When a panel member representing the Ecuadorian government calls in at 3am local time to join a panel on higher education’s role in the ‘green transition’, you know things are serious. Add representatives from the UK and Indonesian governments, UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme, National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU), and we’re in for some tough themes, deep thinking and inspiring calls to action on climate.

This was the Times Higher Education Climate Impact Forum’s event ‘Building the future we need: Higher education’s role in the green transition’. The challenge laid out in the session was daunting, yet hopeful, with an impassioned, united call to collaborate and co-create across our tangled, imperfect systems. And in all the uncertainty that might exist, one thing became very clear during the discussion: higher education is central to transitioning to a sustainable future. Here are some key ideas from the session.

Higher education has a transformative position 

We need to scale up, move fast and work together. 

The role of universities has always been to create and disperse knowledge. Their scientific research has sounded the alarm around climate change for decades. And now, more than ever, scientists’ expertise is crucial in generating solutions for net-zero. But it doesn’t end there. Our knowledge hubs must further step into the role of leadership and use their platform and expertise to shape our way forward in this crisis. 

Speakers emphasised that higher education needs to continue the open debates and work with the community to ensure we are ready to tackle the drastic changes we are facing. They must equip students with the relevant knowledge and skills for the future by embedding sustainability across all disciplines. They need to join networks of institutions and work with think tanks and NGOs to inform policy allowing for new systems to emerge. Universities need to do all of this at scale, and fast. 

Divestment, decarbonisation, decolonisation 

Climate change is a social justice issue. 

Larissa Kennedy, President of the National Union of Students (NUS), shared a core message that universities need to divest, decarbonise and decolonise. Although a growing number of universities are pulling their funds from coal, gas and oil, others, including industry leaders, still have money invested in these. Universities also need to work towards decarbonising their own campuses, an undertaking which has made progress, but still has a way to go.

The NUS is also calling for higher education to vigorously push decolonisation. The old structures that our current systems are built on reinforce the financial gain of the high-emitting northern countries. The struggle will be felt most in the global south, which is left to combat the destructive impacts of climate change with fewer resources available. Universities must collaborate with communities, governments, and other institutions to provide solutions that build more equitable systems.

Embedding sustainability across all subjects 

Climate action must be part of all disciplines. 

Universities equip students with the knowledge and skills required to deal with the future, but there is currently a gap between what is taught and the requirements of green work futures. More importantly, as Sam Barratt from UN Environmental Program (UNEP) says: “All the norms we have relied on, will not be there” so it is crucial for higher education to address this in the curriculum. Environmental education and sustainability need to be included across all disciplines, from engineering and entrepreneurship to medicine and mathematics.  

Students are asking for this loud and clear, as this video from Students Organising for Sustainability shows: 

Community and connection 

We need to see radical collaboration. 

Due to the scale and the complexity of the problem, universities must collaborate between disciplines and across sectors. We must inform and drive the new norms by working with students, communities, governments, institutions like UNEP and UNESCO, businesses and peers in the industry. This needs to happen within the next decade and students’ voices are at the heart of the process. The task at hand is huge.  

While you are reading this you might be nodding and thinking these all sound like reasonable ideas. But please don’t stop there. I ask you to think about how you can contribute to this race: what skills or influence do you bring? What are you passionate about and willing to give? Who can you collaborate with to achieve these extremely ambitious and urgent goals? The time is now.

Explore the Times Higher Education Climate Impact Forum agenda and COP26 as events evolve.  

Feature image by Callum Shaw 

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