World’s top 10 unis lag behind lower-ranking rivals in sustainability offerings

Research by the sustainable energy accelerator, EIT InnoEnergy, has revealed that the most respected universities on the globe offer half the number of sustainability courses on average than their lesser-ranked peers

Research by EIT InnoEnergy has revealed that the world’s top 10 universities offer, on average, half the number of sustainability-focused programmes than lower-ranking rival institutions.

Findings show that the globe’s most respected higher education providers offer an average of 2.8 sustainability courses, compared to an international average of 5.6. In light of this, the sustainable energy accelerator is calling for a more robust and all-encompassing decarbonisation outlook among the sector’s most impactful players.

The research sought to analyse the standalone sustainable educational output of 27 leading universities across Europe, the US, Asia and Latin America, laying focus on institutions that rank well in the Times Higher Education 2020 report, as well as feeder schools to EIT InnoEnergy’s postgraduate degrees.

The study uncovered that limited sustainability programmes (under 1%) are on offer at the University of Oxford (ranked 1st) and Harvard University (7th). The University of Cambridge (3rd) is marginally better at 1.21%. This is considerably lower in comparison to Universidade de São Paulo, for example, which falls outside the Times’ top 200 institutions, but has a greater concentration of sustainability-focused offerings (7%).

These findings point to clear global discrepancies, with more than 6% of all programmes delivered in Latin America demonstrating a sustainability focus, compared to approximately 1% in Europe and Asia.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University stands as higher education’s global leader in the provision sustainability courses, dedicating 11 programmes to the discipline. This number expands when programmes offered in both Chinese and English are considered, widening accessibility to sustainability studies. 

“We need to overhaul the current university ranking system to have a positive impact on the energy transition in our climate – with both courses offered and sustainability approaches carried out by the universities” – Frank Gielen, EIT InnoEnergy

Out of the 124 sustainability-related programmes identified in the study, 51% have an environment focus such as management or engineering. Within this study field, modules generally focus on monitoring and controlling things like air pollution and water quality, rather than equipping students with the skills needed to solve these pressing issues. Specialist topics such as smart cities, renewables and wind make up just 2% of all energy and sustainability-related programmes.

Further research by EIT InnoEnergy shines a light on the growing gap between education and industry. A survey of more than 200 members of the organisation’s industry network – including partners, innovation projects and startups – found that energy storage, energy efficiency and renewable energy skills are most in-demand. This greatly differs to the education research, which only identified one degree dedicated to renewable energy and wind, highlighting the disparity between what the education sector is supplying and what the industry demands.

“While we recognise the value of general engineering degrees in supporting the sustainable energy cause, there is a widening gap between specific, in-depth skills needs of industry and what higher education institutions are offering,” said Frank Gielen, director of EIT InnoEnergy. “It is not only energy businesses that have a role to play in accelerating the energy transition. We, as a society, are all responsible. We need to overhaul the current university ranking system to have a positive impact on the energy transition and our climate – with both courses offered and sustainability approaches carried out by universities. Sustainability should be a primary concern, not an optional module in broader courses.”

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