What if students would design their own education?

Blog: Climate University Express

The CEMUS lab/library/lounge

Universities increasingly recognize their responsibility to empower students to become ‘agents of change’. This requires a new set of skills. But perhaps it even requires a radically different approach to education. What if students were in the lead of their own education? Could this help them to become change agents? At the Centre of Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), Uppsala University, student-led education has already been practiced for decades.

Blog by Lisette van Beek, in conversation with Mikael Höök, Ewa Livmar, Sara Andersson, Isak Stoddard, Lillian Weaver and Aidan Gill

Universities play a critical role in sustainability transformations through their education. Teaching about the severity and complexity of environmental issues is no longer sufficient; universities need to empower students to become ‘agents of change’. A lot of focus has been on new competencies that students need, including systems thinking, anticipation, critical thinking, problem solving and self-awareness [1]. But teaching competencies may not be enough. Most educational programs still view students as ‘passive consumers’ of education. Yet as Paulo Freire argued in The Pedadogy of the Oppressed (1970): “The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.” (p. 73) [2].

Could this passive role of students stand in the way of becoming change agents? What if education was designed with, rather than for students?

Students as agents of transforming education

Where student-led education may sound radical to some, it has been common practice at CEMUS for three decades. It all began in the 1980s when two students at Uppsala University were disappointed with the environmental education on offer. They decided to take matters in their own hands and proposed a new - critical and interdisciplinary - course on sustainability. To their surprise, the vice-chancellor at Uppsala University allowed them to continue to develop the course and subsequently run it. It was a major success; the course attracted more than 400 students. Today, the centre offers about 15 courses, some of which are even mandatory to the Master programme on Sustainable Development at Uppsala University.

The bookshelves and posters at CEMUS reveal that critical perspectives on sustainability are still at its core. Two other key features are transdisciplinarity and experiential learning. Courses usually involve a diverse range of societal actors, including policymakers, artists and activists. Students often go out of the classroom, visiting a city council, a nuclear plant or an art gallery. Or they literally ‘get their hands dirty’ in their own community garden. As explained by Isak, former student and staff at CEMUS: “Being part of CEMUS is a transformative experience. Friendships are built. It changes the direction people take in their careers and lives.”

Rethinking the student-teacher relationship

At CEMUS, all courses are co-designed and coordinated by students. The ‘student coordinators’, who are temporarily employed by the university, receive a list of learning objectives, a budget and their own office at the CEMUS ‘library/lab/lounge’. They are supported by a few ‘resource persons’ (university staff), who provide training and guide the course design. The student coordinators are further assisted by lecturers and a course examiner. “Students put much more time and energy into the design of their courses than teachers usually do, who tend to be overloaded”, says Ewa, one of the resource persons. Not only student coordinators are given a lot of freedom and agency, but also the students that take the courses. As noted by Lillian, former student coordinator: “I was very explicit in saying: ‘I’m not the expert. You are in charge of your own learning.’” In her course on ‘climate change leadership’, some students put on an art show that involved artists from all over Sweden. Another student with a background in law decided to defend a case of a group of climate activists who blocked a road.

How to guarantee quality and continuity

But student-led education is not without challenges. Student coordinators usually only stay for a maximum of two years. This enables continuous fresh perspectives, but it also means that the courses are always taught by students with limited knowledge on the topic and partial pedagogical experience. “Training on pedagogy is one thing, but actually teaching is another”, says former student coordinator Aidan. Guaranteeing quality and continuity thus remains difficult. Striking the right balance between good guidance and trust is therefore key. Another key challenge is funding, which has been fluctuating over the years. This has limited their ability to set up new courses, organize field trips and attract speakers. Their continuity is also challenged by limited recognition across Uppsala University. As resource person Ewa explains: “We are more known outside of Uppsala than within our university”.

A seed of transformative education

While CEMUS may not have caused a university-wide transformation, it serves as a leading example in the Nordics and beyond. But its cultural and organizational roots means that CEMUS is not a blueprint: “Copy, but don’t paste”, says Isak. He views it more as a ‘seed’ that others can use to learn and grow. CEMUS has inspired other universities to experiment with student-led education, such as the Collaboratory at Bergen University. Mikael, director of CEMUS, is setting up partnerships with universities to further promote student-led education. But it can also inspire smaller changes within existing programs, such as co-designing assessment criteria or more open-ended assignments. In any case, CEMUS shows what designing education with rather than for students can lead to; critical perspectives on sustainability and courses that are much more transdisciplinary and experiential. And perhaps most importantly, a transformative experience for students.

  1. UNESCO (2018). Learning to transform the world: key competencies in education for sustainable development. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000261802

  2. Paulo Freire (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

The Climate University Express is a blog series in which postdoctoral researcher Lisette van Beek writes about inspiring examples of transformative research and education that she encounters on her train journey visiting European universities. The ecological crisis, growing climate anxiety and continued social injustices requires the university to rethink its role. Each month, Lisette explores a 'what if' question, an inspiring story of how the university could be otherwise. The blog series is part of the project The University in a Changing Climate and is funded by Pathways to Sustainability.