We believe in the power of students to work together with students, staff and faculty on sustainability issues within their universities and communities. But to what extent is the empowerment of students actually the leverage point to make universities more sustainable, or are we pushing the wrong lever?
Felix Spira interviewed Miriam Block about this topic. Miriam studied at the University of Hamburg in Germany and has been involved in a lots of political and bottom-up work as a sustainability student activist.
Felix: Miriam, are we creating too much of a hype when we say that students are change agents for a sustainable world, or is there some truth in the statement?
Miriam: There is not only some truth in that, but I would say that is the truth. Of course also student projects can fail. But I experienced that young people have often more drive, are more creative and see less obstacles than more experienced – and sometimes frustrated – people within universities.
Felix: Based on your experiences at the University of Hamburg, what have students there actually achieved with regards to advancing sustainability within the university?
Miriam: Considering a broad definition of sustainability, students at the University of Hamburg have achieved a lot since the 60ties, in which for instance more democratic governance structures were established.
In the 90ties students put more emphasis towards ecological topics. For instance, they campaigned for the use of recycling paper in the whole of university. Unfortunately a lot of this was forgotten until a few years ago.
In recent years, students wrote the first sustainability report of our university, organised discussions on the topic and started a bottom up movement for sustainable development.
As part of this, we successfully lobbied for the implementation of a student project fund, the recruitment of staff – one now working on sustainability and one on interdisciplinary learning -, and courses on education for sustainable development.
Felix: But was this only achieved by the students, or did you also get some help from staff?
Of course, many of these achievements were realized not only thanks to students. Also a lot of staff were involved, and got inspired by students. Raising the awareness among staff about the possibilities and challenges of student sustainability projects is important, so that students and staff can really work together.
Felix: What do you think we need to do to empower 10% of all university students – which would be over 250 000 people at German universities – to help advance the sustainability transitions of their universities and communities?
Miriam: This is difficult to say. To achieve a multiplier effect we need to talk, unite, trust and become political: Students worldwide should connect more and talk about their successes and failures so that others can learn from each other without having to reinvent the wheel.
I also think that it is important to unite the student movement on educational reform with the emerging student movement on sustainability. To embed sustainability within universities, we definitely need among others less exams, more freedom for personal interests and appreciation for engagement, student project funds and improved student participation.
And of course, we should occasionally remember that change takes time and that many seeds are planted already.
Felix: thanks a lot for this interview, Miriam, and good luck with your future projects.
Text by Felix Spira, photo by flickr, creative commons license