in the curriculum.”

As usual Jamie started by gathering evidence, asking students how they wanted to learn about sustainability.  Sixty percent said via the curriculum, whether they are studying engineering or environmental science.

“So we have created a new programme, Responsible Futures, to help universities to embed sustainability in its core purpose, education. We are piloting it in 13 universities.”

He’s also helping to launch an international alliance of students organisations, Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS), as a way to influence international bodies like the EU and UN.

“There are 13,000 universities globally with 135 million students. If we can create cohort after cohort of students that really get sustainability, who will take action when they get into positions of authority, we can have a real impact.”