Overwhelming Demand: Oxford Hit By Tsunami Of Apps To New Sustainability Master’s

Laurence Wainwright teaching students in Oxford’s MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment. The program has attracted more than 600 applications for just 25 seats its 2022-23 cohort beginning in September

In a massive survey released Monday (February 28), the Global Network for Advanced Management found that business students are increasingly concerned about the climate crisis — and that they want sustainability to be more integrated into their education and their careers. Since 2015, the percentage of those who say they are “very” or “extremely” knowledgeable on the topic has ballooned to 41% from 21% — and a majority — 52% — say they are very or extremely concerned about the impacts of climate change.

Business schools have been rushing to meet the rising tide of demand for sustainability education for years, but especially in the last five. Elite U.S. schools are increasing their offerings — in some cases, such as the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, weaving sustainability into their entire MBA curriculum — but Europe has a big head start. IMD in Switzerland, Italy’s MIP Politecnico di Milano, and the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University all launched major sustainability programs in 2021; among many other new and noteworthy programs too numerous to name, BI Norwegian Business School and ESCP Business School have developed new courses in energy, geopolitics, and climate and business to go with already existing programs; and ESADE, in Spain, seeking to “start them young,” has introduced sustainability-focused education to students at the bachelor’s level.

In the UK, Imperial College Business School has offered an MSc in Climate Change, Management and Finance since 2016; Durham University Business School launched a new Master’s in Energy Systems Management last year. But arguably the most successful new program launch of 2021 occurred at one of the UK’s (and the world’s) premier universities — Oxford. At the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, the new MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment began last year with 23 students; in the application period for the next cohort in September 2022, more than 600 have applied for an expected 25 seats.


Laurence Wainwright

Oxford is no newcomer to sustainability programming. Since 2017 its Saïd Business School has been a member of the aforementioned Global Network for Advanced Management, a group of more than 30 B-schools on six continents; founded in 2012 at the Yale School of Management, GNAM has redefined how globalization is taught in graduate business education. Member schools co-develop and share teaching materials, week-long immersion trips, online classes, research, global management case studies, faculty, and more; students at network schools often take classes in topical subjects that may not be available at their own institutions, work together in virtual teams, and dissect unique global case studies created by network faculty. Well before Oxford joined GNAM, though, in 2008, it established the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, whose mission is to teach, research, and engage enterprise through impactful research — to “shape business practices, government policy and stakeholder engagement” by working with social enterprises, corporations, and governments. “Our goal,” the school states on its website, “is to offer innovative solutions to the challenges facing humanity and the modern firm over the coming decades,” with a special focus on environmental economics and policy, as well as enterprise management, financial markets, and investment. In the past three years, The Smith School has published more than 1,500 interdisciplinary research papers.

Demand for what Oxford’s Smith School offers is only growing. The MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment, designed to equip current and future thought-leaders and decision makers with the “rigorous academic knowledge and applied skills to lead enterprise toward net zero, sustainable development for all,” was Oxford’s most applied-to graduate program in November 2021, and its fourth-most applied-to in January 2022, according to latest admissions figures.

Course director Laurence Wainwright seems a natural fit to teach the new master’s program. A bit of a globetrotter, he has a decade of experience in lecturing across universities in his native Australia as well as Sweden, the United States, and the United Kingdom, including teaching executive MBA and undergrad courses at UC-Berkeley Haas; he completed his doctoral studies in business administration at the University of Gothenburg, and he also holds a Master of Science in Sustainable Development from Uppsala University and a Master of Education from the Queensland University of Technology, among a host of other credentials.

“I think the reason why courses like ours are being so popular is not because of anything that I’ve done, it’s because people are realizing that we need to get a skill set in this, in the natural sciences, in the social sciences,” Wainwright says. “We want to be able to go into a room confidently and talk about the physics of climate change and also be able to create ESG metrics, to be able to interpret them. And I think around the world, industry is crying out for people with these capabilities. And that’s part of the reason we put this course together.

“One of the things we tried to do with this program was to make it realistic rather than idealistic about the world. Realistic about human nature, about markets, about business, about finance, about what goes on. And the whole premise is that we are going to prepare students with the skills and knowledge that they need from multiple different disciplines to go out into the world and lead impactful change towards net zero sustainable development. So we’re saying that business is a huge part of a reason we’re in this current mess, but it’s also, ironically, the way out of it.”


“What this course does which is really special is, it gives students a really broad standing,” Wainwright tells Poets&Quants in a recent interview by Zoom. “So we’re giving them the physics of climate change from some of the best in the world. We’re giving them ecological, environmental economics. We’re giving them finance. We’re giving them the classic sustainability, CSR business school-type stuff. We’re giving them the thinking that they need to be able to navigate complex adaptive systems and understand feedback loops, stocks and flows, and all the things that go on. We’re teaching them about the various socio-technical interventions that there are to tackle this problem we’re dealing with.

“We are giving them the whole smorgasbord and we’re crowding it into 12 months.”

Current students “have been brilliant ambassadors for the course, spreading the word far and wide,” Wainwright adds, which partially explains the program’s popularity. He notes, too, that it’s a diverse cohort, with 60% women and 13 countries represented among its 23 students. That will only continue, as Oxford offers around 1,000 full or partial scholarships each year, for which all applicants are automatically considered.

“The diversity of our cohort has been one of the program’s greatest strengths this year. We encourage and consider applicants from all backgrounds, career stages, and regions,” Wainwright says.

Among the current students are those who have worked in policy and public affairs, banking, consulting, economics, international development, law — and even Olympic-level athletics.

“My aspiration is to be a pioneering environmentalist who consults with enterprise, governments and local communities to drive real, immediate change and long-lasting impact, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,” current student Katherine Polkinghorne says. “The program as well as the networks and connections I will make through it will help spearhead my career in this direction.”

Fellow MSc student Claudia Herbert Colfer serves as program manager at the United Nations Global Compact USA. “My goal has always been to create a better world for future generations,” she says. “I decided to do this by working in corporate sustainability and helping companies embed the UN Sustainable Development Goals into their core operations. My degrees were in politics and international relations, but not in sustainability. And for the work I do, to be able to really make a difference, I felt it was important for me to understand sustainability in more depth and build a more technical skill set around the topic.”


Laurence Wainwright says the popularity of Oxford’s new MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment signals great change in graduate business education — change that is already well underway.

“I think the MBA, as it was originally conceptualized, is no longer relevant to today’s day and age,” Wainwright says. “The underlying assumption that it was embedded in — a sort of Milton Friedman shareholder-primacy view of business — has fundamentally changed. And we now find ourselves looking at challenging a lot of these assumptions about the relationships between business, society, and nature, where we’re realizing that business does not exist in isolation — it’s interdependent. It’s intrinsically, inseparately intertwined with the societies that it operates in.

“It’s not enough to tack something on the side and have a subject in corporate social responsibility, and go through the routines and then move on. We actually genuinely have to be embedding sustainability deeply within business schools, within programs like MBAs, especially given the number of CFOs and CEOs with an MBA background who go on to lead these companies. If we can actually get them doing courses with sustainability deeply ingrained, then we can actually lead some real systemic change. So that’s a bit of an all-over-the-shop answer, but yes, I think thinking is fundamentally changing, and we are away from this idea of the famous New York Times piece from Friedman saying, “The business of business is business” and so on. We’re definitely past that now.

“I think it’s exciting. And again, I think the Berkeley Haas example is one of many that’s taken place recently. The European business schools have always been quite far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to sustainability.”

See the next page for Poets&Quants‘ interview with Laurence Wainwright, edited for length and clarity.

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