Work on masters qualification in climate change goes forward

The curriculum framework for a Southern African masters degree in climate change and sustainable development (CCSD) envisages graduates who, upon completion of the qualification, are committed to making a difference in the field in their countries, Africa and globally.

“The main idea is how we are capacitating students to be agents of change,” said Dr Desiree Scholtz, who has been involved in the work on the framework. She participated in a workshop hosted by the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA).

The workshop introduced academic planners, curriculum designers, programme leaders and managers as well as academic staff at SARUA-affiliated universities to the curriculum framework of the revised CCSD which intends to include foundational modules such as climate change and sustainable development, climate risks, resilience and justice and communication for climate change practitioners.

It also provides for specialisation through electives in areas such as climate economics and entrepreneurship, biosphere stewardship, geographic information systems and remote sensing, climate change and the urban environment as well as climate policies and governance towards sustainable development. The application of knowledge and skills gained through integrated projects in responsible leadership and climate-resilient development has also been included.

One of the objectives of the masters programme is to strengthen the capacity of the 16 member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in their climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies by grooming a generation of climate practitioners and specialists with the cross-disciplinary knowledge to tackle climate change.

The discussions on 23 March titled ‘Curriculum framework of the revised Southern African masters degree in climate change and sustainable development’ is part of a series of workshops aimed at preparing universities in the SADC to implement the curriculum framework.

The first workshop focused on the development processes that SARUA undertook including disciplinary and contextual considerations as well as curriculum responsiveness and relevance.

Development process

Professor René Pellissier, a research specialist and SARUA CCSD programme manager, provided an overview of the curriculum framework review process which included data collection, analysis, design, transformation and stakeholder engagement.

The revised framework was developed over a two-year period through the efforts of experts in academia and industry and several working groups.

Vice-chancellors and deans from universities across the SADC were also invited to be part of the development processes and activities, and this contributed to setting up a curriculum framework that aligned with academic principles.

“In academia, the most important factors are the monitoring and evaluation of what we do. It is not just the final product that counts, but the way you get there. The engagement you undertake and refining your conduct are important in the curriculum development process,” Pellissier stated.

“We collected data from a number of sources, secondary data was already available to us. We did benchmarking across the world to get a perspective on some of the emerging fields, relevant modules and programmes, and [considered] what are the resources, agreements, policies and strategies globally in this field.

“Analysis played a big role. Climate change is evolving every second, increasing water and food scarcity, global migration and economic down-spiral and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can be used in climate action. Curriculum change is, therefore, important to build capacity and knowledge production.”

She also noted that ongoing engagements through webinars and workshops paved the way for a dynamic and valuable end product.

The importance of a framework

During her presentation, Dr Marianne Bester, SARUA CCSD curriculum specialist, described the curriculum framework and module development process more broadly.

She also explained the different aspects of the SARUA CCSD curriculum framework at a masters degree level and how it may be applied by higher education institutions to define their institution-specific programmes.

A curriculum framework, she said, differs from a qualification or programme. Instead, it serves as a placeholder for the programme design and content, as a way to organise the knowledge, skills and attributes to be achieved. It would, therefore, work as a plan, explaining how the learning programme leading to a qualification may be structured by an educational institution.

“The framework is a coherent yet flexible structure allowing higher education institutions to design their own unique qualifications in keeping with the vision, mission and strategic objectives of the particular higher education institution and [in the] context within which the institution operates in [the] country [where it is located].

“It is, therefore, a detailed set of guidelines which provides an institution with the necessary information to create their own qualification that they wish to offer, in areas where they want to place their focus,” she said.

For example, a research-based institution with strong science faculties focusing on the natural sciences would be able to offer a masters in science programme, while others leaning towards sustainable development and social sciences could offer a masters in philosophy.

“The purpose of the curriculum framework is twofold,” said Bester. “Firstly, it focuses on building disciplinary knowledge of climate change and development from academic and applied perspectives, and in-depth understanding of climate change issues in specific domains critical for the development in Africa.”

She also mentioned that the framework aimed to develop the skills and professional qualities needed to generate, use and apply relevant knowledge in order to engage with non-academic communities from different sectors relating to climate change and sustainable development in Africa.

Practitioners would also acquire skills for interpreting climate change information and data, generating appropriate solutions for climate-related challenges, and operating effectively in interdisciplinary contexts and transdisciplinary environments.

A multilayered framework

Bester highlighted that the curriculum framework was “multilayered and multidimensional”. She outlines the foundational modules, specialisations through electives that could contribute to the relevance of the programme as well as the employability of graduates. One of the layers also consisted of research methodology in CCSD and a mini-dissertation.

“This would be a research project that allows strengthening and [the] application of disciplinary-based knowledge, practice-based skills and professional qualities and attributes within a selected area of specialisation, including the building of knowledge that contributes to the existing body of knowledge in CCSD, and seeking synergistic relationships with other role-players and stakeholders,” she said.

Scholtz, also a part of the SARUA CCSD team, made a presentation on the contextual factors impacting the student profile such as student demographics, educational background and admission and selection requirements as outlined in curriculum implantation.

Work experience, language learning, digital and academic literacy were all critical factors in admission requirements for the CCSD programme.

“The importance of acknowledging the student profile is to be in touch with who the students are, where they are from, how they will cope with the demands of the programme of study and what support might be provided to ensure that the outcomes of the programme are achieved,” she stated.

“The success of a programme is contingent on the appropriate student intake. We need to ensure that students have the underpinning knowledge and background in order to cope with the academic demands of any qualification.”

The student intake, she added, will play a role in whether graduates become change agents who make a difference in the field.

SARUA is a membership-based association of public and private universities in the SADC which coordinated the revision of the curriculum with funding from the European Union.