PhDs with EfS

We welcome enquiries from potential PhD or ProfDoc students on topics, issues, themes, conceptual approaches and/or theoretical perspectives that complement the ongoing work in the Education for Sustainability theme.

You can find a few examples of the sorts of research questions we are currently interested in below but we encourage applicants to bring their own ideas, passions and interests to their PhD proposals. Contact Alison Greig for more information.

You might also want to look at postgraduate opportunities across the GSI, and see entry requirements and fees.

PhD opportunity

The potential of participatory action research (PAR) in schools for co-creation of curricula for social change
Greta Thunberg famously proclaimed in 2019: 'We, the young, are deeply concerned about our future. […] We are the voiceless future of humanity'. A statement in Nature, signed by over 12,000 scientists, notes that 'Young people’s concerns are justified and supported by the best available science' (Warren, 2019: 291). However, it is possible for a student to spend 10,000 hours of contact time in the classroom, and only learn about environmental issues in ten of them (Sandow, 2019).

Thunberg’s remarks highlight the discontinuity between the education and perceived life chances that we are ‘giving’ to young people and that which they feel is important. However, little research relating to Environmental and Sustainability Education (ESE) curricula has been undertaken by and for young people; instead, education has been developed as something which has been ‘done’ to young people. Brydon-Miller and Maguire (2009) note that we must look to alternative research methodologies, in particular those embracing participatory techniques, to develop and deliver the type of education which can foster social change. In response, this PhD will explore the potential value and practicality of using Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodologies for curriculum change, focusing on school education in socially disadvantaged areas.

Initially, the successful candidate will conduct a comprehensive literature review on PAR and ESE with a twofold focus: firstly, to explore barriers to implementation of an EfS curriculum in secondary schools in the UK; and secondly, to fully understand existing research around pupils’ participation in PAR for curriculum change.  They will then have the opportunity to more fully design the project alongside their supervisors and school partners in Cambridgeshire and Cornwall. As policymakers around the globe are taking increasing note of the Youth Movement, alongside rhetoric of building back better following Covid-19, this PhD will provide a substantial contribution to the debate around the fitness of existing education systems to deliver a sustainable future, particularly within the context of a prescriptive, discipline-based secondary school curriculum.

Supervisory team:

Dr Greig is Director of Education for Sustainability at the GSI and an experienced PhD supervisor and examiner in the field of sustainability education, with experience of using and supporting students.

Dr Walshe is acting Head of School of Education at ARU and has expertise in Environmental and Sustainability research and has recently won an AHRC grant for exploring Eco-Capabilities education in schools.

Example PhD research topics

Knowledge and Skills for Change: students’ perspectives of sustainability literacy and employability
The UK higher education sector now acknowledges that academic attainment alone is not sufficient to prepare their graduates for engaging with the world, and particularly the world of work. Most are therefore also focusing on the suite of knowledge, skills and other personal qualities their graduates should be developing as part of their student experience and investing in a range of policies and programmes to deliver these additional qualities to their graduates.

For an increasing number of universities, sustainability literacy is an essential aspect of their ‘graduate package’, and aims to empower their students to not only survive and thrive given the challenges of the 21st Century (Stibbe, 2009) but, in the most ambitious examples, also to be able to inform and redirect the ways in which these challenges are addressed and managed. There is strong evidence (Bone and Agombar 2011, Drayson et al, 2012, 2013, 2014) that students too feel this is an important aspect of their HE experience, and that these skills are principally valued because they are perceived as being attractive to employers (Barber, 2012).

These data are helping to drive both the employability and Education for Sustainability/Education for Sustainable Development (EfS/ESD) agendas in many Universities, including Anglia Ruskin University, and considerable investment is taking place in embedding sustainability and employability skills in the curriculum, co-curriculum and wider student experience.  Much of this investment focuses on developing delivery mechanisms for these agendas.  A plethora of projects and programmes are being designed, which include variable amounts of student engagement, to support and encourage students in gaining these additional skills and personal qualities.

Perhaps surprisingly, there appears to be little consideration or testing of what students are gaining from these interventions. HEFCE Key Information Set metrics, some of which relate to employability, maybe useful as a comparator and benchmarking tool but offer little insight on the effectiveness of specific interactions at individual HEIs and do not consider sustainability literacy in any way. Currently therefore, Universities are creating policy and investing in specific programmes with little idea of their effectiveness or the return on their investment.

This PhD project would build upon a preliminary empirical study undertaken at Anglia Ruskin in 2012. The 2012 study demonstrated a clear disconnect between the skills and attributes which students feel are important and their gaining of these skills and attributes as part of their student experience. The existing data will be expanded and extended to cover a sample of HEIs from across the UK.

The impact of sustainability education
There are numerous organisations, NGOs and charities doing a fantastic job at telling us all about sustainability and inspiring people to take practical action. But does it make a difference, and if so how, and how do we measure it? These are very simple but fundamental questions which so far we have failed to address effectively. We work with a number of organisations who are doing sterling work, but have little idea of whether or not what they do has an impact. This PhD would entail exploring whether it is possible or even necessary to assess the impact of their work on sustainability.