Research and blog by Hollie Ryan, Isadora Ferreira and Kate Raworth
Many universities recognise the crucial role that they can play in raising awareness and understanding of climate change amongst their students. We wanted to learn about the different ways in which this is being done so in late October we crowdsourced examples, via Twitter, of different approaches being taken.
Based on the many examples shared with us, we have drawn up five broad approaches, ranging from narrow to broad in scope.
- Focused Degree Programmes: degrees focused specifically on teaching the complex problems and solutions to climate change.
- Focused Researched Centres: research centres dedicated to understanding and solving the complex problems the world faces as a result of climate change.
- Optional Modules and Extra Qualifications: additional learning which can be undertaken by both students and staff to understand climate change.
- University-wide Integrated Initiatives: integrating climate-change awareness in teaching across the whole higher-education institute, reaching various disciplines and departments.
- Trans-university Integrated Initiatives: externally led integration of climate-change awareness into university teaching, and collaboration between universities.
What follows below – and in our more detailed report and database – is a listing, not a ranking: we have not assessed the efficacy of the individual initiatives, nor of the different approaches. It is also illustrative, not exhaustive, including only those initiatives that we were made aware of during our phase of Twitter crowdsourcing. And it focuses only on ways of addressing climate change through teaching, not across all university operations, such as divestment and energy efficiency measures (for this wider assessment in the UK, see the People and Planet University League Tables).
1. Focused Degree Programmes: various universities have created dedicated degree programmes focused on the importance of sustainable development and tackling climate change, focusing on the key issues, potential changes and solutions.
The University of Warwick is a key example of this, offering a BASc Global Sustainable Development, both as a single honours and joint degree. The Joint Honours stream offers the chance to combine the unique interdisciplinary approach of GSD with a growing amount of conventional degree programmes including Politics, Economics, Biology, Psychology and History. The department employ a problem-based learning approach, introducing students to critical issues such as climate change and social justice, asking them to propose innovative solutions to these complex problems.
The University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, designed a BSc programmed based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on the ethical and philosophical context of global and climate change issues. The MSc in Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation from Lund University, in Sweden, offers a mix of practical and theoretical learning on climate change, with a strong focus on adaptation. The programme has an unique opportunity to conduct research for their Master’s thesis with public, NGO and private organisations in various parts of the world.
2. Focused Research Centres: universities have also set up dedicated institutes to research climate change and its impacts.
The Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford was established to organise and promote interdisciplinary research on the nature, causes and impact of environmental change and to contribute to the development of management strategies for coping with future environmental change.
Similarly, the TERI School of Advanced Studies in New Delhi, was the first school in India to dedicate itself to the study of the environment, energy, natural sciences and sustainable development.
The Centre for Sustainable Fashion is a research centre of the University of the Arts London, based at London College of Fashion. Research focuses on human and ecological resilience as a lens for design in fashion’s artistic and business practices.
3. Optional Modules and Extra Qualifications: offering extra qualifications and optional modules is another way universities are incorporating climate change into teaching, free and open to students of all disciplines.
Several universities in the UK have created optional models. University of Surrey designed a free course open to all its students based on the three pillars of sustainability (economic, social and environmental). Students can apply this learning to solve real-life case studies on climate change issues. On the other hand, Bristol University offers “Bristol Futures Optional Units” for under undergraduates. In 2018/19, the units available on climate change focused on the interlink between climate change and cities, sustainable development and sustainability and inequality.
In the Netherlands, the Hanze University of Applied Sciences developed the Futures Literacy, within UNESCO, to address future societal challenges. Their approach is through learning by doing and enable participants to reveal, reframe and rethink their assumptions about the future and climate change.
4. University-wide Integrated Initiatives: integrating climate change teaching and initiatives into broader university initiatives, aimed not only to teaching students, but also staff has also been carried by institutions across the globe.
In the UK, Manchester Metropolitan University has created several initiatives, from the Big Impact programme – a series of events, activities, learning on climate change, available to their staff, students and local community members – to the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Group, consisting of staff and students who work to embed and communicate ESD activities and projects on climate change and other sustainability issues. Academics and students can undertake projects with the Environment Team and the Estates Directorate linking these to their coursework, placements and research activities.
In the Netherlands, Maastricht University created a Green Office to develop bottom-up initiatives and facilitates cooperation between departments to achieve its sustainability goals and raise awareness/collaborative thinking about sustainability challenges, including climate change. This model has now spread to 27 higher education institutions across six countries. The University for Peace, is particularly interesting as it focuses its teaching of climate change from both an ecological and social perspectives.
5. Trans-University Integrated Initiatives: universities working in alliances to integrate and foster climate teaching across the education system.
In the UK, more than 20 universities have taken part in the NUS Responsible Futures, which created an accreditation mark and framework to assist these institutions in helping students to gain knowledge regarding climate change and broader sustainability issues. Another British example is the The Carbon Literacy Project, originating in, offers everyone who works, lives or studies in the Manchester and wider area, a day’s of teaching about climate change and carbon emissions. Its differential is that it highlights the role of individual in fostering change while supporting individuals to cascade effect on a much wider audience.
Forty-eight low-income countries across Africa and Asia have developed the The Least Developed Countries (LDC) Universities Consortium on Climate Change (LUCC). This is an unique network of Southern universities to develop common research projects and implement teaching and training programs in different climate change topics.
Surveying these five diverse approaches, it is clear that universities can raise awareness of sustainability and climate change in many different ways, and that every university can find an approach that fits its circumstances.
The examples prompt many questions. Can and should universities integrate climate change into all their subjects teaching? Should more focused courses, or wider education campaigns, be pursued? Should universities work in strategic networks or work on developing their own initiatives? Which approaches have the greatest lasting impact with students? And which universities are doing the best job in each of the five approaches? These are just a few questions that the findings prompt.
We hope that this crowd-sourced survey will serve to inform and inspire – please share this blog summary, and the far more detailed report and database that we have created widely. We will not be adding further examples or categories to this set, but anyone is welcome to use both the report and the database as the basis for further research.