Climate Impact Forum: Unleash student activism to turbocharge climate efforts, say v-cs

THE Climate Impact Forum hears issue may still be seen as ‘middle-class problem’ in poorer nations

October 28, 2021
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Student activism on climate change could be immensely powerful in the developing world if universities can show them how the issue is linked to poverty and inequality, a Times Higher Education forum has heard.

Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said that in developing countries, “the big issue that students mainly protest about – that they raise often – is about poverty and inequality and sometimes it’s put in competition with climate change”.

“Often students think [climate change] is a problem of the wealthy, this is a middle-class problem,” she told the THE Climate Impact Forum, but it was vital to show them “the link between climate change and poverty”.

If this could be unlocked, then the result could be transformative because the evidence from the student fee protests in South Africa from 2015 were that “they made governments do things they vowed they never would do”.

“I get envious when I hear vice-chancellors in the Global North talking about the protests they are having from students about climate change. I would like to have that because our students know activism,” Professor Phakeng said during a session featuring university presidents from across the world.

The THE event was held in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme ahead of the start of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) this weekend.

Santa Ono, vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia, told the forum that the role of students “will be essential for us to be successful on this existential challenge”, emphasising that they needed to be integrated into decision-making in universities and elsewhere.

“I think one of the biggest responsibilities of universities is to inspire and empower students to be involved in every aspect of the solution,” he said.

“We need to educate them to think in a ‘systems’ way, to understand how to collaborate with educators…to collaborate with government, NGOs and philanthropists.”

Students “need to have a seat at every table”, Professor Ono added. “They need to shape our decisions and they already have. The reason we are moving quickly is because – to be frank – they have pushed us to be more urgent in our actions.”

He also called for an even better global organisation of universities to be set up to improve collaboration in the sector on finding quicker solutions in the race to net-zero emissions.

“There are lots of wonderful organisations and networks… but I am going to be very provocative and say this is not enough, we need better integration,” he said.

“What we are doing today is still too fragmented. We need to rapidly have a global plan where these wonderful networks really come together.”

Lisa Roberts, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, told the forum that leaders themselves would also need to be “bold and ambitious and brave about what we do”.

Her message to students was: “We want you to hold our feet to the fire and make sure that we deliver that bold leadership that’s needed.”

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