IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Unlocking universities’ powerful climate action potential

Universities hold significant power to address climate challenges via teaching, research, community engagement and increasing public awareness. UCL research identified 5 conditions for transformation.

Climate Action Now sign at climate protest

15 December 2023

UCL research worked with universities situated in climate-vulnerable countries to unlock their climate action potential. 

To better understand how to turn this potential into real change, the UCL-led project, ‘Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate’ (also known as the Climate-U project) brought 16 universities together to enhance their climate action efforts through international dialogue, knowledge exchange, and coalition building. 

Oriented around ideas of climate justice, the UCL team aimed to strengthen universities’ climate action capabilities in countries containing populations that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change: Brazil, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania. 


  1. Support local climate action initiatives in partner countries through university-based participatory action research groups.
  2. Assess existing coverage of climate change in university curricula, research, and community engagement activities.
  3. Contribution to theory: enhance understanding of higher education's impact on climate change and sustainable development.
  4. Enhance networking: build and strengthen national, regional, and global networks for knowledge exchange on climate change.


The project was able to gather a diverse set of perspectives and insights through a range of research methods; in particular participatory action research emerged as a key focal point for universities to enact the multidisciplinary, multi-stakeholder, justice-oriented responses needed from the HE sector.

A systematic review and other literature reviews found significant skews in the research literature. It confirmed a significant lack of research on higher education and climate change in the Global South published by major academic journals. Secondly, while experiences in the curriculum, community engagement and campus operations are documented, much more evidence of impact is needed to be able to carry out robust policy and practice decision-making. 

More than 5,000 undergraduate students were surveyed in four of the participating countries (Fiji, Kenya, Brazil and Mozambique) to explore their attitudes towards climate and relevant experiences at university, revealing: 

  1. A reliance on the internet and social media for student’s learning in all surveyed countries; these digital channels constituted the main sources of these students’ learning. 

  1. students in all countries desired greater exposure to issues of climate in their university studies than they currently receive.

Five conditions for transformation 

The experiences of the universities involved helped researchers to identity five interlocking conditions higher education institutions need to wholeheartedly engage with to enact successful climate action:  

  1. Equitable partnerships between universities and external communities. 

  1. Co-production of knowledge: real collaboration between those partners. 

  1. Immersion of staff and students in non-university contexts and knowledge traditions. 

  1. Agency and empowerment of marginalised parties to drive change. 

  1. Transformative institutions: Drive comprehensive change within the institution.

International impact 

In Fiji, the Climate-U work is feeding into a new countrywide initiative to incorporate climate change into the primary, secondary and teacher education curricula.

The project shared its findings with university leaders, climate activists and policymakers including Fiji's Minister for Education during an international forum co-convened by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU); proceedings from the forum and other national and local events are available on the project YouTube channel.

The local interventions made at each university has led to direct results in the way these universities cultivate transformation within their own structure and practices. Examples include: 

  • Brazil: the creation of a Green Office at the University of Passo Fundo, which now promotes awareness and practices of sustainability among students and staff; 

  • Kenya: the establishment of the Green Education Hub at Kenyatta University through which students have developed their own campus initiatives and community engagement relating to biodiversity, reforestation, arts and language.  

  • Fiji: The University of Fiji has incorporated the building and sailing of traditional Drua boats into the curriculum as a way of developing sustainability awareness and understanding of Pacific heritage.  

  • UK: At UCL, the project's ‘curriculum topography’ framework was drawn on in developing the university’s new learning framework on sustainability.

Continuing action: co-creating sustainable futures 

As universities around the world grapple with the challenges of climate change, the project's learnings will create a ripple effect of change through the newly established Climate-U Network, providing a blueprint for transformative action across higher education. By emphasising collaborative teaching and research, regular knowledge exchange, equitable partnerships, and a launchpad for funding bids, this network will help universities to not only create change within their own contexts but to lay the groundwork for a sustainable future in the communities they serve. 

Join the Climate-U Network

The Climate-U Network invites new higher education institutions to join the movement toward a more climate-positive HE landscape.  

Kenyatta University in Kenya will serve as the network’s inaugural chair institution. If you are interested in joining the network, please view the network’s five key principles and contact Tristan McCowan (t.mccowan@ucl.ac.uk) or Jackline Nyerere (nyerere.jackline@ku.ac.ke).


Filmbetracht / Pixabay