Curricula for the future: embedding sustainability in education

29 May 2024

In January 2024, the World Economic Forum published its annual Global Risks Report, identifying 34 of the most severe short-term (two years) and long-term (10 years) global risks. Misinformation and disinformation ranked number one in the short term, with extreme weather events coming in second. In the long term, the four most severe risks were all environmental risks: extreme weather events, critical change to Earth systems, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, and natural resource shortages.

These risks contribute to the unique political, social, environmental, and technological landscape young people find themselves learning and growing in today. They pose new and shifting challenges to society, particularly to young people looking to enter the workforce. Education therefore plays a vital role as it underpins many industries that are vital for sustainable development. It prepares young people for this emerging job landscape and equips them with the knowledge and skills needed to tackle sustainable development challenges. 

The power of education in advancing sustainable development

The education sector reaches millions of students, staff, and communities across the country. It shapes the minds of the next generations, thereby shaping not only the workforce but also innovation and sustainable development.

Education leaders are leveraging education to meet society's sustainable development needs through the greening of their own operations. However, the power these institutions hold to drive change through their curricula is often overlooked. Incorporating sustainable development topics in curricula can also give institutions a competitive advantage. 

A Times Higher Education survey of prospective international students found that 79% of students believe universities play an important role in achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). Additionally, 69% of students feel it will be important for their future career to show employers that they developed into sustainably-minded citizens during their time at university. A 2022 survey from Students Organising for Sustainability found that 82% out of 9,303 students would like to see sustainable development actively incorporated and promoted across all courses.

Boards that embrace sustainability education will be in a far stronger position to lead change, attract students and investment, and make a positive global impact. 

Where do the gaps exist?

A 2022 survey by Teach the Future revealed that 51% of UK secondary teachers believe their school’s curriculum or subject does not meaningfully or relevantly address climate change, the ecological crisis, and the challenges these issues pose. While 64% of students in higher education are learning about ethical issues linked to their subjects, only 42% are learning about how to create real change. These gaps highlight the need for curricula that equip students with practical knowledge and skills to address sustainability challenges, as well as support for teachers to embed these learnings into their subjects.

These gaps in young peoples’ educations are contributing to the current ‘green skills gap’ that must be addressed for the UK to meet its net zero target by 2050. Green skills include both the technical skills that enable the effective use of green technologies, as well as the general skills (such as management and people skills) that enable implementation of rapid cultural and organisational change. 

A 2023 LinkedIn report revealed that the share of global job postings requiring at least one green skill grew by a median of 22%, while the share of green talent in the workforce rose by only half that (with a median of 12.3%). What this disparity shows is that companies are struggling to find qualified individuals to fill roles that support their decarbonisation efforts. This situation presents a significant opportunity for educational institutions to help young people acquire these skills.

How can educational institutions bridge these gaps?

The UK government’s 2024 report on Green Skills in Education and Employment identifies the key sectors experiencing green skills labour shortages. These include land-based sectors (such as agriculture and forestry), construction and heating, power supply, waste and resources, transport, and batteries. These provide obvious examples of sectors where green skills and sustainable development should be embedded within the subjects and courses that feed into them. However, the supporting service sectors will also require sustainability knowledge and skills to develop new financial mechanisms, information technologies, large-scale dynamic models, legal frameworks, social policies, and more.

Educators should first identify the critical skills that young people need, using resources such as the Green Skills in Education and Employment report and the UN’s Global Guidance for Education on Green Jobs. They should then review the content they teach (and how it is taught) to pinpoint areas where green skills can be introduced or enhanced. For example, mathematics problems could integrate climatic trends or energy outputs for various energy sources, while English comprehension exercises could be based on governmental biodiversity reports. This exposure to real-world data, themes, and contexts not only builds the intended knowledge and skills (ie solving the mathematics problem or comprehending the excerpt), but also provides additional learning opportunities (ie familiarity with climatic trends and energy efficiency or understanding the state of the world’s natural ecosystems).

Critically, educators need sufficient capacity and resources to integrate sustainability education into their curricula. If education leaders decide to meaningfully implement sustainability education within their institutions, they must support their educators to do so and involve students as a key resource for input and feedback.

What next?

By embedding sustainability into their operations, supply chains and curricula, organisations will be much better positioned to meet the needs of their key stakeholders, including their students, staff, and the communities in which they operate. Institutions that collaborate with these stakeholders and other organisations in the sector to achieve this can also unlock new potential partnerships, course development opportunities, and wider research prominence. 

The education and skills sector is not just about ‘delivering’ qualifications – it has far-reaching environmental, social, and economic impacts. Education leaders should look to; conduct a curriculum review; identify where sustainability education can enhance existing content; develop new subjects or courses that focus on green skills development; highlight links between content and real-world sustainable development and green transition contexts; and provide educators with the support and capacity to embed these learnings within their teachings. These critical steps will assist institutions in attracting students, as well as equipping those students with the skills necessary to secure employment and contribute to the green transition.

If you would like to discuss anything mentioned above, please contact Richard Hall or your usual RSM contact.

Rich Hall
Partner, Head of Sustainability
Avatar Gender neutral person
Cathy Faria
Senior consultant, Consulting services
AUTHOR
Rich Hall
Partner, Head of Sustainability
Avatar Gender neutral person
Cathy Faria
Senior consultant, Consulting services
AUTHOR