Undergraduate students make recommendations to enhance climate change and sustainability education policy-making in universities

Universities have a responsibility to take a lead in responding to the climate crisis and achieving sustainability. Read this blog to find out how and why, we produced a policy brief to make recommendations for sustainable futures in higher education in collaboration with 14 students across UCL.
Undergraduate students make recommendations to enhance climate change and sustainability education policy-making in universities
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Climate change is one of the most significant global challenges that humanity has ever had to face. Such a complex challenge requires a collective effort across all sectors of society to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change and protect the future of our planet. Many experts have highlighted the importance of education to inspire and sustain the socio-political transformations needed for a sustainable future. In particular, universities are uniquely situated to respond to the climate crisis through education and academic research.  

Universities have the potential to develop climate change and sustainability education that motivates and equips students with the knowledge and skills to become active change makers and tackle the global challenges of today (Barr et al., 2021). Academic research from universities can inform innovative educational approaches, sustainable campus practices, and solution-focused government policy (Sterling 2013). Developing higher education strategies focused on climate change and sustainability in the UK, has the potential to inspire institutions globally through the impact of the university’s community of students, faculty and the general public (Sterling 2013).   

The Office for Students, which regulates higher education institutions in England, have made recommendations to reduce carbon emissions across universities (Office for Students 2020). Despite this, universities have not yet made sufficient efforts to reduce carbon emissions in accordance with government promises. Furthermore, academics and students alike have called for a shift towards making climate change and sustainability education and research a strategic priority in all UK universities (Sterling 2013; Latter & Capstick 2021).  

Students are profoundly affected by university policies and have raised concerns as to the current education system’s ability to prepare them for the uncertainty of the future. Yet, their voice and impact is almost non-existent in climate change and sustainability education policy (Dunlop & Rushton 2022). Students have an insider perspective and are motivated to challenge the existing practices of an institution, as such; with proper engagement, they can make meaningful recommendations for sustainable futures in higher education (Macfarlane & Tomlinson 2017; Dunlop & Rushton 2022). For example, students from the UCL Climate Action Society lobbied for sustainable policies through the Student’s Union which were later included in the launch of the UCL Sustainability Strategy 2019-2024 (UCL 2019).  

What did we do? 

In order to address the lack of engagement of students in policy-making for sustainability in higher education, we conducted a research project co-led by two undergraduate students to better understand students’ perceptions of climate change and sustainability education in universities and produce a collaborative policy brief. We organised an outdoor participatory workshop with undergraduate students at Gordon Square Park in London and we discussed the students’ understandings of sustainability and their experiences of learning about it in university. After the workshop, we used the discussion as a starting point to co-produce a policy brief. The students made recommendations on climate change and sustainability education for decision-makers in higher education targeting three key areas of university: curriculum, campus and community (Zaidi et al., 2023). A central theme across all the youth recommendations is that the sustainability agenda, and the probable futures that society face, must set an overarching context for all higher education priorities and decision-making across the UK. 

The process of co-producing the policy brief with ten undergraduate students was an innovative way to include a variety of student perspectives from different disciplinary backgrounds and expertise. We shared an initial draft of the policy brief and the student co-authors made suggestions and comments on the draft. The most effective suggestions would deconstruct and critique the policy recommendations, keeping in mind the key message of the policy brief and ensure clarity and conciseness for the policy-maker audience. The students felt that this was an opportunity to reflect deeply on their undergraduate experience, make meaningful recommendations for policy-makers in their university, and contribute to their first public-facing document on this issue. 

The policy brief, with the full list of youth recommendations, can be found on the Laidlaw Scholars Network website here. This project was co-led by two first-year undergraduate students, Batool Wajiha Zaidi and Kavan Shah as part of the UCL Laidlaw scholarship programme, and supervised by Professor Lizzie Rushton.   

Reference list: 

Barr, N., Hartlet, K., Lopata, J. A., McFarlane B., et al. (2022). ‘Learning in An Uncertain World: Transforming Higher Education for the Anthropocene.’ in Beghetto, R. A. & Jaeger, G. J. (eds.) Uncertainty, A Catalyst for Creativity, Learning and Development. vol 6. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-98729-9_18  

Dunlop, L. & Rushton, E. A. C. (2022). Putting climate change at the heart of education: Is England’s strategy a placebo for policy? British Educational Research Journal http://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3816  

Latter, B., & Capstick, S. (2021). Climate Emergency: UK Universities' Declarations and Their Role in Responding to Climate Change. Frontiers Sustainability, 2. https://doi.org/10.3389/frsus.2021.660596  

Macfarlane, B. & Tomlinson, M. (2017). Critical and Alternative Perspectives on Student Engagement. High Educ Policy 30, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41307-016-0026-4  

Office for Students (2020). Reducing higher education carbon emissions. Available from: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/7199663b-5f6c-49f7-b231-ec5cab2adb81/bd-2020-january-71-reducing-higher-education-carbon-emissions.pdf  

Sterling, S. (2013). ‘The sustainable university’, in Sterling, S., Parkin, S., Maxey, L. and Luna, H. (eds.) The Sustainable University, Progress and Prospects. London: Routledge. 

UCL (2019). Change Possible: The Strategy for a Sustainable UCL 2019-2024. Available from: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/sustainable/sites/sustainable/files/change_possible._the_strategy_for_a_sustainable_ucl_2019-2024.pdf  

Zaidi, B. W., Shah, K., Javed, H., Lewis, I., Mistry, J., O’Connell, S., Outeda, C. R., Parkar, A., Peng, K. & Tan, N. J. T. (2023). Youth Voices for Sustainable Futures in Higher Education – a Youth-led Policy Brief. UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education. Available from: https://laidlawscholars.network/documents/youth-led-policy-brief-youth-voices-for-sustainable-futures-in-higher-education  

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