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‘Climate Change is the Most Important Mission for Universities’

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

If you thought the most important mission of universities was to provide kids with professional skills to help them get a better job, think again.

Climate change is the most important mission for universities of the 21st century

June 4, 2020 6.09am AEST

Lauren Rickards Associate Professor, Sustainability and Urban Planning, School of Global Urban and Social Studies; Co-leader, Climate Change and Resilience Research Program, Centre for Urban Studies, RMIT University

Tamson Pietsch Associate Professor, Social & Political Sciences, University of Technology Sydney

This essay is based on an episode of the UTS podcast series “The New Social Contract” that examines how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through this global pandemic.

Universities are confronting the possibility of profound sector-wide transformation due to the continuing effects of COVID-19. It is prompting much needed debate about what such transformation should look like and what kind of system is in the public interest.

How can universities credibly claim to be preparing young people for their futures, or to be working with employers, if they do not take into account the kind of world they are helping to bring about?

Universities are key to enabling Australian society to transition to a safer and lower emissions pathway. They are needed to provide the knowledge, skills and technologies for this positive transition. And they are also needed to foster the social dialogue and build the broad public mandate to get there.

This means old ideas of universities as isolated and values-free zones, and newer notions of them as cheap consultants to the private sector, fundamentally fail to fulfil the role universities now need to play.

They must become public good, mission-driven organisations devoted to rapidly progressing human understanding and action on the largest threat there has ever been, to what they are taken to represent and advance – human civilisation.

Teaching and research too must change. University students can choose programs and optional modules dedicated to climate change. But this isn’t enough. Climate change has to be integrated in all disciplines.

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I think we should be grateful that universities have clarified their mission, helped us to understand they consider climate indoctrination and shaping social policy to be higher priorities than educating kids and helping private industry.

Next time governments consider cutting costs, funding for universities should be considered part of the climate budget, not part of the education budget.