Cutting-edge climate change curriculum enters phase two

The Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) Climate Change Steering Group recently endorsed the finalised version of a climate change and sustainable development curriculum and digital ecosystem, which SARUA revised and which will be updated, under phase two, in 2023.

The curriculum was finalised by a high-level climate change curriculum development group of climate change experts across the Southern African Development Community (SADC), who had been working with SARUA during the curriculum revision and updating processes.

This was highlighted by panellists during a SARUA webinar on 22 November 2022 to provide feedback on the processes and outcomes undertaken for “the design and development of a Southern African masters curriculum in climate change and sustainable development”.

The webinar was attended by academia and university leaders, including vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors of African universities such as the Catholic University of Mozambique and Stellenbosch University in South Africa, deans of faculties, and programme managers from across the SADC region.

Curriculum engages many role players

According to SARUA’s climate change development programme manager, Professor René Pellissier, the two main priorities of the masters level curriculum are to build knowledge and understanding of climate change and development from academic and applied perspectives for application in specific domains critical to the region’s development.

Additionally, it would help develop competencies, skills and values practitioners need to generate and apply relevant knowledge. This includes engaging with non-academic communities from different sectors relating to climate change and sustainable development, interpreting climate change information and data, generating solutions for climate-related challenges, and operating effectively in multidisciplinary environments.

Pellissier highlighted that the core modules included foundations of climate change science, science communication and climate risks, resilience, and justice. The electives included climate economics and entrepreneurship, policies and governance, biosphere stewardship, geographic information systems applications and urban environment.

“We have dealt with as many of the emerging important subjects as we could. The curriculum includes both practical and theoretical knowledge, with a focus on application through the addition of two integrated project electives and a module on research in climate change and sustainable development.

“Our students will identify a practical problem and solve it through responsible leadership on climate resilience. Therefore, a person walking out with this degree, based on our survey of the industry, will be well received,” Pellissier said.

A network of climate practitioners

Pellissier also highlighted that the climate change and sustainable development programme was carried over from phase one when it was hosted by the University of Cape Town in South Africa, but had become unavailable and inaccessible to universities over the years.

Eight universities in Southern Africa continued to use part of the curriculum and these institutions were, therefore, instrumental in identifying some of the gaps to be addressed in phase two.

“The second phase of the climate change curriculum kicked off in 2021 and will be completed in 2023. One of the things we needed to do was develop a curriculum as well as a digital ecosystem where the information could be hosted.

“The overarching objective call of the project is to develop a network of climate practitioners at university level across the SADC. The digital ecosystem for the curriculum will be hosted on the SARUA as well as the SADC websites. In the process, building a network of practitioners in this space is already taking place,” she said.

According to Pellissier, an extensive collection system to benchmark similar programmes around the world was necessary. Trends in climate change could then be examined. Four social surveys were distributed to different groups in the SADC, including academics, students, role-players in the industry and curriculum designers to test what was in the curriculum in phase one and what should be in phase two.

“We also conducted a survey on what the digital ecosystem should look like to host the material and ensure availability.”

SARUA worked with different groupings of specialists, including a SARUA climate change steering group, a peer review group and the curriculum development group. These consist of about 50 specialists and academics across the SADC countries.

A growing number of higher education institutions also contributed to the curriculum development and peer-review processes, including the universities of Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe; and, in South Africa, North-West University, Stellenbosch University, the University of the Free State and the University of Limpopo. The International University of Management in Namibia and the Harare Institute of Technology in Zimbabwe also contributed.

SARUA is expected to provide training to capacitate academics to offer the courses and host some critical conversations, webinars and capacity-building workshops on specific topics identified throughout the processes between December 2022 and April 2023.

A transdisciplinary approach

During the workshop, SADC senior programme officer for environment and climate change, Sibongile Mavimbela, highlighted that the climate change and sustainable development programme was part of the Global Climate Change Alliance Plus (GCCA+) which is funded by the European Union.

The aim of the programme was to support SADC member states to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change in support of the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP 2020-30), the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the Sustainable Development Goals and to ensure that regional voices were heard at international climate change negotiations.

“It is important to get feedback from universities once they start using the programme. We would like to see the impact on students and how it empowers our people in the region to address the issues of climate change.

“We believe that climate change needs to be addressed in an interdisciplinary way and, therefore, the programme is cross-cutting and falls under multiple disciplines,” Mavimbela said.

In his presentation, SARUA chief executive officer Professor Martin Oosthuizen highlighted that climate change education is critical to Southern Africa, given the region’s vulnerability to climate change resulting in food and water insecurities as well as societal and environmental challenges.

He noted that the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference in May 2022 emphasised the role of higher education in contributing towards creating equitable and just societies by committing to sustainability and social responsibility, promoting inquiry, critical thinking and creativity as well as pursuing learning and research and establishing dynamic relationships with communities.

However, learning institutions in the SADC had limited resources and limited capacities to meet developmental goals and targets.

Oosthuizen said that quality assurance was a key focus area for SARUA due to its importance in curriculum development and the need for quality education at African institutions. He also emphasised the importance of the network- and capacity-building needed for higher education institutions in Africa.

“It is my strong belief that rising to meet these challenges is something that no single higher education institution on its own can achieve. Every institution has an indispensable role to play and I believe that the SADC has every right to look to its higher education institutions to work collectively to contribute to a brighter future for our region. We should embrace cooperation for excellence rather than competition,” he said.