Our education system must equip students with the tools to act on climate change

Shakira Martin, President of the National Union of Students, sets out why it's so vital that all students learn about sustainability.

Shakira Martin on Education and Sustainability

At NUS, we believe that all students should leave formal education as part of the solution to sustainability challenges.

Our students, regardless of their course and discipline, need to be equipped with the knowledge, understanding, skills and values to tackle the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

It does not matter whether a student is studying archaeology or hairdressing, forensic science or art history, politics or dentistry – they all need to be learning about sustainability in a way which is relevant and meaningful to them. We need to be able to connect sustainability to students’ own passions so they are able to embed it in their future professional and personal lives.

To quote Jonathon Porritt, we need all of our learners leaving formal education ‘prepared to take on the work of the world, not just the world of work’.

NUS’ work shows that students already recognise the importance of sustainability. Over the last 7 years, we have surveyed over 40,000 students in higher and further education, and their interest in environmental issues is loud and clear.

From students we surveyed, we know that:

  • 85% of them believe that “sustainable development is something which universities and colleges should actively incorporate and promote”
  • A further 70% of students would like to see this being taught in their university and college courses.

But it’s not just something students are thinking about during their studies  - it’s also having an impact on the ways that students are thinking about their professional lives after graduation.

The education system is integral to solving the world’s greatest challenges. We are already experiencing the devastating impact of climate change worldwide and it is the world’s poorest and people of colour who are massively disproportionately affected.

Today’s students make up the last generation with the opportunity to prevent irreversible climate change. Our educational institutions, as public institutions, have a moral obligation to prepare future leaders with the knowledge, skills, and attributes to solve such pressing issues.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals set out the global priorities for the next 13 years, to 2030.

Whilst education is only explicitly mentioned in Goal 4, education is the key to achieving all of the other 16 goals - whether that be achieving gender equality, ending poverty, reducing inequality, or increasing global well-being – these cannot be achieved without education.

So, what does this education look like?

Fundamentally, it is not about simply teaching about sustainability but rather learning for sustainability.

It is not nearly enough for our learners to be able to recite facts about climate change – they need to have the skills and understanding to make a difference. This must be the aim of any “green” education system.

  • We need our young people to be empathetic and caring individuals who can put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
  • We need them to be cooperative team-workers, ready to work across disciplines, cultures, classes, and borders.
  • We need them to be strong communicators with the confidence to share their ideas and the humility to learn from others’ who may not share the same views.
  • We need them to be critical thinkers and systems thinkers who can understand the complexity of the world they face and ask good questions.
  • We need them to be resilient and compassionate. And, importantly, we need them to be lifelong learners and leaders.

These are not skills that can really be taught but rather “caught” through the educational experiences our students have, in both formal and informal education.

And when we speak about informal education for learners, I’m talking about learning from others - friends, family and the community around them. Where I’m from, in a working-class community, being sustainable is paying 5p for a plastic bag and this narrative needs to change.

We need to recognise that this learning takes place not only in lecture halls and classrooms, but also across the campus, in students’ communities, and through active involvement in clubs, societies, and volunteering. Our students’ unions play a critical role in shaping the lives of students, and it is vital going forward that we start to think holistically about education.

Together, we can ensure that the next generation of leaders has the knowledge, skills, attributes, and values needed to create a more just and sustainable future for all.

Shakira Martin is President of the National Union of Students. She tweets at @shakirasweet1

This piece was adapted from a speech Shakira delivered at a SERA, NUS and Greener Jobs Alliance event at Labour Party Conference.


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