Jen O’Brien / Empowering Students

Words by Jen O’Brien

Illustration by Steve McCabe

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a blueprint to achieve a better future for all. Dr Jen O’Brien, who’s helped create a pioneering interdisciplinary module for undergraduates on sustainability, explains why Manchester is the perfect place to engage with global challenges.

We live in turbulent times. While advances in science, technology and medicine have improved lives for many, we are threatened by challenges such as climate catastrophe, sprawling urban development, political instability, species extinction, growing austerity and health deprivations.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) created by the UN in 2015 are a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity. Agreed by 193 nations, the SDGs recognise that reducing poverty and deprivation is inextricably linked to environmental and social sustainability, and are designed to be as applicable to Manchester as to Malawi. They are an urgent call for action, new partnerships and new actors at all levels.

Students at Manchester are a 40,000-strong force for positive social change. As demonstrated by the youth climate strike across the world, and the Extinction Rebellion that brought London to a standstill, the power of young people is poignant. Knowing the climate catastrophe facing us, young people did something. They made the noise that was heard. For some, this action was disruption. For many more it was hope, going some way to ease the growing sense of eco-anxiety that no amount of reusable water bottles could fix.

Manchester prides itself on the fact that our students do things, graduating with much more than a degree certificate. Through our Stellify framework, our students can enhance their learning through leadership and employability. In 2017/18 alone, more than 40,000 recorded hours of volunteering were completed. Manchester students make a difference.

Our University College for Interdisciplinary Learning (UCIL) introduces students to new ways of thinking to tackle key questions facing society. Available to undergraduate students from all three Faculties with a free-choice option, UCIL courses bring together students and equip them with the skills to make positive social change.

‘Creating a Sustainable World’ is a new UCIL course for September 2019 that uses the SDGs to reflect critically about sustainability. The credit-bearing course has been constructed using the principles of education for sustainable development to be empowering, holistic and transformational. Like the SDGs, ‘Creating a Sustainable World’ recognises that transitioning towards more sustainable and resilient societies requires an integrated approach to development that appreciates the interrelated nature of the challenges and their solutions.

The course brings together more than 80 contributors from policy, practice, academia and the public. This includes experts from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Manchester Urban Institute, Industry 4.0, the Global Development Institute, the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, and graduates of our Equity and Merit scholarship programme.

To our knowledge this pedagogic partnership is the first of its kind in the world. It formed part of our recent submission to the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings, which ranked Manchester first in Europe and third in the world for its contribution to the SDGs.

Where better, then, to create new understandings of sustainable development and empower students to do something positive about it? 

Dr Jen O’Brien, Lecturer in Human Geography. 

Find out more about UCIL and how the University is contributing to the SDGs

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