Graduates who want to save the earth are studying courses to show them how, says Claire Smith

I wanted a career that wasn't just about making money; I never wanted a job that I wasn't going to be passionate about," says 25-year-old Tamar Bourne, who's working towards a Masters in leadership for sustainable development at Forum for the Future, a London-based NGO that advises business and government agencies on how to be more sustainable in their practice.

With an undergraduate degree in environmental management and policy from the London School of Economics, Bourne is one of hundreds of postgraduate students across Britain opting for a masters degree with a conscience - degrees in sustainable development, holistic science and human ecology, that will help shape them, and shape the world.

The numbers are growing, says Dr Charlie Ball, the labour-market information officer from Graduate Prospects: "There are 14 per cent more students enrolled on these environmental masters courses than at this time last year."

The Forum for the Future masters - which is validated by Middlesex University - aims to create future leaders of think-tanks, policy advisors, and civil servants who will stop and think about social justice, ethical practice and the needs of future generations before they make decisions.

Bourne, who spent part of her gap year working for the Iracambi Research and Conservation Centre in the rainforests of Brazil, hopes that the Forum for the Future MProf will enable her to influence environmental policy.

"Before I went I was quite naive," she admits. "I didn't realise they were chopping the rainforest down because of bigger pressures."

Bourne came face to face with the Amazon' s Catholic farmers, who cut down the forest to create more arable land to divide up for their large families. She also witnessed the disastrous effects of coffee plantations, which ravage the soil and render it infertile after five to 10 years. "It made me realise I wanted to know more about policy and global systems so that I could think about ways that, as a British person, I could make a difference; rather than just going over there and telling them to 'Stop it!'"

But though it was in Brazil that she realised that she wanted to be more than a tree-hugger, it still puzzles her why some people are driven to make a difference, while other people just want to drive faster cars.

"We've thought a lot about that on our course," says Bourne. "We think we've narrowed it down to experience gained from travelling; inspiring teachers at school; growing up in rural communities and learning to value the environment from an early age."

Liz White, the sustainability advisor from Forum for the Future thinks there are two key driving forces: "Firstly they want to change the society they are part of, and secondly they want a more satisfying personal role for themselves."

She points to recent research that illustrates how people in the industrialised west are no more happy than they were in the past, even though their wealth is growing.

White believes that, if this unhappiness is in some way related to the loss of social cohesion, environmental quality of life, and the huge disparities in wealth between the West and the rest of the world, then an education and, subsequently, a fulfilling career which is about more than just a pay-packet, can help to right this trend.

To meet the increasing demand, according to Graduate Prospects, there are now 74 masters programmes across the UK that have sustainable development elements.

In Scotland, for example, there is the MSc in human ecology, which is run in partnership by the Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh and the department of geography and sociology at the University of Strathclyde.

The Centre for Human Ecology carries out research, education and action for those wanting to make changes in the world of ecological sustainability and social justice, says Osbert Lancaster, its director. "I think we've come to realise that the satisfaction that politicians and consumerism promise is a myth. Of course we have basic needs, but without healthy relationships with other people and the world around us, and a sense of self-worth and identity, we are not fully human and cannot be really happy."

Curiously, Lancaster has found that many of the students who come to him aren' t really looking for a postgraduate course as such at all. Rather, they have been involved in environmental or social campaigning for some time and find that the Centre for Human Ecology degree helps them to work out how they can best be effective.

Of course, the increase in courses on offer is not only to meet student demand. Andy Johnston, the head of education and learning at Forum for the Future, highlights how this move towards sustainability is coming from the top: "The current socio-political model is not coping well with the challenges that the world is facing."

Liz White goes on to explain how, "in the future, companies and organisations will demand the types of skills and knowledge from their potential employees that, previously, only people on sustainable development degrees would have."

To meet this need, White hopes to see sustainability integrated into all higher education courses, so that a graduate of any discipline - be it engineering, tourism, or history of art - will know how to contribute to sustainable development within their profession.

Professor Brian Goodwin, who runs the MSc in holistic science programme at Schumacher College in Devon would like to see universities themselves become more sustainable. "Universities have become terminally irrelevant to society," he says. "Of course, they're where careers are made, but students should be integrating with society, spending more time in job placements than in the ivory tower, so that they can both contribute to civil society and learn from it."

This is already a part of Forum for the Future's course. Their students are sent out for six months' work experience in six different sectors: NGOs, local government, politics, business, finance regulation and the media. It is training that helps them overcome that "lack of work experience" headache that can face so many graduates.

According to Dr Ball, graduates with degrees in sustainable development are snapped up quickly by employers - many finding highly paid jobs. He says that "about 75 per cent of environmental Masters graduates go straight into the workforce after graduating, with the rest doing further study or, perhaps not surprisingly, taking themselves off travelling."

Recent graduates from Forum for the Future include the senior policy officer to the Africa policy department at the UK's Department for International Development, the senior policy adviser for Christian Aid, the head of strategy at Demos, the sustainability manager at BAA, and the policy adviser for Traidcraft, while others have used the degrees to start NGOs. Joanne Baker, a long-time campaigner in human and environmental rights, graduated with an MSc in human ecology and then founded Child Victims of War, in response to the humanitarian tragedy in Iraq.

Bourne's dream job is to work for the Institute for European Environment Policy. "I'm passionate and hopeful," she says. "I want to make some difference, but I know saving the world is far too big for one person."