Transcending Boundaries: Students and Sustainability in Higher Education

Posted by sustainable on October 18, 2013

If sustainability is truly about future generations, then young people — students — should be given the opportunity to propose, develop, and implement prospective solutions for sustainable development. At present, universities are almost never designed for these ends.

Imagine if students, at the beginning of their studies at university, were challenged to ask themselves the seemingly simple questions: Why am I here? And what is higher education for? At the same time, imagine if they were introduced to the many urgent challenges facing humanity and the future of life on this planet. Then, what if students themselves were given the opportunity to propose, develop and organize their own education, based on their newly acquired insights about themselves and the state of the world?

What would it look like? What knowledge and skills would they aim to acquire? Who would they bring in to be their lecturers, teachers, mentors? Which societal actors would they engage with? What would the learning environment look like? What questions would they ask? What solutions to local and global sustainability challenges would they come up with? And perhaps most importantly: how would students, and in extension our future societies, change through this kind of empowering process?

In Uppsala, Sweden, this is happening. For more than 20 years, students from all disciplinary backgrounds from the city’s two universities have gathered at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), to co-create the higher education of their dreams. Just as in Bologna in the 11th Century, where the very idea of the university was born, students themselves in Uppsala are the conveners and at the core of developing the curriculum. Students are hired to work in close collaboration with teachers, researchers and practitioners, to plan and coordinate the wide range of transdisciplinary undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate courses offered at the centre. Perhaps the most radical characteristic of CEMUS is the degree to which students are given agency and treated as intellectual equals – all within a fairly rigid and tradition-laden university structure.

So what then, does student-initiated, student-coordinated education for sustainability look like in practice?

Transcending boundaries

Courses created at CEMUS are inherently trandisciplinary and bring up new and emerging issues that no single department, faculty or discipline can address by themselves. The breadth of the content of their content can be illustrated by just a few of the course titles: Climate Change Leadership, Sustainable Design, Philosophy of Life and Actors and Strategies for Change. Transcending boundaries is not only evidenced in the content of the course work, but also in the learning environment itself where conventional hierarchy between learners and teachers is replaced with reciprocity.

Critical thinking

The desire to seek out opposing viewpoints, or constructing them if they don’t exist, is hardly a dominant characteristic of our current educational system. At CEMUS, students are continuously exposed to a plethora of different perspectives which, at its best, leads to a deep investigation of the values, worldviews, power relations, and ethics at the root of our human predicament. This also entails students to look within, to look back or to contradict their own worldview. At times, this can be an uncomfortable process, especially if students come to the conclusion that the way we think and do things is wrong or potentially harmful. Uncomfortable as it may be, this may be one of the main reasons that student-run education has the potential to be so transformative and really change what students and teachers know and believe about sustainability.

Creative and Reflective action

Besides gaining new theoretical knowledge and insights, the courses are designed for students to gain applicable skills and the courage to take action. By developing proficiency in systems thinking, innovation processes, creative thinking, heterogeneous methods for analyzing, structuring and solving problems, diverse modes of communication, project management tools and a deeper understanding of self, students seem to become better equipped for creative and reflective action in their lives.

A revolutionary learning process

Most education is seen as a process of learning more, of acquiring more knowledge, skills and tools. However, at CEMUS much of the learning would perhaps better be described as a process of unlearning and reevaluating knowledge already acquired. In recent years, norm-critical and anti-oppressive forms of learning have also gained a stronger presence in several courses. In the best cases, this can lead to an emancipatory learning process that brings out the genius in every individual. One of the most exciting aspect of this type of education is that students and teachers can start questioning, challenging, and transforming other learning and work situations in which they find themselves.

Changing the world through collaboration and co-creation

Besides the 20 plus courses that are offered at the centre a subunit within the organization, CEMUS Forum, serves as a meeting place for students, teachers and the wider community outside the university. It aims to be a catalyst for change, an incubator for regional and global innovation that contributes to sustainability by partnering with businesses, civil society organizations, the public sector and more.

So why is the educational model at CEMUS so successful? Here are just a few observations that might shed a little light on this question:

  • Hiring the most engaged students from previous years as course coordinators for the next year’s courses, leads to learning processes that are adapted to students’ interests and needs.
  • Students hired as course coordinators are given both freedom and a large responsibility. In teams of two, they quickly grow into very competent organizers of higher education – passionate and committed to creating the best courses possible.
  • The education is a result of co-creation between faculty and students: the process is a source of inspiration, as well as intellectually and practically challenging, to everyone involved.
  • The courses are complimentary and help to put the students’ previous studies in a broader and meaningful context. Students that find CEMUS are often frustrated with the shortcomings of earlier education and seeking a learning environment that is more interactive, inspiring and meaningful.
  • The organization is dynamic and ever changing due to a constant inflow of new students as course coordinators, two times each year.
  • CEMUS has become a pedagogical experimental lab for active student participation and didactic renewal at the university, with a constant momentum to improve, remix and innovate based on what seems to work.

So, does CEMUS really live up to all of its claims? Based on the many evaluations, comments, and reflections from students, the courses provide some of the most meaningful and relevant higher education that they have experienced. As one recent student expressed it:

The best thing with this education is that it really takes you into the depth of things, aiming to understand the underlying reasons to environmental degredation and other problems of civilization. Furthermore, the courses have meant a lot to me – I feel that I have been studying something important, I feel wonderful.

However, despite the apparent benefits of CEMUS educational model, there are a number of issues that need to be studied in more detail. There are many obstacles to creating the critical and creative education that I’ve described. For example, students ambitions and goals with their studies are not always aligned with the high ambition of the organizers at CEMUS, and the quality of the papers and projects produced can be highly variable. Another major institutional obstacle has been the difficulty to create and develop a research environment at the centre that is just as transdisciplinary and creative as the educational environment. Attempts have been made but with limited success.

Up until now, very little actual research has been done on the educational model and the learning taking place in the courses and in the organization. However, there is an increasing interest from educators and educational researchers around the world to study the model and potentially develop similar initiatives at other universities. Student-run education for sustainability is just in its infancy and has a long and exciting journey ahead to meet its full potential.



Isak Stoddard’s professional work for the last few years has mainly dealt with transdisciplinary Education for Sustainable Development, with an emphasis on experiential, transformative and lifelong learning. He is acting Programme Director and educational coordinator at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), a student-initiated, and mostly student-run centre at the University of Uppsala and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. His educational background is in engineering physics, systems technology and energy systems. Isak has worked in Asia, North America and Europe on issues related to renewable energy, environmental degradation, children’s rights, human trafficking and alternative development paths.