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Across the board approach to climate change education will prepare learners for the future

Posted 15 October

“This paper draws together the work from a range of institutions looking at what we can do to respond to the climate and ecological crisis. Those considerations need to be made both on a sector-wide basis – as we argue in the paper – and, naturally, through the work of each institution. As the UK’s leading specialist university for the agri-food and rural business sectors, this is something we’ve been building into our work for some time – as you would expect."

Professor Michael Lee in a short and gilet in a farm building.

Higher education institutions need to embed climate change education into all levels of practice – and seize the opportunity to prepare learners for future roles in work and society.

That is the view of a group of academic experts – including Harper Adams University Interim Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Lee – who released a working paper this week which examines the bold and rapid action needed in the sector to tackle the climate and ecological crisis.

The paper, from the COP26 Universities Network, argues that by embedding education on climate change across the curriculum in a dynamic manner, institutions will help equip students with the knowledge they need for a changing world, both now and in the future.

Professor Lee said: “This paper draws together the work from a range of institutions looking at what we can do to respond to the climate and ecological crisis.

“Those considerations need to be made both on a sector-wide basis – as we argue in the paper – and, naturally, through the work of each institution.

“As the UK’s leading specialist university for the agri-food and rural business sectors, this is something we’ve been building into our work for some time – as you would expect.

“Our School of Sustainable Food and Farming will draw from the expertise we have across Harper Adams and combine it with that of industry networks.

“While our initial targets for the school will be centred on achieving net-zero UK agriculture, our wider ambition will use research and knowledge to extend its work to wider aspects of sustainability including biodiversity, animal welfare, rural community support, green energy production and farm profitability.

“That will, of course, be reflected in our wider University work too, in the dynamic manner that the working paper suggests.”

The working paper argues that complexity of the challenge means all disciplines have a role to play in delivering education for the net-zero transition, and student and employer demand for climate change education reflects this need for it to be embedded in all subjects.

The paper lays out four suggestions as a starting point for embedding climate change education into all university structures, and directing the talent towards the creation of a resilient and zero-carbon future:

  • Building internal capacity: provision of continued professional development on climate change and paid training time for staff. Such a top down approach should enable the practical skills and knowledge to incorporate climate change education across all curricula
  • Ensuring alignment and leadership: institutions should produce a strategy for their climate change education provision, including alignment with national and global climate targets and action, and links to the ‘invisible curriculum’, or values, of non-teaching operations
  • Partnerships for curriculum development: with industry, central government, local government and third sector organisations to enable provision of climate change education that takes full account of spatial and temporal demands and opportunities in the UK’s net-zero transition
  • Aligning assessment and outcomes: work with funding and regulatory bodies, unions, professional and awards agencies to ensure staff capacity and graduate attributes fully align with the demands of addressing climate change

As well as following the recommendations above, the report suggests higher education institutions develop learning outcomes for climate change education that include understanding the scale, urgency, causes, consequences of and solutions for climate change, social norms as drivers, and the ability to identify routes to direct involvement in solutions.

The authors argue that with unprecedented change faced by all sectors of the economy and society, new skills and an educational focus are critical to prepare current and future generations to make decisions under uncertainty. As data emerges, flexibility is crucial as we respond to the climate and ecological crises as they intensify.

Dr Harriett Thew, co-author and UKRI COP26 Research Fellow at the University of Leeds says: “The climate crisis is impacting the communities we live in, the industries we work in, and the lives and livelihoods of others around the world.  This working paper provides research insights and practitioner expertise to support Higher Education Institutions looking to mainstream climate change education, to prepare students of all subjects to respond to this complex challenge.”

Established in 2020, the COP26 Universities Network brings together more than 80 UK universities and research institutes. They aim to improve access to evidence and academic expertise for the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow for the UK Government, NGOs and the international community, working together to deliver ambitious climate change outcomes.

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