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The planet is on fire, so why is higher education behaving as if it is business as usual?

Are students being prepared for a more climate-destabilised and ecologically-degraded world?

If the science and a declaration by the Dáil in May 2019 tells us we are in a “climate and ecological emergency”, why are Ireland’s institutions of higher education not acting as if we are facing a crisis?

Does the use of the sustainable development goals to badge and brand higher education, continuing research on the science and technological dimensions of the crisis, and the introduction of some new degree programmes together constitute an adequate response?

While there are some welcome innovations, how many are well-intentioned but simply insufficient? How many of the so-called sustainability strategies are disingenuous greenwashing? And what would higher education institutions (HEIs) look like if they were to transform themselves to fully respond to the crisis?

These were some of the questions posed and discussed at a recent all-Ireland gathering of HEI staff, students and members of the community hosted by the University of Galway.


While there was a range of views and proposals, there was consensus that HEIs need to move quicker and transform what and how we research, what and how we teach, how we engage with outside stakeholders, especially citizens, and how we manage our on-site activities.

It is not the case that nothing is being done, but at that meeting there was impatience with the pace and scale of change, and how our institutions of higher and further education need much more than piecemeal and incremental reform.

To fully serve their public purpose in providing our communities, businesses and policymakers with the knowledge of the root causes, uneven consequences and technological and non-technological solutions (including how to adapt to a more destabilised earth system) of the “polycrisis” we face, HEIs must move beyond their current “business as usual” modes of operation. We are not underestimating how difficult this is, but difficult is not the same as impossible.

Fully accepting the planetary crisis for what it is, and how it is related to issues of social and economic inequality, class, gender and racial injustice, legacies of colonisation and exploitation, constitutes a paradigm shift as well as a renewed public purpose or duty for our institutions of higher learning.

We have the scientific evidence for the crisis, much of this evidence coming from these institutions, yet if you were a student within a HEI (or a member of staff) would you know or be learning about this greatest threat humanity has ever faced?

Given the potential that HEIs globally have demonstrated in transformational power in the past – playing important roles in the suffragette, civil rights and anti-apartheid movements – there is every reason to expect that universities can and should respond to the current crises.

Yet the question arises – is the current set-up of the Irish academic institution fit to tackle such complex problems, given HEIs’ established pathways of career progression based around grant capture and peer reviewed publication in top journals, and within an increasingly managerial and competitive HEI sector obsessed with rankings and league tables?

HEIs are publicly funded and they have a civic purpose. However, if we look closely, we find this civic purpose focuses on engaging with businesses and policymakers more than with citizens and community groups.

We are not saying there is no outreach and engagement, but speaking to community or activist groups is not a “normal” part of a researcher’s day job. Yet, our communities are calling for expert knowledge, for the local and near future impacts of the planetary crisis to be explained to them in a language they understand.

Civic engagement should include communicating and co-creating the multiple benefits that are possible from responding to the planetary crisis: cleaner air and waterways, regenerated soils, energy and food security as these are progressively relocalised, higher wellbeing from a shorter working week, and improved health.

However, the dominance of “greening business as usual” approaches within HEIs, expressed largely in techno-fixes, unnecessarily constrains the range of possible and desirable sustainable futures. What is needed is “full spectrum innovation” that includes but goes beyond technology.

The journalist George Monbiot has stated that calling it “climate change” is like calling an invading army “unwelcome guests”, and therefore much more accurate language such as “climate crisis” and “emergency” is needed.

So, we might view how institutions of higher learning are slowly and unevenly responding to climate change, viewed as a novel but discrete challenge and therefore requiring some reform to how they operate, but not yet fully alive to the transformations needed if they were to fully accept that we are in an emergency.

With this, HEIs are no different from the lack of pace, scale and urgency shown by businesses, Government and civil society organisations, from trades unions and sporting organisations to faith communities.

A dominant narrative within HEIs is “techno-optimism”: the belief that the solution to the planetary crisis rests in “decarbonising” the existing political and economic order. Millions of euros are being spent on researching initiatives, such as carbon capture and sequestration, to make it technologically possible to continue burning fossil fuels. However, we have no evidence that this is empirically possible.

A question we would ask of HEIs, and Government funding of research, is this: why do we not see the same funding for social innovations for new low-carbon ways of living; for psychological research on behavioural change; or for addressing the problem of climate and ecological anxiety, which we as educators see increasing year-on-year?

Given that in 2022, more than 20,000 scientists and social scientists signed an open letter which clearly stated “humanity cannot sustain unlimited growth in a finite world”, where is the funding for political economy research into transforming the structure of the economy, and alternatives to the imperative of unsustainable economic growth?

In education, are HEIs preparing our students for a more climate-destabilised and ecologically-degraded world, which will constitute the “new normal” for everything they do, from the careers they pursue, to decisions about whether to have children, or where to live?

On this issue, we see some incremental change within HEIs, with the piecemeal introduction of voluntary climate and carbon literacy modules. While this is welcome, is it sufficient? Are HEIs not derelict in their duty to their students in not providing either a mandatory climate and ecological literacy module, or embedding such knowledge into every degree programme?

A full appreciation of the challenge and opportunities we face raises a host of important questions. How can universities have investments in fossil fuels while claiming to be leaders in addressing the climate crisis? How can work allocation models be altered to include community outreach and engagement as part of the “normal” working life of an academic?

If the professional life of researchers needs to change to encourage slow and low-carbon travel (ferries and trains rather than flying), how do HEI management adjust working practices to allow for this, while also recognising that for some this will not be possible given the stage of their career or caring responsibilities?

We welcome those efforts but are of the view that higher education is neither transforming in a manner demanded by the crisis we face nor taking the crisis seriously enough as the basis for rethinking the academy for the challenges and opportunities of the decades ahead.

Just as John Henry Cardinal Newman (founder of University College Dublin) wrote about “The Idea of the University” in the 19th century, we need a similar discussion today on how higher education can be transformed to be fit for future purpose.

The climate is changing and rapidly, why is higher education not?

A follow up one-day event on how HEIs should respond to the planetary crisis will be held at Queen’s University Belfast on Friday, March 15th. For more details email

Dr Sinéad Sheehan lectures at the school of psychology, University of Galway, Dr Calum McGeown is a researcher in the Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action, QUB, and John Barry is professor of green political economy at QUB and co-chair of Belfast Climate Commission

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