Training future changemakers

A degree in Social Change is particularly relevant in this era of transitions in all sectors of the economy and society

Published - November 13, 2021 06:37 pm IST

One distinctive feature of all these degrees in Social Change is a strong real world strand that complements more traditional academic study and training.

One distinctive feature of all these degrees in Social Change is a strong real world strand that complements more traditional academic study and training.

Few, if any, generations have confronted a more daunting future than that facing young people today. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was unequivocal that climate change is no longer a future possibility. It is happening now: it is “widespread, rapid and intensifying and is affecting all regions of the world”. Moreover, as earlier IPCC reports have stressed, responding to climate change and keeping global warming to the relatively safe level of 1.5°C requires more than technological shifts (e.g. from fossil fuel to renewable energy). It will also require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in society” (IPCC 2018). At a time when social inequalities and food poverty are growing globally, perhaps the biggest challenge is how to combine environmental sustainability with social justice — and ensure that everyone can enjoy a good life.

Educating for social change

Preparing young people to deal with the changes ahead is one of the key challenges for anyone working in education. It is in this context that more and more universities are launching undergraduate degrees with a strong and explicit social change component. Some universities are now offering single honours interdisciplinary BA in Social Change. Others offer joint degrees such as Politics and Social Change, Social Policy and Social Change, Environment and Social Change and even Sport or Theatre and Social Change. The aim is to give students the skills, experience and vision to become change-makers who can lead the transitions that we all need.

One distinctive feature of all these degrees in Social Change is a strong real world strand that complements more traditional academic study and training. This typically goes beyond critical thinking and learning about social and environmental problems. It enables students to think creatively about solutions, by learning how to research and adapt models of best practice from different fields of expertise. Such solutions might be at the level of policy or grassroots initiatives. For example, how governments can encourage local wealth creation by supporting social enterprises, or how local sustainable food schemes can empower the marginalised, generate income, health and well-being, while also fostering biodiversity and community cohesion.

Developing competencies and skills

A second distinctive characteristic of these degrees is that they train students in work-related skills. While the specifics vary, these range from community engagement, policy and project design, to fundraising and writing project proposals. There is also an emphasis on enabling students to practice their skills and gain hands-on experience through volunteering, internships, and placements. These might be with local community organisations and social enterprises, local government or in some cases, with national and even international NGOs and charities.

Students enjoy the opportunity to use their knowledge and creativity while developing their autonomy and professional skills. They particularly relish the chance to collaborate in teams and to learn from each other, and in the process, gain self-confidence in their capabilities and a can-do orientation, which have positive knock-on effects on performance in their more standard academic modules.

Future careers

While particularly well suited to careers in government, the media, social enterprises, think-tanks, and charities, Social Change graduates will be an asset across the private and public sectors, given the necessity of transitions in all sectors of the economy and society.

The writer is Director of the BA in Social Change and Deputy Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Centre at the University of Essex, the U.K.

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