UK higher education institutions have a key role to play in achieving the country’s goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a new report suggests.
The report is the latest output from the COP26 Universities Network, a growing group of more than 80 UK-based universities and research institutes working together to help deliver an ambitious outcome at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow and beyond.
The working paper, titled Mainstreaming Climate Change Education in UK Higher Education Institutions, foregrounds a series of key messages on how awareness of the climate emergency, and the actions required to address it, can be built into the teaching, research and student cultures of universities across all disciplines.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow contributed to the report, and two of the University’s climate education projects are showcased as case studies of good practice.
The first case study focuses on a series of upskilling microcredential courses, developed at the University by Professor Jaime Toney, director of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Sustainable Solutions, in partnership with the University’s sustainability officer, Stewart Miller, and consultant Elaine Heslop.
Together, they developed two 10-week online courses, supported by the Scottish Funding Council, pitched at learners from a broad base of personal and professional backgrounds. The courses aim to provide learners with new skills to address the education gap which can cause individuals to feel paralysed by the complexity and scale of the climate crisis.
During the first run of the continuing professional development courses, between April and July 2021, 180 students took part, learning new ways to assess their personal and workplace carbon footprint, and identify opportunities for positive changes they could deliver.
An assessment of the first set of courses showed that 20 of the learners had collectively reduced carbon emissions by 6.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalent during the 10-week course. It also projected that they will additionally decrease their carbon emissions by 13.0 tonnes of CO2 equivalent by the end of 2021.
The next round of microcredential courses is currently underway, and the team are planning to open registrations to international learners for a future phase of delivery.
The second case study focuses on student-led climate education at the Universities of Glasgow and Oxford.
Two Glasgow undergraduate students, Vidya Nanthakumar and Samuel Marot, designed ’Interdisciplinary Introduction to Climate Change and Sustainability’, an extracurricular course to help students from across the University’s four Colleges learn about the climate crisis. The 10-week course was officially endorsed by the University’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences.
They recruited University of Glasgow academics to deliver online lectures on relevant topics, and arranged follow-up discussions among participants. The course aimed to focus on different fields of study each week, to paint a complete picture of the causes, consequences and potential solutions for the climate crisis.
Professor Toney said: "I’m proud that two University of Glasgow climate education projects are showcased in this latest report from the COP26 Universities Network, and I’m pleased to have contributed to the drafting of the Network’s recommendations.
"Embedding climate change education and engaging new demographics of students in higher education is critically important if we are to achieve the net-zero goals that the Glasgow has set for 2030. We’ll need the involvement of experts from all disciplines to make it happen, and students will need to be engaged at all levels.
"The COP26 Universities Network working paper outlines a clear, achievable strategy for delivering on those objectives, and I’m looking forward to doing my part to adopting the recommendations here at the University of Glasgow and beyond."
Dr Kelum Gamage, of the James Watt School of Engineering, also contributed to the report, drawing on his experience and expertise as the cofounder and co-lead of the University’s Community of Practice in Sustainability in Learning and Teaching.
Dr Kamage said: "I am pleased to have contributed to this important report in partnership with the COP26 Universities network to mainstream climate change education in UK HEIs.
"It is particularly important that we carefully embed sustainability into our pedagogical approaches to develop the next generation of innovators and leaders, and create a real impact in Scotland and beyond in the journey to achieve UNESCO’s sustainable development goals.
"As a university community of practice, I believe we can intensify our effort to promote sustainability in learning and teaching by following the recommendations highlighted in the report and enabling learners to engage with and respond to climate change."
The key messages of Mainstreaming Climate Change Education in UK Higher Education Institutions are:
- Mainstreaming Climate Change Education (CCE) across all learning and operational activities enables Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to better serve their core purpose of preparing learners for their roles in work and wider society, now and in the future.
- Student and employer demand for climate change education is growing , not just in specialist subjects but across all degree pathways.
- The attitudes, mindsets, values and behaviours that graduates need to engage with climate change include the ability to deal with complexity, work collaboratively across sectors and disciplines and address challenging ethical questions.
- The complexity of the climate crisis means all disciplines have a role to play in delivering education for the net-zero transition. Embedding interdisciplinarity is crucial to ensuring that our response to climate change makes use of all of the expertise HEIs have to offer and promotes knowledge exchange and integration for students and staff.
- Student-centered CCE , including peer-to-peer learning, is a powerful tool for facilitating an inclusive and empowering learning experience, and developing graduates as change agents for the climate and ecological crisis.
- HEIs should develop learning outcomes for CCE that include understanding the scale, urgency, causes, consequences and solutions of climate change; how social norms and practices are driving
- the climate crisis; and the ability to identify routes to direct involvement in solutions via every discipline.
- Pedagogical approaches to teaching CCE should enable learners to engage with, and respond to, climate change as a "real-world" problem, such as through experiential learning.
- Further recommendations for the HEI sector include developing a strategy for aligning CCE teaching provision with governance structures; partnering with industry, government and third sector organisations to enable context-specific CCE; and working with trade unions and accreditation bodies to enable curriculum reform.