Interview: Jamie Agombar on putting sustainability at the heart of education

21st September 2022

Jamie Agombar is on a mission to put sustainability at the heart of education; he tells Huw Morris why young people are agents of change

Jamie Agombar remembers a conversation he had about education with a delegate to the UN Earth Summit in Rio. “He told me they raised the importance of environmental education at a high-level discussion and somebody said the problem with investing in education is that by the time young people get into positions of authority it will be too late. That was back in 1990. Here we are in 2022 and we still haven’t done anything substantive on education. Imagine where we’d be if we had.”

It’s a sobering point, and he is well placed to make it. He is the executive director of Students Organising for Sustainability UK (SOS-UK), a charity created in 2019 by the National Union of Students (NUS), where he was head of sustainability for 16 years. In that time, he built the organisation’s sustainability presence from a single role to a department of 17.

Today it has 35 staff, and this is set to rise to 50. Agombar eschews being the face of SOS-UK, preferring to pay tribute to the charity’s staff, volunteers and, most of all, the students they represent. “SOS-UK is a bit like the Tour de France van that follows the riders. When they fall over, we put them back on the bike, we keep them topped up with snacks and water. We’re the support crew behind the students.”

The charity’s mission is to “to break the cycle of well-educated people making bad decisions for the environment”. Agombar cites the American activist and academic David Orr, who argues that “every June or July Mother Earth groans another sigh, as the most fortunate people who have had the best education prepare to be the most effective vandals of the planet”. Another inspiration is UK environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, who believes “universities should be preparing young people for the work of the world, not just the world of work”.

Inside the factory

“Our universities are almost employment factories, and generally the people who run society have not done a very good job,” Agombar says. “They have run the planet into the ground and continue to do so for their personal or companies’ financial gain. I genuinely believe the education system is the root cause of societal unsustainability. The way we bring young people up is creating them to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

“The education system teaches you to recite knowledge, not apply it; to compete with your peers, not collaborate with them”

He argues that the education system “teaches you to recite knowledge, not apply it; to compete with your peers, not collaborate with them. It teaches things that are deeply siloed, with young people telling us the climate is just for geographers and scientists when it’s going to affect every career and everyone’s life”. Key subjects, particularly economics, law, politics, engineering and education itself, “are misaligned with what we need to do to tackle the climate emergency and ecological crisis”.

A big problem, he continues, is that universities are judged by league tables on “how much you are going to earn, not by what you are going to do”. He believes the education system reinforces society’s obsessions with self-interest and prosperity rather than pluralist values. “You leave university with a debt of £60,000 so you need to get a decently paid job and then value things that are not complementary to living sustainably.”

He argues that today’s global movers and shakers had the best education, “but that does not mean they are sustainable leaders”. He cites UNESCO’s statistic that less than 3% of the world’s population go to university but 80% of the people that run society are graduates. “Is the education offered by universities the right one? Our answer is no.”

SOS-UK’s work

To counter this, SOS-UK has three themes. The first – leadership – focuses on competencies or, as Agombar says, “young people learning how to get around barriers that universities put in their way when they try to run their own sustainability projects”. This emphasises critical thinking across disciplines, accompanied by good communication skills. “If enough young people leave with this, we’ll get a good cohort each year who are likely to go on to make things happen.”

A second theme is to “weave sustainability through every subject like a thread”. Education is deeply siloed, he argues. “Many universities offer a sustainability module which gives you a few course credits, but that isn’t what you need, or what students want either. Whether it’s veterinary science, medicine or English, you should learn how sustainability is relevant to your career.”

SOS-UK can claim some success with its Teach the Future initiative, a youth-led campaign for climate education. This helped to spur the Department for Education (DfE) to set up a climate sustainability unit and develop a dedicated strategy. Another initiative was Mock COP26, an international youth-led climate conference to show what would happen if young people were the decision-makers at last year’s UN summit. Agombar notes that education “didn’t get a look in” at previous COPs, but secured pledges from 23 governments, plus the Commonwealth, to improve climate education last year.

SOS-UK’s third strand is inclusivity. It is heavily involved in work on racial diversity across the environment professions, and recently co-funded a study with the IEMA and the Natural Research Environment Council following up the Policy Exchange’s 2017 study into the issue. Key findings from the latest research include the fact that just 4.81% of environment professionals identify as being black, Asian or from other minority ethnic groups, compared to 12.64% across all UK professions.

Racial diversity among higher education subjects that are closely related to the environment professions is also notably lower. Across all higher education subjects, those who identify as black, Asian, mixed or other minority ethnic account for 26% of students, but in the environment professions, this ranges from 14% in applied environmental sciences to 6% in biodiversity conservation.

“You can’t have climate justice unless you’ve got racial justice. At the moment, sustainability is quite middle class and white in this and other western countries. How disability, race and class link in with environmentalists are all interconnected, because if people feel hard done by and unfairly treated, they are not going to engage with an agenda.

“The agency of young people has massive influence”

“People have to feel they are equal partners and empowered if they are going to join this journey, and we’ll need everyone to join if we’re going to transform society to make it more sustainable.”

Overhauling education

Agombar says that university principals, vice chancellors and headteachers generally support SOS-UK’s agenda, but the education system does not help. Schools teach “an outdated curriculum, and sustainability is treated as something that comes in a couple of subjects,” he says. “We would like to see sustainability liberated from geography and science and reapplied as a principle, like equality and diversity”.

He adds: “One of our big bugbears with the new DfE strategy on sustainability is that it’s not adequately resourcing teachers and schools. There’s no more money to do a good job and it will just be added to the list of many things in a very full curriculum. If you do a bad job on climate education it just makes things worse. If they think it’s a massive problem and there isn’t time to explore the solutions and empower them, it’s just adding to their anxiety.”

He says students, particularly in tertiary education, are in the unusual position of being both customer and product. This gives them leverage. SOS-UK’s research reveals that how seriously a university takes environmental and global developmental issues influences 54% and 55% of students respectively in choosing where to study. This follows through into their careers – nearly two thirds cite a role that helps the environment as an important factor when applying for jobs.

“The agency of young people has massive influence in households and networks. If young people were taught about the climate emergency and what the solutions are, they will have a massive impact.”

To reinforce his point, Agombar recently became a vegetarian at the behest of his daughter. “Young people can get adults to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. That’s the true power of education.”

Jamie Agombar: Off the beaten track

Jamie Agombar had wanted to be a nature reserve warden since childhood, but that changed when he was studying ecology at the University of East Anglia; environmental sciences professor Tim O’Riordan put him on what he calls “not a career path”. “He told me ‘don’t go to an isolated patch of nature when it’s all about people, business and politicians’.”

It was his eureka moment. Agombar became involved in the student union as ethical and environmental officer while studying for a MRes at Lancaster University. After working for a wildlife trust in the Seychelles and for the RSPB, he joined the NUS, where he spent 16 years before the launch of SOS-UK.

“When I say I never had a career, I’ve never aspired to work for an organisation or hop between organisations. I just felt the work we’re doing is transformational to those young people and making the next decision-makers much more likely to care about sustainability.

“I don’t think I could make any more impact in another organisation.”

Image credit | Lee-Boswell | Shutterstock

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