How can higher education meet the challenges of a green future?

  By Taya Owens, UNESCO GEM Report


Global demand for higher education is on the rise. Now is the time to rethink curricula and ensure campuses remain relevant.

Higher education is currently confronted with an unprecedented growth of enrolments. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of students in higher education institutions more than doubled, rising from 100 million to 207 million. In the same period, the global higher education gross enrolment ratio increased from 19 per cent to 34 per cent. 

As with all global figures, they obscure major differences between regions: the higher education gross enrolment ratio ranges from an average of 8 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa to 75 per cent in Europe and Northern America. Nonetheless, over the last two decades, the number of students participating in higher education has also risen in less prosperous regions, where, since 1995, higher education participation rates have grown at an average of 4 per cent a year.

Several reasons account for the rise in global participation rates, including increased demand, greater wealth, more supportive government policies and a growing sense of responsibility for social equity. The main driving force has been the increase in demand for higher education from the middle classes. The increased numbers of youth completing primary and secondary school contribute as well as the higher participation of non-traditional students, including part-time students and working adults. Adults (aged 25+) make up more than a third of enrolled undergraduate students in 10 European countries, while in five countries at least one in four students is signed up part-time. 

Reframing a curriculum to meet the demands of a green future

Enrolling more students may not be sufficient to help us build sustainable and prosperous societies. The 2016 GEM Report showed that, by 2020, there could be 40 million too few workers with tertiary education relative to meet demand. Meanwhile, higher education enrolment is currently weighted towards academic study programmes with relatively low labour market demand, particularly, in the social and human sciences. 

All eyes are on universities and colleges to reframe curricula to meet the demands of an ecological future. Green companies are already employing millions in high and low income countries, and these industries are expected to expand in the future. More jobs will be created in green industries, and some jobs will disappear. All of this will require a major focus on skills development in an array of academic, professional and technical-vocational programmes. Both highly skilled workers and workers with technical training are needed to spur green industries, as well as continuing training and education for low and medium skill workers in existing green industries.  

Invest in knowledge and responsible research 

Innovation requires cooperation from higher education alongside research and development (R&D) backed with public funding. To develop new technologies, higher education systems need to provide enough researchers and developers with specialist knowledge and skills. 

Green innovation systems depend on public funding since the private sector may be unable or unwilling to invest in green technology, especially in early development stages. Public R&D spending in energy and the environment is only a fraction of total public R&D budgets – averaging less than 6 per cent in the EU, less than 12 per cent in the OECD. By comparison, military public R&D in the US is 30 times as large as the energy R&D. 

For higher education systems to provide enough researchers and developers with specialist knowledge and skills in a wide range of fields, diverse and specific curricula are needed along with cooperative study programmes across fields. Major emerging economies such as Brazil and China are expanding their tertiary education systems with that approach in mind. 

The new Sustainable Development Goals demand that we realign education and training to make it relevant to the changing workplace. With the number of students enrolling in higher education expanding at such a vast pace, there is a huge potential to build a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future for all. The time has arrived to transform higher education systems and reorient its focus to provide students with the necessary skills for a green economy. 


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