Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Education, Practice & Society


Climate change is widely recognised as the most critical challenge of our age, with the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report suggesting that to avoid devastating effects, the world must move entirely to renewables by 2050. This project aims to strengthen the contribution of universities in lower-income countries to addressing this challenge.

The role of research and innovation in this task is widely acknowledged, and universities around the world are closely involved in the tasks of monitoring, interpreting and responding to the process and effects of global warming. Yet the broader role of universities in addressing the climate crisis is as yet under-researched. How do courses provided by universities address the question of climate change, and what forms of climate-related learning do students engage with on campus and beyond? What impacts do universities have on climate change through community engagement activities, in fostering public debate on the issue and in the way they embody the principles of sustainability in their own institutional forms?

These roles of universities beyond knowledge production are critical in addressing climate change, given the deep social, political and economic roots of the crisis, and the need to engage with professional development, civic action and public awareness. At the same time, it is clear that despite the potentialities of universities in this regard, much more could be done. This is particularly the case in low and middle-income countries in which there is disproportionate impact of the most devastating effects of climate change.

This project addresses these questions in the context of the higher education systems of Brazil, Fiji, Kenya and Mozambique. These countries have been selected on account of the vulnerability of their populations to climate-related disasters, but also because of the potentialities of their higher education systems for responding to the challenges, and in generating learning that can be utilised in other contexts. The countries have distinct features in relation to their culture, politics, economics and geography, as well as in their higher education systems, which will allow for significant possibilities of learning across the four countries and with the UK.

The research will start with a survey of the state of play as regards universities' coverage of climate change issues within their teaching, research and community engagement. Participatory action research groups will then be created in 12 universities across the four countries, including representatives of students, lecturers, senior management and local communities. These groups will design, implement and monitor initiatives to address local challenges, in line with their own priorities. Interventions may include new modules for students, training workshops for local professionals working with environmental issues, community based projects on disaster preparedness, or developing a carbon neutral campus.

The learning generated from these diverse experiences will contribute to theory building and understanding of the relationship between education and sustainable development, and of the role of higher education in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There will be a strong emphasis on South-South collaboration and learning, and insights generated from interaction and comparison across high/middle/low income countries, between Anglophone and Lusophone higher education systems, and between Africa, the Pacific and Latin America.

While most acknowledged that education has some role to play in achieving the SDGs, much closer attention is needed to the institutional forms and practices that are most conducive. This project grapples with this question in the context of four low and middle-income countries, with significant lessons for the broader global community.

Planned Impact

This project aims to bring benefit to communities in four low and middle-income countries through enhancing the contributions of universities to addressing climate change.

The four countries participating in the study contain populations that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In Fiji, rising sea levels are the primary risk. Kenya and Mozambique are subject to extreme weather patterns and threats to agriculture and food security, while many Brazilians live in precarious housing vulnerable to flooding. All four countries contain substantial proportions of their populations living in poverty, and without access to the support that could help them adapt to these changes.

Positive responses to climate change can exist in the form of mitigation or adaptation, the former consisting of measures to prevent or limit the changes to the climate (mainly through emission of greenhouse gases) through advocacy for policy change or creation of alternatives, and the latter to managing the effects that are already evident.

Impact on adaptation and mitigation will be generated in two main ways by this research project, with diverse beneficiaries:

1. Engaging communities through participatory action research (PAR)

The project involves the creation of PAR groups in each of the 12 participating universities. Each group will design and implement an intervention: these will vary depending on the local context, involving either a community engagement project, a taught course for students, an institutional sustainability plan or a public awareness programme. The beneficiaries will include students (acquiring knowledge, skills and values directly through taught courses in the university, and through the broader learning experiences in the campus and beyond); local communities (through their participation in university projects); professional groups participating in targeted training; and the general public (through public awareness programmes and contribution to public debate).

2. Strengthening higher education institutions and systems

Impact is also envisaged within the 12 universities participating in the research, enabling them to enhance their teaching and research quality, and contribute more effectively to the achievement of the SDGs. The initiatives put in motion by the PAR groups in many cases will involve introduction of taught courses, and curricular and pedagogical reform, with a knock-on impact on the broader learning environment. Second, the links made with community groups and civil society organisations through the research will allow for further collaborations subsequently. Third, each of these institutions will build a medium and long-term sustainability plan, to provide an ongoing framework for action in the years following the project. Furthermore, there will be various forms of capacity building within the institution, in particular with the research associates.

Enhancement of the quality and relevance of work carried out by universities will benefit diverse populations within the participating countries, through the innovation and research generated by universities, and through the professional activities and civic engagement of university graduates.

These positive influences on institutions will be expanded to national and international levels through an extensive programme of dissemination, knowledge exchange and network building. Within Brazil, Fiji, Kenya and Mozambique, this process will be led by the country advisers, in dialogue with national higher education agencies. At the international level, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, along with other agencies and NGOs such as the Association of Portuguese Language Universities and United Nations University, will coordinate international events to engage policymakers and university leaders in transforming their institutions and systems, so as to better address the challenges of climate change.


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