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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.

‘INDUSTRY IS CRYING OUT FOR PEOPLE WITH THESE CAPABILITIES’

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.”

A DIVERSE & DRIVEN COHORT

“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.”

EURO B-SCHOOLS ‘QUITE FAR AHEAD’ IN SUSTAINABILITY

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.

Students in the inaugural class of Oxford’s MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment

POETS&QUANTS’ Q&A WITH LAURENCE WAINWRIGHT, DIRECTOR OF THE OXFORD MSc IN SUSTAINABILITY, ENTERPRISE & THE ENVIRONMENT

P&Q: You’ve taught in a lot of places around the world. You mentioned in a short promotional video for the MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment how special Oxford is. A program like this is made all the more special by being at Oxford, isn’t it?

Laurence Wainwright: I think it is, yes. And Oxford’s a remarkable place — a thousand years of history. And maybe it sounds dramatic, but on my wall here I’ve got pictures of some of the people who have been here before. And when I catch myself sort of slacking off, I think, “What’s going to be my contribution to this place? What am I going to do? Am I going to use my time here well?”

You can almost sort of feel it when your finger’s in the air, the people who have been here before and the remarkable things that they’ve done, and you feel a sense of obligation to live up to those people and their legacy. And I think the students kind of feel that as well when they walk around the old buildings.

COP26 really changed the game for business schools, didn’t it? In terms of teaching about sustainability and the climate crisis. And particularly European business schools: things are really different since that.

I think they are. It’s wonderful. But look, I think 2018, early 2019 was probably the turning point. And people say, well Covid was what caused sustainability to be put at the front of the agenda. I actually don’t think it was. I think before that we reached a tipping point and suddenly this all became mainstream. And it was so exciting when it did, because when I did my master’s in sustainable development in Uppsala in Sweden back in 2013, that was when we thought this was just going to be a trend. And it wasn’t. It might not be here to stay, but sustainability is well and truly of age now.

And 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. 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.

Even though, as you have pointed out, a lot of the elite U.S. schools are launching programs in sustainability, in ESG, in corporate social responsibility, I still encounter some skepticism when I talk to people about the entire edifice of graduate business education embracing this, as opposed to the old school “money first” kind of mindset. What’s your answer to that skepticism?

It’s a wonderful question. I came from a business school background originally. So now I find myself placed in the School of Enterprise and the Environment. So I feel like a bit like a duck out of water. I think the MBA, as it was originally conceptualized, is no longer relevant to today’s day and age. 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 just 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.

Oher universities are starting to catch up. But I think it has to be done properly. And like brainwashing, business schools can also do a really good job of making out so they’re taking sustainability seriously and so on, and you look behind the curtains and you realize that there’s not actually much meaningful going on. So yes, I’m optimistic. I think a lot of good is happening, and I think people are always going to be banging on the window saying, “Well, it’s not fast enough, and we need to change things.” But it’s impossible to go from nothing to great. There has to be steps along the way. And I think now we’re at a situation where things are not perfect, but they’re getting a lot better.

Oxford’s new program is part of that, but as you say, there are a lot of new programs in sustainability and a lot of new programs that candidates might choose to apply to. What’s the differentiator here, besides your involvement?

I think we should think about a spectrum here: We start with a classic sort of environmental science degree, which has been around for a long time. Then we start to move along the spectrum and we might have a sociological take on sustainability, like a developmental economics type. Then we might have on the other far end a classic business frame. We have an MBA, and we might have an MBA here with a sustainability twist. What we sort of realized though, is that there was this this big gap between a full-blown MBA and an environmental science degree. And if I think back to my own MSc in sustainable development in Sweden, it was a lovely degree, but it was not realistic about the way that the world works.

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. So let’s embrace business as an institution. Let’s work with markets rather than working against them. We don’t have to overthrow the system. We don’t have to overthrow capitalism. We have to rethink the way that we interact — rethink the relationship between business society and nature.

And what this course does which is really special is, it gives students a really broad standing. 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.

And we’re capping that off with pouring a bucket of cold water on their head every week and having practitioners come in and say, “This is what it’s like out in industry. This is what’s going on. I’ve just come from a meeting with my colleagues on the board, and we’re just speaking about this new sustainability initiative. It wasn’t going to make us money, it was going to lose money, so we decided not to do it.” So I’m getting these people every week just to make sure that they’re giving students the cold, hard truth. So when they’re ready to go out into the world, they’re not being idealistic about things.

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.

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