Our civilisation, as we know it, is at an historical tipping point, because of the environmental wreckage we are creating in the planetary biosphere. Planetary biophysical limits will determine the future of our world and, as things stand, this will be characterised by huge discontinuities for human and natural systems, caused by widespread natural disasters, mass migration, and civil unrest. Consequently, in this new age , – the Anthropocene- we urgently need new ways of thinking and acting. The shockwaves running through our interconnected global, environmental, socio-economic, and educational systems caused by Covid-19 create opportunities to transform all our current systems, at the deepest levels.
We urgently need to explore how our university systems could play a significant part in this national and global transformation, but only if they themselves can become transformative. As Richard Bawden(2008 ) has commented
“There is a strange and inexplicable reluctance by our institutions of higher education across the entire globe, to overtly promote the fact that they are first and foremost, agencies of human and social development”
He argues that “project civilisation” is profoundly fragile and our universities have extraordinary know how and capacity to protect it.
Universities are facing huge pressures to change the educational programmes they offer to make graduates fit for future citizenship and employment in the 21st Century (Martin and Jucker, 2009). These demands come from a complex array of contemporary issues including societal, economic, and environmental challenges as well as national and international policy change (Martin et al, 2013). Recent UK policy pronouncements on the green economy are an important example of such policy change ( Pettifor,2019: Luna et al., 2012). Curriculum reform and innovation are beginning to take place in many universities in the UK and elsewhere in the world in response to such pressures and policy developments. Examples include the Higher Educations Academy’s Green Academy change programme at seven UK universities ( MCoshan and Martin,2013). Elsewhere, other universities are introducing some fundamental changes; Aberdeen and Southampton in the UK, Melbourne in Australia, and British Columbia in Canada.

The volume and intensity of such contemporary change requires a system-wide approach to institutional curriculum, campus and community reform and innovation, because the majority of the change in higher education arises from systemic external and internal sources which have varied and contested policy dimensions (Wals and Corcoran, 2012). Adopting a ‘whole institution’ approach in itself raises a number of questions. Change on this scale cannot occur organically. It requires explicit and skilful management along with a strategic emphasis on institution–wide communication to raise awareness of the need for change, and then to gain commitment to the widespread embedding of the curriculum change process. This needs be integrated along with appropriate monitoring and evaluation to measure progress (Scott and Gough, 2003; Trowler, 2010).

Universities can actively promote and participate in the co-creation of societal transformation that goes far beyond technology transfer and other economic contributions, which is why the twin concepts of a “civic” university and “ecological” university have growing support. We advocate that a new model based on the concept of a civic/ecological university would embed a university’s life within its local community and ecosystem, so that both students, locals and the environment benefit from the research and learning activities hosted by the university. Active engagement and mutual learning, paired with participatory processes, creates an environment that promotes critical, systemic, and future-oriented thinking. Good example of such engagement is the development of city-wide citizens assemblies to develop climate emergency and net zero carbon plans, exemplified by Nottingham, Bristol, Lancaster, and Leeds. Former Secretary of State for Education – Charles Clarke and Ed Byrne-President and Principal of Kings College London and currently Chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities make a similar and compelling case for transforming universities as a means of changing the world .

The Ecological University, 2016, Ronald Barnett,
The University Challenge, Pearson: 2020. Charles Clarke and Ed Byrne.

Professor Stephen Martin and Barry Carney

Published by Steve Martin

Steve is a passionate advocate for learning for sustainability and has spent nearly 40 years facilitating and supporting organisations and governments in ways they can contribute towards a more sustainable future. Over the past 15 years he has been a sustainability change consultant for some of the largest FTSE100 companies and Government Agencies such as the Environment Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. He was formerly Director of Learning at Forum for the Future and has served as a trustee for WWF(UK). He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Worcester and President of the sustainability charity Change Agents UK. He is currently a member of the Access Forum for the Peak District National Park and is supporting the local district council on its Climate emergency programme.

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