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OPINION: How a master’s degree could contribute to climate change policy


Academia has a key role to play in promoting a sustainable society, argues Piyushi Kotecha, CEO of the Southern African Regional Universities Association. In this opinion piece, she explains why the universities’ consortium is developing a master’s degree in climate change, supported by CDKN. 

In the UK and US, much of the news about universities and climate change is centred on fossil fuel disinvestment. In May, it was reported that for the second year in a row that the University of California ranked highest in the Global Climate 500 index among universities incorporating climate change risks in their investment decision-making. Divestment means selling off endowment and pension fund holdings in fossil fuels in favour of more ethical investments, arguably contributing to a weakening of the fossil-fuel industry.

Climate change debates in the developing world’s universities are different. Only a handful of African universities have endowment funds, and even those are extremely modest by international standards. Over the fossil fuel industry, or any other industry for that matter, our universities exercise little economic leverage.

In addition, the inter-institutional competition that inheres in the concept of a top 500 index in many ways contradicts the spirit of regionalism that bodies such as the Southern African Regional Universities Association (Sarua) are trying to foster.

But this does not mean that African universities have no power. The fight for sustainability must of necessity be waged on multiple platforms. In addition to what essentially constitutes negative interventions represented by the divestment campaign, the quest for sustainability must include proactive and positive human-centred interventions. This is where African universities come in — as producers of human capacity.

We know that Africa as a continent is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Despite recent positive developments to reduce this vulnerability, it is also poorly equipped to deal with the threats of climate change.

These are not only future threats. Already, Africa cannot escape the effect of past emissions: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Working Group II Report estimates that Africa will experience adaptation costs of between $20bn and $30bn a year over the next decade, up to $60bn a year by 2030. Given a range of uncertainties in the planning scenario, these are likely to be underestimates.

There can be few more pressing issues around which to rally as a regional academic community. As our regional capacity study has shown, for Southern African countries, climate change represents a shared threat as well as a knowledge gap.

As a spokesperson for the Swaziland ministry of agriculture said about his country’s needs: “We need specialists trained on climate change issues, adaptation and mitigation in each and every ministry or organisation. Universities need to introduce programmes on climate change, long term or short term, in order to capacitate communities. Communities must be well informed on issues of climate change and survival skills”.

Universities are currently our best hope for creating the human capacity needed to deal with climate change in the developing world. As argued by Bangladeshi scientist and longtime IPCC author Saleemul Huq in a recent article for Climate Home, tackling climate change requires tangible and long-term capacity-building systems — systems that enable a country to go on building capacity for generations. As he argues, the best institutions to achieve this are universities, which currently educate most of the continent’s leaders and professionals. Universities also influence other educational institutions, national policies and more.

The programme for climate change capacity development (PCCCD) was developed by Sarua and member universities in 2010 as a direct response to the climate change effects facing Southern Africa. In 2012, Sarua, with the support of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, commenced with its 18-month long regional Climate Change Counts mapping study to explore, define and verify the knowledge and research gaps across countries in the Southern African region.

Generally speaking, the research illustrated that higher education enrolments in southern Africa were insufficient and, at the current rate of enrolment, we are likely to achieve 16% enrolment by 2015. This compares with a global gross enrolment rate of 30%. There are also insufficient numbers of PhDs being produced to ensure the region’s contribution to knowledge production and policy making in any field, including climate change.

The idea of a master’s degree in climate change and sustainable development was widely recognised as a key “curriculum innovation point” for further development, especially via partnerships with universities that already have such degrees, and those that are ready to develop, or in the process of developing, masters in this area. It was agreed that a master’s degree could create a feeder mechanism for more PhDs, provide much-needed research capability, and contribute to more informed policy responses over time.

We are now at the point where a consortium of seven universities — the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University; the University of Namibia; the University of Mauritius; Eduardo Mondlane University (Mozambique); Sokoine University of Agriculture (Tanzania); and the Open University of Tanzania — is developing a shared, regional, master’s curriculum in climate change and sustainable development based on the principles of inter-and trans-disciplinarity, relevance, new knowledge and innovation.

The degree will develop capacity in both curriculum innovation and knowledge co-production methodologies. The curriculum and courseware will be made available for peer review in the region and will support Open Access publishing, which means access to universities to adapt the curriculum is free of charge.

The curriculum design is flexible to allow for elective modules to be developed independently by universities beyond the consortium, and to be added to the overall resource base continually.

During the course of this year, regional capacity development workshops are being held with lecturers from interested and participating universities to equip Southern African Development Community (Sadc) academics to prepare and deliver the programme, and to facilitate access to the learning material on the user-friendly, open source platform. Ongoing mentoring support will be provided to lecturers in 2017.

The case for intergovernmental support

Sarua is an association of regional universities established in 2005 to strengthen and grow higher education in the SADC region. A foundational premise of the association is that universities play an important role not only in national socioeconomic development but in regional development. Another central premise of the association is that by sharing capacity, universities can obviously achieve more.

This is not an isolated view. At the 2016 Going Global conference held in Cape Town in May, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor endorsed the need for greater collaboration between higher education institutions.

“Being in Africa, and also having some common challenges with our neighbours, collaborations have the potential of assisting in finding common solutions to our problems and to also assist our decision and policy makers,” said Nzimande.

Pandor was quoted as saying: “One of our problems is a lack of collaboration between Africans in higher education. We must address this as governments and funding partners.”

We couldn’t agree more, particularly in the light of the serious challenges facing universities in SA around student funding and curriculum innovation.

However, systemic, long-term collaboration cannot happen unless higher education is accorded priority status by governments — as it has been in East Africa where the Inter-University Council for East Africa enjoys intergovernmental support in the areas of governance, legislation, strategy and resourcing as embedded features of the model. Unfortunately, this kind of commitment is yet to be achieved in other regions.

Over the years, Sarua has consistently made a case for high-level strategic planning and resourcing among Sadc governments and university leadership around key programmes. And we will continue to do so.

Now that a model for regional academic collaboration is in place focused on climate change, we see great other opportunities: to mobilise the scientific community to develop similar master’s programmes in areas of high relevance for the region such as energy, transport, tourism, ICT and water, which are some of the key priorities identified in the Sadc regional indicative development plan. For this to be realised, funding from relevant Sadc ministries and funders would be essential.

In so doing, our universities become better placed to assert their roles as African leaders in innovation and socioeconomic development.

This article originally appeared on Business Day Live.

For more information visit the CDKN project page.

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