The impact of sustainability on higher educational programs

Nowadays sustainability challenges - such as climate change, biodiversity, resource scarcity, poverty, and human rights – have become urgent issues for the global community , and require immediate actions on several levels.

Furthermore, since the beginning of the tragic events in Ukraine, the world has increasingly become more aware the accelerating on decarbonisation could actually improve the security of energy supply, by relying more on green energy and less on imported fossil fuels.

In this rapidly evolving and complex context, education and learning have the potential to be pivotal agents in supporting the transition towards a more sustainable and inclusive future, as recognized during the COP26 held in Glasgow in November 2021; this implies that there is an increasing need to add more courses addressing sustainability into all levels of education. Moreover, in 2019 hundreds of Higher Education institutions around the world agreed to undertake a plan to address climate change that entails the increase of environmental and sustainability education across degree courses, campuses and community outreach programmes.

The sustainability challenges, including above all the climate one, have become crucial also for companies and institutions, as the former are having a significant impact upon society and markets, creating new risks and opportunities for current and future investments. Such an issue is particularly relevant for Africa, which, according to the International Energy Agency, is already facing more severe climate change than most other parts of the world, despite bearing the least responsibility for the problem. Indeed, the public debate overwhelmingly indicates that the global clean energy transition holds new promise for Africa’s economic and social development.

Such a context has emphasised the need for specific higher education programmes aimed at developing key competencies and skills related to sustainable development. Consequently, the number of training courses on sustainability has been spreading worldwide, with an increasing number of academic institutions offering this kind of programmes. In Europe, the introduction of ambitious environmental and climate policies has certainly created a more favourable context in the last twenty years for the introduction and development of innovative educational programs and courses addressing the different dimensions of sustainability, especially at postgraduate level.

These masters typically focus on sustainable development, corporate responsibility, energy and the environment, and train graduates and young professionals coming from all over the world and from a variety of academic paths. The heterogeneity of academic backgrounds usually represents a significant challenge in the initial definition of the syllabi but, at the same time, it is also an important strength for this type of educational programs on sustainability, which by definition is considered a cross-sectors and interdisciplinary topic. Moreover, this characteristic has allowed these programs and  their graduates to be attractive for a variety of companies belonging to many different sectors such as the energy, food and beverage, consumer goods and fashion industries, but also for consulting firms and international organisations.

In regard to teaching methods, it should be noted that sustainability programs typically require a mix of theoretical courses, that have to be constantly updated considering the continuous evolution of the various subjects (e.g. clean technologies), and of more practical activities that allow students to be challenged on real-life problems related to environmental and social sustainability. This approach also further supports the exchange of skills and competencies among students with different level of experiences and backgrounds, allowing them to be experience first-hand corporate life while still being enrolled at a university.

Also, a similar active teaching methodology, although with different learning objectives which are suitable for more senior profiles, has increasingly been adopted for executive education programs on sustainability at leading business schools worldwide. In particular. theoretical lectures, case studies, guest speeches, and teamwork activities enable more senior participants to learn about corporate sustainability through a participative and realistic approach.

Finally, one of the key messages arising from these programs on sustainability is that these courses have to be constantly updated and aligned with the latest developments in terms of scientific evidence (e.g. more competitive clean technologies), new business models (e.g. circular economy) and relevant policies (e.g. net-zero targets). These characteristics are necessary requirements for a training program on sustainability, because they allow its students to be more competitive in the job market and, ultimately, to provide their contribution to the transition towards a more sustainable economy and society.

Matteo Di Castelnuovo, Director, Master in Sustainability and Energy Management (MaSEM), Bocconi University


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Africa is a continent in continuous transformation, with a sustained economic and population growth, a fast-paced urbanization and a young generation of talents who is leading its business revolution. This transformation requires energy and will require it even more in the next decades.
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