A clearer future: Why sustainability graduates are in hot demand

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The Independent Online

It's not a word you would have seen in course titles 10 years ago, but Masters courses in sustainability have been popping up in many universities and business schools over the past few years. One of the first was at the Centre for Research Into Sustainability at Royal Holloway, University of London, which offers an MSc in sustainability and management. The course, taught between the management and geography departments, was first offered in 2004.

Dr Mary Dengler, deputy director of the course, says the new emphasis on sustainability in business and management departments is because businesses are recognising, particularly in light of the Stern Review of 2006, that spending now on long-term environmental issues will be beneficial and cost-effective in the long term. "The business case now is incredibly compelling," she says. "Before, it was something businesses saw as relating just to public relations, but now there's a firm business case for sustainability and it's really something where it affects the core business practice. You can see that if you look at various corporations. Their head of sustainability often has a seat on the board these days. That's a real shift."

Students on the course take two core modules in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and principles of sustainability, ensuring they are informed about the history of the environmental movement, the social theories relating to it and the wider context of the stakeholders they will be working with. They also take part in practical activities such as a simulated UN exercise in which students represent different countries and are expected to negotiate and come to agreements regarding commitments to sustainability. And on top of this, students study research methods, options in management or geography, a substantial piece of independent research and are asked to undertake a research project with a NGO. "Many will go on to work with NGOs so it gives them an opportunity to understand how they function and to gain practical experience. If they end up working in the CSR department of a business it means they will be better equipped to work with NGO partners," says Dengler.

The Lancashire Business School at the University of Central Lancashire will start accepting students in autumn 2010 for its MSc in sustainable business. Full-time students can complete the MSc in a year, while part-time students complete a postgraduate certificate in year one, then do another year for a postgraduate diploma or full MSc. "We decided to develop the course because we found CSR was becoming increasingly important and, within that, sustainability was taking the lead. Plus there is a lot more evidence of companies doing things in terms of changing their practice, so a lot more material became available to support the course," says course leader Geoff Thwaites.

He is hoping to attract both students who have been pushed towards sustainability as well as those specifically looking for a job in this area. He says: "As the Government legislates on this, companies need to become more aware of how to be sustainable and how it will affect their organisation."

Dr Diane Holt, programme co-ordinator for the MSc in sustainability and corporate social responsibility at Queen's University Management School in Belfast, agrees there is a growing need for people who know about sustainability to enter the workforce. "There is a larger number of jobs in this area, and it's important that our graduates are able to work in whatever comes up. We've designed the programme to have a strong international basis to equip students to work in as many fields as possible. We're not trying to train people to walk into a factory and look at a process and know what chemical to suggest they change to, but we are trying to equip people to go into a factory and know what questions they need to ask."

In fact, Queen's University has developed a range of programmes across several departments as part of a wider sustainability initiative. Within this, the management school offers Masters programmes in three areas: environmental management; sustainability and corporate social responsibility; and clean chemical technology and management. All have the same core modules with students then choosing which pathway to follow. Graduates are expected to find jobs in companies and consultancies concerned with CSR, government, educational establishments, NGOs and in research.

An eclectic mix of people apply for the sustainability and corporate social responsibility course, which is currently in its second year. "We're getting people who have studied geography, history, philosophy or law. And people who graduated 10 years ago, as well as new graduates. What it doesn't attract is those doing it because they can't think of anything else to do. The people have real commitment," says Holt.

And all three tutors agree the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December may focus even more attention on courses with a sustainability element. "If agreements are reached where companies have to make stronger reductions or more wide-reaching changes, then they will start to realise that to take this action they will need more people with skills and knowledge in this area," says Thwaites.

'My Masters let me carry on learning about green issues'

Jon Abu-Nackly, 24, studied for an MSc in sustainability and management at Royal Holloway. He now works as a carbon consultant for the logistics company DHL.

"My undergraduate degree was in geography, also at Royal Holloway. During that, we covered some sustainability topics. That was great as it was an issue that was in the press a lot and which interested me. My dissertation, on coastal impacts of tourism on the Gran Canaria coastline, also included elements of sustainability and management.

I wanted to study for a Masters, and my tutor suggested the sustainability and management course. It really appealed to me, because it covered both the environmental and political aspects of the subject, so it allowed me to carry on learning about green issues but also to learn about management.

I was very lucky with the course, because it all went well. Even the bits I wasn't looking forward to, such as the volunteering element. I worked for the Egham and Staines Conservation Volunteers with work such as building small bridges across streams – I loved it and I'm still volunteering with them.

I was offered a six-month internship after the course with the logistics company DHL and they were impressed with the knowledge I had of sustainability, so they took me on permanently."