Creating an Interdisciplinary Sustainability Programme – Chester Business School

MSc Overview of business on MerseysideRecognising the inter-disciplinary nature of sustainability, Chester Business School in the United Kingdom has brought together its Geography and Business departments to create a new MSc in Sustainability for Community and Business. The Masters focuses on the interface between communities, businesses, and the public sector. I recently had the chance to speak with Prof. Roy Alexander, from the Department of Geography and Development Studies about this innovative programme.

1. Briefly describe the MSc in Sustainability for Community and Business. 

The MSc in Sustainability for Community and Business is a carefully constructed, purpose-designed programme that exposes students to the contested nature of sustainability and the challenges for its achievement. It draws from a combination of theory and contemporary practice in community and business contexts to inform six modules that examine the following topics: Issues and Challenges, Communities, Business, Resources, Research Methods, and Leadership, and a three-module research project that can take the form of a dissertation, consultancy report, or academic paper. Taught modules each run over a long weekend (Friday to Monday) to facilitate participation by those living some distance from Chester. Professional practitioners from a variety of spheres make significant inputs to the taught modules, and our recently appointed Sustainability Manager at the University has been a key influence in several areas of delivery.

2. How did this programme come about?

Sustainability has become a major focus of both research and teaching in the Department of Geography and Development Studies during the past decade. A significant factor in this was our role in supporting the Cheshire village of Ashton Hayes in its aim to become England’s first carbon neutral community. Work on this project (see the website here) led to a rapid reduction in domestic carbon dioxide emissions within the village and attracted significant attention from the media, politicians, and the business community. This rapidly developed a network of contacts with professional practitioners in business, local and national government, and the charitable sector, which was drawn upon to contribute to a very popular final-year undergraduate module, Sustainable Futures. At the same time, sustainability was emerging as a major thread within the faculty of Business, Enterprise, and Lifelong Learning, and collaboration began on a number of initiatives. Geography and Business at Chester quickly realised that it had all of the key ingredients for an innovative, bespoke Masters programme that would focus on the interdependence and integration between sectors that lies at the heart of successful sustainability initiatives.

3. How did the process of working with the Geography Department go?

Recognising that we had all of the necessary building blocks in place for a unique Masters course, a couple of brainstorming sessions took place between Geography and Business staff in which the structure of the programme was designed. Development of the programme was thus a truly shared process with considerable goodwill on both sides; it also benefited from significant support from the Head of Geography and Development Studies, the Dean of Business, Enterprise, and Lifelong Learning, and also from senior staff elsewhere in the University. Similar levels of support and goodwill have characterised delivery during the first year of the programme.

4. How has the programme been received, and what have been some of the successes?

The programme has been very well received by students and staff, as well as by many of those external to the University who have contributed to its delivery. Students were appreciative of the intensive delivery model for the taught modules, and they rated each of the modules very highly in their feedback. The learning gained through the programme has caused some to re-evaluate career directions and provided a clearer focus. One of our students has already gained a post as a carbon reduction officer within an educational institution.

A notable and very popular feature of the programme is the first taught module, the (Un)Sustainability Challenge, which runs as a field class in southeast Spain. The module gives students and staff a chance to get to know each other and discuss key overarching issues. Students are challenged to make their way to the venue by the most environmentally friendly means possible, and the first assignment requires them to give a presentation on their response to the challenge by detailing the environmental, financial, and time costs involved, explaining the choices and trade-offs they made.

5. What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place, and what’s next for the programme?

Ensure that you have a good working relationship between contributing departments with shared commitment and buy-in at senior levels. Also, it is critical to have a strong network, both locally and nationally, of practitioners whose contributions will help to keep such a programme fresh and relevant. Finally, dedicated administrative support is essential to ensure the programme runs smoothly.

With the programme moving forward, we are looking to build on a successful first year of delivery to develop all aspects of the programme. We will be utilising our developing network of business contacts to explore the possibility of placement opportunities for students, particularly during the research project phase of the programme. We are also exploring opportunities for professional accreditation.


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