Penn State head: lawmakers at odds with climate-focused students

Politicians emphasising jobs while students want impact, Eric Barron tells THE summit

April 22, 2021
Group of demonstrators fight for climate change action
Source: iStock

Students are moving well ahead of the policymakers who control their universities in prioritising social value over job training, the president of Pennsylvania State University said.

Eric Barron said he was seeing a widening disconnect as state lawmakers increasingly emphasised employment-related needs as their chief motivation for higher education policy and budgets.

Discussing legislators, he told the Times Higher Education Innovation & Impact Summit: “This may sound a little bit harsh, but they don’t understand what it is that students are keenly interested in.”

Dr Barron, who plans to step down as Penn State president in June 2022 after eight years, joined United Nations environmental education expert Sam Barratt for a session of the online THE conference exploring the drivers of social transformation in academia.

Mr Barratt, chief of the Youth, Education and Advocacy Unit of the UN Environment Programme, based in Nairobi, said he too saw universities and their funders struggling to keep up with a generation that cares more about their wider world than individual job success.

“The youth voice is the most powerful cog that lives inside a university,” said Mr Barratt, whose environmental education work connects more than 2,700 universities worldwide. “We’re just trying to give licence to the student voice,” he said.

The change has come quickly, Dr Barron said. It’s just in the past five years, he said, that student surveys have shown a dominant preference for career choices based on social equity and climate change.

Statewide, coal-rich Pennsylvania has set a goal of generating at least half of its electricity from solar by 2023, with Penn State – ranked fourth nationally in THE’s University Impact Rankings – providing research expertise.

But in terms of satisfying students through such endeavours, Dr Barron said, “The question is whether that’s fast enough.”

It’s “probably not”, Mr Barratt said. Globally, he said, communities were looking to universities to do a better job as role models in attacking climate change, and as thinktanks to help figure out solutions.

“The world is crying out for universities to be leading more on this,” he said.

Yet students were facing a world of politicians and a wider public who were increasingly limiting their vision of universities to being job training centres, Dr Barron said.

“I constantly see people shaking their heads: ‘What is wrong with these students – they don’t think jobs are the most important thing’,” he said.

Eventually, Dr Barron said, the rest of the world will need to adjust. “The students are going to win out because they’re activists and they’re interested in the topics [relating to social value],” he said. “They’re not just interested – they’re passionate about the topics.”


Print headline: Values-based education: policymakers out of step with climate-focused students, says Penn State leader

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