Higher education in France will have to integrate the challenges of the ecological transition into their syllabus

A lack of training on the climate crisis for professors in French universities is one of the main obstacles to making higher education at the forefront of leading the climate transition. Soazig Le Nevé discusses the issues in an article on the Le Monde website. What are your views?


In France’s universities, the climate crisis clashes with academic culture

Almost 55 years ago, in May 1968, students rebelled against lecture-based university teaching. In November of the same year, thanks to the Faure Law, they obtained the right to express themselves by being allowed to participate in the institutions’ management bodies.

At a time when the world is approaching its “planetary limits,” will the grandchildren of those 1968 students see that the ecological emergency has given rise to an immediate revolution in their teaching? In their eyes, universities are no longer bourgeois but stuck in disciplinary structures sometimes far removed from the societal issues that have emerged with global warming.

On October 20, 2022, during a conference at the University of Bordeaux, the higher education minister gave students pledges. Students were surprised as the subject seemed to have no hold on the institution. Sylvie Retailleau, the education minister, took up the recommendations of a working group chaired for two years by climatologist Jean Jouzel and ecology professor Luc Abbadie, which had so far gone unnoticed. Across all disciplines, training courses with a bachelor’s degree and two years of higher education will have to integrate the challenges of the ecological transition into their syllabus by 2025.

To initiate this change, three working groups made up of members of university communities, students, associations, NGOs and think tanks are to meet between January 17 and February 7. The ministry has asked them to define a core of disciplinary skills and knowledge to create a national center of educational resources and to imagine a way to promote student commitment to the green transition.

Elective and non-graded courses

It must be said that the results have been meager: Out of 75 universities, only 11 can claim the sustainable development and social responsibility (DDRS) label, which has existed since 2015. Local initiatives, based on the goodwill of tenured professors, are taking place elsewhere, but in an almost confidential manner.

“We need to show the still reluctant disciplinary communities that it is possible, that it is worthwhile and that it is not just an order from above,” said Mathias Bernard, president of the University of Clermont-Auvergne, who is in charge of the environmental transition chapter at France Universities, an association which brings together the executive directors of universities and higher education around France.

According to an internal survey, nearly two-thirds of universities have already adapted part of their training by creating cross-disciplinary modules or specialized master’s degrees. The Shift Project, a think tank created by engineer Jean-Marc Jancovici, considered these courses to be imperfect. “They are often optional or even not graded, and are not taken seriously, perhaps sometimes rightly so, because the content is not always serious,” said Clémence Vorreux, co-author of the report ‘Mobilizing higher education for the climate’, published in 2019 by the Shift Project. The subject matter appears too broad on environmental issues, rarely addressing climate-energy issues.

In order to draw attention to awareness-raising modules and integrate the challenges of the green transition into the entire curriculum, professors must be trained. It is an immense task to which none of the future ministerial working groups has been devoted.

Here and there, however, initiatives have borne fruit, such as at Paris-Dauphine, which was awarded the DDRS label, where a course to raise students’ awareness of the green transition has been mandatory since 2020. For teachers, “a ‘teaching account’ collects all additional hours worked, and after three years, it gives the right to a sabbatical for training,” said its president Mouhoud El Mouhoub. Similarly, any modification of a course to integrate the issues of sustainable development can be balanced by teaching leave.

The discussions that will take place at the education ministry will be “the least difficult,” said Mr. Bernard, who intends to put the question of the means to train professors for their new mission on the table: “There is a huge expectation, though above all not yet of another call for a competitive project!” This process, which has been recurrent in recent years, has created “tension and weariness” in the university community.

‘Recomposition of scientific objects’

For geographer Michel Lussault, a professor at the University of Lyon and founder of its Urban School, the fact that humans have become the main force for change on earth corresponds to “a moment when the entire academic history of the last two centuries can be considered closed.” It is not a matter of adding a new ecological transition specialty to the list of specialties taught, but of “accepting that our entry into the Anthropocene entails a recomposition of all our scientific subject matter and our classic training courses.”

A professor at Grenoble Alpes University and scientific director of the Design Factory for Transitions, physicist Joël Chevrier is now devoting his work to being “a university teacher in the Anthropocene.” “It’s a new posture, a new way of being at university,” he said. “It is not primarily a question of content but of culture, of how we work in the Anthropocene. In the same way that engineering schools ask themselves, ‘What is the engineer of the 21st century?’ universities must ask themselves ‘What is the university graduate of the 21st century?'”

As a professor, redefining oneself in relation to students and civil society, and by mobilizing other ways of working, including project collectives, is also the credo of the Transition Campus that philosopher Cécile Renouard has been supervising since 2017. “We need both the specific knowledge of a Valérie Masson-Delmotte-type [a well-known French paleoclimatologist] and also we need to ask ourselves how to include interdisciplinarity in all courses of study,” said the philosopher. Ms. Renouard is also a nun in the Religious of the Assumption, a congregation dedicated to the education of young girls.

Ms. Renouard’s words are not brutal, but they are revolutionary in a world where compartmentalization by discipline has for decades forged careers based on cutting-edge research and publications in prestigious scientific journals.

‘Facing realities that baffle us’

Making the education system interdisciplinary would also mean reshuffling the cards of the qualifications needed to become a teacher and researcher in France, a crucial step where the candidate joins a specific university discipline. The National Council of Universities (CNU), a public body that formulates higher education public policy, would also have to change, according to those who spoke to Le Monde.

At the Urban School, Mr. Lussault has rethought the relationship between universities, research laboratories, companies, local authorities, administrations, associations and citizens. “We don’t need the classical disciplines. Let’s get away from the idea that only good specialists count,” he said. “We need good scientists to deal with realities that baffle us in a climate crisis, such as heatwaves that have upset all the certainties we might have had about lethality, water resource management or the relationship between heat and fire.”

Ironically, in the midst of a successful launch, Lyon’s Urban School has been ordered to close. The French National Research Agency announced in March 2022 that it was stopping its funding of €9 million, of which 3 million still had yet to be paid to this pioneering institute, by 2025. The reason given was the lack of publications in highly academic, internationally peer-reviewed scientific journals.

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