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The Circular Economy in Higher Education

September 24, 2020

In part one of our mini series on the Circular Economy, we arrived at the conclusion that, although Primary and Secondary education seem to be motoring ahead with their systemic focus on sustainability, 21st century skills, and preparation for a shift to the Circular Economy, Higher Education was lagging behind. That is not to say that progress is not happening (it is), but that we have yet to reach the same systemic level of change.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation has set the bar, with five areas for a university to work on, to ensure it adequately prepares students to work in a circular economy:

  1. Leadership and influence
  2. Leading circular economy research
  3. Circular economy teaching across all disciplines
  4. Student action
  5. Campus management

Leadership and Influence

When the world of IT is crying out for leadership in a rethink of how we design technology for a circular economy, universities must respond. Sustainable design has rapidly become a mainstream subject at many of the world's top universities, in everything from architecture to fashion. The University of Aalborg's Masters in Sustainable Design, for example, is focused on offering "new solutions to societal challenges".

Aside from a newfound conscience that puts sustainability higher up a CEO's agenda, Mckinsey has found that a circular economy approach "could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3 percent by 2030, generating cost savings of €600 billion a year and €1.8 trillion more in other economic benefits". 

The age of doing well by doing good is truly here, and when universities choose to answer the call from industry, their actions influence others to follow. To reach a tipping point we need mavens and connectors, and universities can be both rolled into one.

However, let us not forget that offering a sustainability masters does not mean a university is really "walking the walk". Students will quickly perceive the disconnect if there is no cultural buy-in to support it. The Hidden Curriculum is just as influential, so what else can they do?

Leading Circular Economy research

By leading research into the Circular Economy, Universities can really use their resources to break down some of the complexities surrounding our transition away from a linear model. Oxford University and Saïd Business School have a joint research and incubation project for how education can integrate the Circular Economy into its framework. The most exciting thing about this is that they fully and actively involve students, academics and business leaders.  

Circular Economy teaching across all disciplines

This one is not going so well or so quickly. As we discussed in part one, there is still a lack of engagement with teachers about how to integrate CE principles into their discipline.One innovation which we typically find associated with business-related programs, is to create sustainability pathways through the curriculum. This means that at each level, in each area, students can choose a course with sustainability embedded.One university which does this very well is Kellogg Northwestern in Illinois. Their students can study courses such as Decision making for sustainable business andsustainability reporting. So whether you are majoring in management or finance, you have focused preparation for a circular economy running through the heart of your studies.This is notembedding CE principles in all classes and courses, but rather complementing them. A step in the right direction nonetheless.

Higher Education Circular Economy 2


Student Action

This is one of the most under served areas of preparation for a Circular Economy. A study of 200 universities showed that most campuses focus on the issue of energy efficiency; making noise about reducing their carbon footprint, whilst actively involving students in sustainability projects languished at the bottom of the pile. This is the Hidden Curriculum being largely ignored; overt displays of sustainability are prioritized, but where are the experiential opportunities for students to truly live this commitment to change?

Circular Economy graph

Source: MDPI 2018

The University of the Creative Arts recently began work on embedding CE principles into all of their programs. As an example of really putting principle into practice, they ran a fantastic student action project, where waste Fishing Nets and Ropes were upcycled and repurposed, to become anything from lighting to textiles. The project was integrated with their design programs, and counted as part of their credit-bearing course work. This is how it's done. 

Campus Management

You can't just teach it, you have to live it. A university campus can't just stick up some "turn off the lights" stickers and some recycling bins and lay claim to sustainability. Campuses have to think big. The university of Arizona recently won an award for its new Phoenix campus which aims at net zero impact across everything from grounds maintenance to food procurement and disposal.Teachers and administrators need to be on board, and really behind the efforts to show a circular model of sustainability. A true systemic shift will never come from the classroom alone. Students have to feel the dedication to purpose all around them in all aspects of their campus activity.

So what next? 

The links are tightening and more universities and industries are joining forces, but our dominant economic model remains linear and the old guard are hanging on tightly. A new generation is coming through a primary and secondary school system that is really preparing young people for the transition to a circular economy. Businesses are under pressure to make the shift, and we even see that it can be profitable. 

In the middle are universities, and the world will not wait much longer for them to become part of the new reality. To remain relevant and to use their huge influence and resources to be part of this shift, institutions must collaborate and share to create a common approach that works. After all, that's what the Circular Economy is all about. 

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