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  • Zamzam Ibrahim (NUS)

Our leaders are making bad decisions because they have been badly educated.

From Zamzam's speech at NUS' annual Sustainability Summit

SOS-UK is NUS’s brand new sustainability charity, created so we can go further and faster with our sustainability work, in response to the climate emergency and ecological crisis we find ourselves in.


And we really need to go further and faster.


When it comes to the environment, and our planetary life support systems, nearly all the warning lights are flashing red, and we are careering towards runaway global heating, humanitarian disasters and mass extinctions.


So why on earth isn’t this the top issue for political leaders the world over?


Here in the UK, the sixth biggest economy in the world, and one of the oldest democracies, our elected Government is spending billions subsiding fossil fuel industries and building new roads and runways, whilst not taxing aviation fuel, allowing home builders to build inefficient gas-powered homes that need retrofitting before they are even occupied, and preventing any new on-shore wind generation. How is that compatible with the climate emergency we are in?


You have to admit, Greta is really on to something in calling out the abject failure of the political class. How can it be that the people we elect to serve and protect us make such unrepresentative and harmful decisions? When will our so-called ‘leaders’ grasp the gravity of the situation we are all in and put their egos and self-interests aside, in order to secure our future?


I have thought about this a lot recently and I think I’ve finally figured it out what the root cause of the problem is.


It’s our education system.


I really believe our leaders are making bad decisions because they have been badly educated.


Our schools, colleges and universities are education factories, more interested in preparing us to pass exams than developing us as critical thinkers and global citizens. Our education system teaches us to compete with our rivals, not to collaborate with our friends. We are led to believe that sustainability is a niche subject, not something that is fundamental to everything we learn and do. Our education system teaches us in silos, despite the fact everything is connected. Our universities are judged by what our starting salaries are rather than the good we go on to achieve. We leave education with so much debt we feel obliged to apply for the best paid jobs, rather than the jobs that will make the world a better place. The whole system, not just the education system, but the society in which we live, indoctrinates us to prioritise short-term profit over long-term prosperity.


David Orr, the US academic and activist, says, our universities are routinely equipping young people and students to be more effective vandals of Earth. He says it isn’t the worlds’ poorest and least educated people that are doing the most damage, it is those with BSc’s, MBAs and PhDs. I agree.


According to UNESCO, globally less that 3% of the world’s population go to university, but 80% of societal leaders have been to university. Universities are in the business of leadership education, but what sort of leaders are they creating?


I firmly believe our universities are massively culpable for the mess we are in.


Universities the world over are routinely failing to create leaders that can lead on sustainability, but UK universities have a special culpability. According to the soft power report, 55 of the current world leaders were education in UK universities. I know Boris is keen to talk about exports, but I don’t think even he would want to own up to some of the leaders we have helped educate here in the UK.


Our education system is outdated and is not fit for purpose.


Look around the world at the people leading us and what they are doing to our planet, our future. Our wonderful environmental and international development charities are constantly fighting bad decisions made by well educated people. The student strikers in Japan recently likened it to a game of bash the mole, and I see what they mean. As soon as we get rid of one urgent problem, like fracking, another one pops up, like Heathrow, the Amazon fires, Brexit, that we have to all jump on and stop.


Constantly firefighting bad decisions made by well educated people is exhausting.


We have to change the way our leaders think, or else we will always be fighting a losing battle to save our future. Humanity will, I’m sure, make it through the climate emergency in some form, but what will come next? We have to break the cycle of well-educated leaders putting short-term profit over long-term, prosperity.


Society needs reforming, and the way we must do that is by reforming our education system.


I’m sure many of you know, we run a transformational programme in the formal curriculum, called Responsible Futures, that supports students’ unions and their institutions to elevate and celebrate the teaching of sustainability across the curriculum. We’d love to bring it to your campuses and work with you and your institutions. I also know many of you are leading your own initiatives to reinvent education, such as the three D’s here at Sheffield. Here, the students’ union are working with then university to Decarbonise, Decolonise and Democratise the curriculum. It is a wonderful campaign that we can all learn from.


But we all need to go further and faster. We need to repurpose the whole of the education system around sustainability, not just tertiary. Students are heavily influenced by what and how they learn when they are younger, so we need to connect up the different parts of our education system on this.


It’s not good enough that sustainability is siloed in certain subject areas. Sustainability needs weaving through all that we learn, like a golden thread, from early years through to adult education.


Sustainability should be like equality. It should be a principle that applies equally to everything we learn and do, not something that is treated in isolation, something that is just for geography or science students to think about. That sort of siloed thinking is what has got us into this mess.

It is this realisation that led us to develop Teach the Future with our friends at UKSCN, who are here today.


Where are our friends from UKSCN?


Please can you stand up?


I want to applaud your amazing work in raising the profile of the climate emergency through your strikes and campaigning. You are all so inspiring to me, and everyone here!



Through Teach the Future we are calling for Government to do six things that we believe will quickly repurpose the whole education system around the climate emergency and ecological crisis.


The first is an independent review of how the education system is preparing young people and students for the climate emergency and ecological crisis, with costed recommendations for what needs to change.


The second is changing the teacher standards so our universities have to ensure the teachers they train are knowledgeable about sustainability.


The third is a new act of parliament, the Climate Emergency Education Act, that will compel and fund our education institutions to prepare students to take action to stop the climate emergency and ecological crisis.


The fourth is a new Climate Endowment Fund that will fund young people and students in every school, college and university in the country to engage their peers, their parents and their teachers and lecturers.


The fifth is funding for charities to set up youth panels on the climate emergency in every school, college, university, local authority, NHS Trust and Government department.


And lastly, the sixth is about the buildings we learn in. We know we can change the formal and informal curriculums through our campaigns and programmes, but the subliminal curriculum requires capital investment. We are mostly taught in inefficient, unsustainable, fossil-fuel dependent classrooms and lecture theatres. This is a massive missed opportunity. Updating and upgrading our learning spaces should be a national infrastructure priority, because we don’t just learn in these buildings, we learn from these buildings. Imagine if every new educational building, school or campus was net-zero carbon from 2020, and every existing building was net-zero carbon by 2030. Buildings that are warm, full of natural light, and fully powered by renewables. Well, that is the sixth demand of Teach the Future.


I said I am here all day today and tomorrow. I actually need to leave early this afternoon, for which I apologies, because I need to go to London. I’ve been invited to a reception hosted by Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, at the Department for Education. Every autumn the minister holds a reception for key people in the education sector. Strangely, given we represent the interests of seven million students, they have never invited NUS before. So, I’m going, and I’m going to use the opportunity to tell Gavin what I’ve told you. We urgently need his support turning Teach the Future into action.


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