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

This first cohort sounds like a fascinating group of individuals. How are things going in the classroom right now?

They’re a wonderful bunch — it’s very easy to say that, but they really are. I was with them just a few hours ago. We got very lucky. Cohorts are a funny thing. There is a degree of randomness and luck to it. Sometimes the dynamics work out really well, other times you have a few dominant personality types that just don’t mesh well with the rest. I think the first distinguishing feature of the group is that it’s highly international. This, of course, was not intentional. I mean, we’re not even allowed to look at the background of the students. We choose everyone entirely on their merit, but it just so happened that we ended up with something like 13 countries represented in the 23 students in the group. They’ve got a very diverse background — we’ve got everything from professional rugby players playing at an international level through to 30-under-30 sustainability leaders. We’ve got a former Olympic-level athlete. We have people who have started their own businesses and done very well with it. There are Rhode Scholars, Pershing Scholars, Weidenfeld-Hoffman Scholars.

They’re a room of overachievers, and I must say that being with them — even today, this conversation we had about the Russia-Ukraine situation — they’re so sharp. We’ve got to really keep up with them, and it can be hard sometimes. I think everyone there is motivated by something different in some ways, but they’re all very intellectually curious. They’re all willing to challenge their mind about things, and change their mind in light of new information. They ask a lot of damn good questions. And every week when we have practitioners coming in, one of the themes is that they always just ask such brilliant questions, and the speaker walks away saying, “Wow, I haven’t been asked such good questions before.” I think they’re just a pleasure to work with.

And I think they’ve been wonderful ambassadors for the course. I think part of the reason why we were the most applied-to graduate program across the university in November, and then the fourth-most applied-to overall in January, is that the students have been spreading the word far and wide about the course. It’s the first time through and we make mistakes all the time. The students are very, very candid with me about how we’re going with things, and they’re very forthcoming with feedback, and I think we have a very genuine relationship. And we try and speak to each other on the same level, and they let me know what’s going on in their world and I let them know what’s going on in my world, too.

Whatever they’re saying is obviously piquing people’s interests, to have over 600 applications for the next cohort. Did you anticipate anything of that level — and how hard is your job going to be in picking the next class?

I think when (Smith School Director) Cameron Hepburn conceptualized the degree, and when I looked at the job ad and I read through what he was doing, I thought, “Hang on a second. This is really good. He’s onto a winner here.” I don’t like to talk about education offerings as being a market niche, because I think we should be talking about them in product terms, but he really hit the nail on the head with the way that this was positioned to fill this perfect point that no one else had really done before. And for that reason, I had strong feelings that it was going to be popular, but I couldn’t have, in my wildest dreams, imagined just how popular it was going to be.

And to go from starting a new course to suddenly being told that we were the most applied-to course in the second round — I mean, I couldn’t believe it. So yes, in some ways it’s been a surprise, but in many ways, if I look back at preparing for that first interview I had back in April 2020, I realized then that this was onto something really special. So I don’t take credit for what’s happened. I think it’s a result of the well-designed course, and the fact that students are craving qualifications in this area.

Who is the ideal student for this program? And is expansion on the horizon, with so many applicants and only 25 spaces?

Look, I think I’ll turn it into a three-part question by asking the thing that you mentioned before around selecting. It’s exceptionally hard, and I’m doing the current round now. I mean, how do you choose between a 3.9 or 4.0 GPA from a top university, and this person’s also played sport at an elite level, won prizes for leadership — how do you compare that with someone in mid-career who’s reached a very high managerial position at a very young age? It’s extremely difficult, to be very blunt, and it takes dozens of hours do it properly. And I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over the decisions. And we literally have folders and we remove people one by one from the folders and we see what’s left at the end, and we all compare notes and we see where we’ve got three strikes where it’s a yes, yes, yes, and we take those and then it’s a very, very fair process. But even being a meritocracy, it’s still difficult to make the decisions.

Perhaps the decision would be easier by having more seats?

I think that’s definitely on the horizon, and we’ve already started having conversations about expanding the course. Now, of course, we’re conscious here to not run before we can walk, and we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. But I think that if this demand keeps up, we simply can’t cap the course at 25 students, we have to grow it. It’s only fair to those who are applying to it to say, “Could we even double this thing and take on 50 students?” If so, we’d obviously lose part of the intimacy, the small group. Could we have two streams? Could we do a part-time, hybrid, in-person, virtual offering at some point? There’s lots of possibilities. I think the main thing is just making sure that whatever we do, we do it properly. So I think for the moment we’re taking it fairly easy.

But in terms of the ideal applicant, the thing all the students today have in common is, they’re intellectually curious. They are very willing to change their mind in light of new information. They’re willing to entertain viewpoints that they don’t necessarily agree with just for the sake of going through the process. They’re all very passionate about sustainability in some way, shape, or form. The passion manifests differently, but they all have something that really excites them. It could be hydrogen, energy, and the possibilities that brings. It could be the justice perspective of sustainability and thinking about, how do we simultaneously achieve sustainable development whilst also achieving a quality of life that helps those who are most in need?

They all have something that they’re there for, and something that really gets them out of bed in the morning. And that excitement, I think, is a theme that’s prevalent across all of the students. I think they’re all very ambitious and they all want to use the degree to help themselves, to help others, and to serve the greater cause of how on Earth do we get to net zero sustainable development? So they’re all sort of in service of a bigger ideal, something beyond themselves. So I think those would probably be the three defining characteristics of the students.

And I think that comes across in their applications. Obviously you’re limited in what you can understand about a person by reading their documents, but after a while of going through the application package, you read through the CV, you read through the references, the recommendation letters, you read through the personal statements. You see the same things again and again, and you start to get the same hints as to what this person is like. And I think our estimates of people on paper were fairly accurate to how they’ve actually turned out in reality. So:  intellectual curiosity, ambition, and passion for all things sustainability.

A big question, in closing: Are we running out of time, when talking of climate? We’ve been saying that we’re running out of time for a long time, and I know that some people, in the United States particularly, want to throw up their hands and say, “Well, we can can’t do anything about it anymore. It’s time to just talk about adaptation as opposed to mitigation.” So are we running out of time, do you think?

It’s a great question. And I was actually asked to comment by the media on this today in relation to the IPCC report that was just released that painted a pretty bleak future of what’s to come. To be very candid, personally, I waver between optimism and pessimism. I think this is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced. And I mean that sincerely. By my estimates, we probably have about 10 years to change our ways. And if we leave it longer than that I, unfortunately, believe it’s probably going to be too late and we are going to find ourselves in a serious mess — one that we probably won’t be able to get out of.

We have to fundamentally re-conceptualize the way that we think about the relationship between nature and human society. And that’s really easy to say, but we can attack this problem from multiple angles, and we need to. We need to have good policy. We need to have regulation and legislation. We need to have pressure on the consumer end. We need to have pressure on business. But what I see as being the cataclysmic moment is when we have some sort of mass shift in the way that we think about this problem. And I feel that we are getting toward this point. And I think there is going to be a tipping point when we suddenly realize that we can’t keep doing this to ourselves, and we can’t keep doing this to nature. People are waking up, and I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about. Just in the last five years or so this stuff has all finally become mainstream.

In my area of research, I did my doctorate on this, on seafood. A lot of great stuff is happening despite the doom and gloom. We’re seeing wonderful uptake of sustainable certification schemes in seafood. Consumers are actually taking that extra five seconds to look at the product and ask the questions: “Where was this caught? Is this species sustainable? Who was involved in the supply chain? Were they paid a fair wage?” It’s going to be really tough, and in some ways I have a small amount of empathy for people who feel overwhelmed by the problem and just think, “Well, this is too much, we shouldn’t even bother trying to clean the room, we should just blow it up, because it’s all too messy now.” But I think the great thing about humans is that we are wonderful at getting ourselves into a mess, but we’re equally as good at getting out of the mess if we want to. And I think we can get out of the mess. It’s going to be a close shave, but we can do it.

We can keep warming to within one and a half degrees. We can stop this mass extinction of biodiversity around the world. We can get into a mode of operating that actually operates within the boundaries of the planet. I think we can achieve the UN SDGs. It’s a huge to-do list, but for the first time in our history we know what we have to do. We have 17 SDGs and we have to achieve them within nine planetary boundaries. We’ve got a pretty clear framework. It’s a matter of rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck into it.

The final thing I’ll say is that these problems we’re facing, by definition, require leadership. They’re wicked problems. They’re complex. They’re non-linear. They can’t be solved with management. They have to be approached with leadership.

We need visionaries who can inspire people, encourage them. Who can be brave and take the tough decisions, be willing to endure some short-term pain for long-term gain, and give people a compelling story as to why we need to go there, and motivate them along the journey. So we need leadership. And that’s a term that’s thrown around a lot. And there have been many examples of it already. So in closing, yes, I’m cautiously optimistic that we can do this. I think we have about 10 years. I believe that education is going to play a huge role, and a program like ours, where we are giving students the skills and competencies that they need to actually tackle this problem, we’re really excited about the multiplier effect that sending the students out into the world is going to have.