Climate change will take all our expertise

Universal challenges demand cross-disciplinary focus, argues Dame Julia King, and a thematic approach to university teaching will be essential

October 29, 2015
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Last year a new national curriculum for primary and secondary schools was instituted in England and Wales, with the government saying that it wants all children to develop core knowledge in subjects that universities and employers most value. This has led to intense debate over what children should learn as standard. Many campaigners championed a thematic approach, arguing that all pupils should learn about universal challenges such as climate change, urbanisation and globalisation, across all subjects, from science to English.

Why shouldn’t a similar argument apply to higher education? Universities have a vital part to play in preparing students for leading roles in business and society. But the way degree syllabuses are currently constructed means that cross-cutting issues such as climate change are siloed into just a few academic disciplines.

The UK research councils are already addressing this through calls for interdisciplinary projects to tackle the biggest challenges facing society. And institutions are starting to respond. University College London is bringing together expertise from across the university to address four “Grand Challenges”, and Newcastle University is grouping its research around three “Societal Challenge Themes”.

At Aston University, we’re pioneering a different approach, moving beyond research to apply the principles of thematic education to teaching. Our first initiative in this area is called Carbon Week; we are the first university anywhere to dedicate an entire week of the second-year timetable, beginning on 2 November, to teaching all students about the impact of climate change.

It will launch with an all-day conference at the Birmingham NEC, with guests including politicians and representatives from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Met Office, speaking on the science, politics and business impact of climate change.

For the rest of the week, students will be put together into cross-disciplinary “carbon teams” of 10 and will participate in workshops and lectures on common issues around responding to climate change, from population growth to geo-engineering, and psychology to carbon trading. Participation will earn them credits for their Higher Education Achievement Record.

Each team will undertake a project, such as reporting on how the financial sector is dealing with climate change, or recommending how the issue should influence how a university invests its endowment. Project reports will be presented to a review panel comprising academics, industry experts and honorary graduates.

We believe this thematic approach to teaching will enhance graduates’ skill sets and increase their employability. Shifting to a low-carbon economy will require agility and innovation on a scale not seen before, and governments, businesses and charities will need to use interdisciplinary expertise in ways we can currently only imagine. Universities must produce graduates with the business, technical, political, management and communication skills necessary to facilitate all this.

Forward-thinking firms have a clear climate change agenda embedded into their business strategies. BMW, for instance, has announced it will no longer produce internal combustion engines by the mid-2020s, while the Bank of England is encouraging investors to consider the potential for “high carbon” assets to become valueless in the future. These organisations are looking for future employees equipped to exploit the opportunities that decarbonisation presents. Through Carbon Week, our students will learn to do just that, whatever vocation they choose.

The debate around the proposed teaching excellence framework has opened up a valuable debate on how universities teach their students, but it needs to be wider. It is not enough to consider what data should be collected and by whom. We must challenge ourselves to consider the impact our teaching has on our students and how we can best help set them on ambitious career paths. We need to challenge the traditional approaches so that the biggest issues facing the world today are taught in such a way that all students, regardless of discipline, are equipped to lead business and society into a successful and sustainable future.

Dame Julia King is vice-chancellor of Aston University.

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