From education to employment

World’s top universities fail to prepare graduates for climate change

Cherop Soy and Josh Tregale

Amid a climate emergency, we are in desperate need of an education system that works for people and planet; to equip people to go into society and take action to push towards a sustainable future. Yet, our universities are failing us. This article explores this failure, and what we can do about it. 

It is worth noting that (the destruction of the planet) is not the work of ignorant people. Rather it is largely the results of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs … Education can equip people to be more effective vandals of the earth’. David Orr

Education is important in shaping our world and giving us the tools and ideas we need to build a better one. As the climate crisis becomes more urgent, we desperately need an education system that works for people and planet; to equip people to go into society and take action to push towards a sustainable future. 

As David Orr’s quote demonstrates, the impact of university graduates can be one of greater harm, rather than help, to the planet. It is critical that universities act in the public good to ensure their graduates are prepared to lead a more just and sustainable future. Yet, they fail to do this. Particularly, as we have found, in the world’s so-called ‘top’ universities. 

We are being let down by our world political leaders time and time again.

Whilst climate scientists urgently warn that significant changes need to be made now to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, international delegates left COP27 with record levels of pollution still being pumped into our atmosphere. It is clear these leaders lack a deep understanding of the urgency behind the greatest issues humanity faces – if they did, they would act. 

These leaders have something in common: most have studied at the world’s so-called ‘top’ universities. 20 current heads of state and government studied at Harvard alone. Although we recognise the elitism of the global university rankings, it seems those with the privilege to study at these institutions disproportionately enter positions of power and vandalise our earth through climate inaction. 

It’s not just about political leaders.

The climate crisis needs to be tackled from all angles: through engineers, builders, policymakers, care workers and more. Yet, engineers at companies like Equinor are still developing plans for new oil and gas fields, like Rosebank in Scotland, during a climate emergency. Students studying Engineering at Imperial are even being handed course t-shirts sponsored by BP. UK universities alone have taken at least £89m from oil companies from 2018-2022; is it unsurprising that they are failing to prepare students to address the climate emergency and ecological crisis through their careers?

Top universities are where world leaders and other key decision-makers are predominantly educated and where their world views are shaped, but much of what is taught does not support or align with the actions needed to tackle the climate emergency and ecological crisis. As carbon emissions rise and inequalities grow, a ‘business-as-usual’ worldview continues to justify growth over people and planet; cemented at these academic institutions. This worldview means education, the most powerful tool for change, is failing to equip past, present and future graduates to take ambitious climate action.  

We have a ‘world-class’ university education system that is failing us

We have a ‘world-class’ university education system that is failing us, and as students we demand change. We need curriculum reform to address the climate emergency and ecological crisis.

Our ‘1.5 Degrees’ League Table confirms this. It is a global ‘worst’ ranking of the top universities and reveals that these institutions are failing to prepare graduates for a 1.5°C future. The ranking has been developed by our youth-led campaign Mock COP, an international movement working to amplify young people’s voices at the highest levels of decision-making. The rankings have revealed that these institutions fall woefully short of the kind of action we need to see. You can see the complete rankings here, and read more about its methodology here.

So, here at Mock COP, we are calling on these top 20 institutions, and all education institutions, to transform their curriculums. Young people should be able to gain an education that will equip them to deal with the world’s greatest challenges, at any institution. We need to learn our subjects through a lens of climate justice, challenging the ways our economic and political systems operate.

We hope that the 1.5 Degrees league table puts pressure on institutions to adapt their curriculums to prepare students, and potential future world leaders, to address the climate emergency and ecological crisis throughout their lives. Education shouldn’t equip people to be vandals of our earth, instead, it should and can equip us to go out and build a more just, sustainable one. 

By Cherop Soy and Josh Tregale

Cherop is an ecowarrior, living in Kenya, devoting her time and passion towards Mock COP as a campaign coordinator with a keen focus on themes: Protecting Biodiversity and Mental Health & Wellbeing. She is seeking to collaborate with young climate activists and individuals to implement the Mock COP26 treaty, especially in Africa. When she is not busy steering the translation of the MC26 campaign plan, she is deeply engrossed in writing for a cause: documenting her going-green journey, through her blog. Furthermore, she has also opened up a segment on her blog dedicated to climate education for elementary school children, where she is drafting an environmental awareness curriculum.

Josh is passionate about tackling climate change and has campaigned on both Teach the Future and MockCOP for several years. He is currently a student at Imperial College London studying Mechanical Engineering, with a plan to focus on renewable energy and low-carbon systems. In his first week at Imperial college in the first week of his course, he was given a course t-shirt which was sponsored by BP – this inspired him to set up 1.5 degrees. In his spare time, Josh loves to be outside hiking and wild camping.

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