The environmental cause is consequently playing into many aspects of young people’s lives; To how, and what, they want from their education, including the knowledge and skills they are gaining, to expectations around what their educational institutions are doing to reduce climate change, and to gaining an understanding of the jobs and employers they will move into. To other aspects of their lives, such as how people consume and shop, for instance Gen Z (those born from around late 1990s to early 2010s) in the UK are 1.4 times likely to pay a premium for eco-friendly products (YouGov, 2020).
What young people want from their future
Aside from providing them with an income, many people look for meaning and purpose in their work. Indeed, recent surveys of final year students and recent graduates by Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK) found that a sense of meaning and satisfaction from work was the most important factor when considering what job to apply for, coming in front of a good salary/financial benefits (SOS-UK, 2017). Furthermore, this desire for a sense of meaning was significantly more important for those aged 26 and under. The study also found that 57% of final year graduates and 52% recent graduates mentioned ‘Having a positive impact on the world’ as being important when applying for a job.
An organisation’s sustainability strategy is therefore likely to play an increasing role within their recruitment process. A study by TotalJobs (Murray-Nevil, 2019) discovered that a quarter (26%) of workers would be willing to take a pay cut to work for a company working towards protecting the environment. In practice, they found workers were willing to accept a salary reduction of over £8,000 on average per annum to take up an environmentally friendly role. This finding is amplified for the younger workers, finding that Millennial workers were willing to drop their salaries by an average of £11,400.
However, preparing for a future that helps to tackle climate change goes beyond the jobs that young people will do. Following a process of consultation with young people involving more than 300 people across the UK, Our Bright Future (Nash, 2020) found young people wanted three key changes for them and the environment; As well as ‘support to get environmental jobs’, young people also want ‘more time spent learning in and about nature’ and ‘government, employers, businesses, schools and charities to pay more attention to the needs of young people and the environment’. This suggests that education establishments need to be supported to develop their curriculum and pedagogies which include learning in and about the environment, as well as support for their staff to provide the up to date and relevant careers information, advice and guidance to their students.
This preparation for a more sustainable world, including greener jobs, starts in education. But are young people being adequately prepared for this?
Universities are in a strong position to address some of the challenges around sustainability, not just through their teaching practice, but also through their research, their public engagement activities and - given that they are usually such large institutions - responsible campus operations. Many universities are aligning their practices to bring about the sustainable changes our world needs. Since 2019 Times Higher Education (THE) have been running the THE Impact Rankings which assess and compare universities’ performance against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), creating an additional motivator for universities to make real impact. And the majority of students seems to agree with this role of the university – the Student Pulse survey (THE, 2021) found 79% of students think universities have an important role to play in achieving the United Nations’ SDGs.
In this year’s Student Academic Experience Survey by HEPI/Advance HE (Neves & Hewitt, 2021) students were asked ‘Which areas of university spend are the most reasonable use of tuition fees?’. Even after a year of turmoil around some students wishing to get refunds from their fees, a quarter of respondents (25%) selected that they wanted their university to spend on transitioning the institution towards sustainability – a new category introduced only in this latest year of the survey. In fact, when the question of tuition fees is not considered, SOS’s survey of college and university students found that 80% want their institution to be doing more on sustainable development (SOS-UK, 2021a).
Students at both colleges and universities do also expect their institutions to support their development of sustainability skills as part of their courses. Those agreeing this to be the case has grown slightly from 76% of students in 2015-16, to now 81% of students expecting this. A number of skills and competencies can be associated with education for sustainable development. SOS-UK set out 12 key skills shown in Figure 1.