More and more uni students in Australia are choosing to study the environment

As a new year of tertiary education gets underway and Australia recovers from a summer of bushfires, Australian universities have told SBS News there has been increasing interest in their environment courses. Here, three students share their motivations.

Aleesha Stone, Marco Bellemo, Rachael Leeson

Students Aleesha Stone, Marco Bellemo and Rachael Leeson. Source: SBS News

Aleesha Stone never thought she would end up studying the environment at university.

But becoming more aware of climate change around 18 months ago eventually led her to start a double degree of Law and Environmental Policy and Management at The University of Adelaide this year.

“I originally wanted to do psychology or social work, because I always wanted to help people,” the 18-year-old told SBS News.

“However, as soon as I became more aware of politics and climate change, I thought, 'what better way to help people than work in this field?’. It’s humanity's biggest threat.”

Eighteen-year-old Aleesha Stone.
Source: SBS News

Aleesha said the desire to study the environment at a tertiary level was amplified by Australia's recent bushfire crisis. But her "biggest turning point”, she said, was last May’s federal election and the months that followed. 

“[Scott Morrison's] government's inaction [on climate change] has been terrible,” she said. 

The Federal Government has repeatedly stated it will "meet and beat" its Paris Agreement target to reduce emissions by 26-28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 but has been internationally criticised for planning to use controversial "carryover credits" to do so.

Increasing interest at universities 

The start of a new tertiary education year comes as various universities around the country report increasing levels of interest in their environmental courses.

Catherine Pickering, from Griffith University’s School of Environment and Science, said that more and more students are studying degrees from within her school.

"This in part reflects increasing concern in the community regarding impacts on the environment, including from climate change, and it also reflects increases in job opportunities as more industries recognise the importance of good environmental practices," she said.

Deakin University’s Wildlife and Conservation Biology course has seen a “dramatic rise in popularity”, according to Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Education Liz Johnson, with a 38 per cent increase in offers from 2019 to 2020.

Prof Johnson also said Deakin’s newly-introduced Bachelor of Marine Science has been an “immediate hit”, ranking as the university’s third most popular new course for 2020, while the Environmental Management and Sustainability course has seen a 14 per cent increase in popularity from 2019 to 2020.

Seventeen-year-old Rachael Leeson.
Source: Lisa Mattisson

Rachael Leeson has wanted to study an environmental degree for “as long as [she] can remember thinking about university”.

The 17-year-old, who has started a double degree of Urban and Environmental Planning and Bachelor of Science at Griffith University, said it is important more young people study sustainability.

“I don’t think enough action is being taken on climate change in a lot of different fields and areas,” she said.

“We need as many people as possible going into all fields, looking to improve sustainability in their chosen field.

Rachael said she felt a similar feeling of urgency among other students during February’s orientation period.

“It’s quite common for our generation to be anxious about climate change and to want to do something about it,” she said.

“I've got five years of uni, so I won’t be out into the workforce for at least five years.

“In terms of the climate and carbon emissions, five years changes a lot."

From 'fascination' to action

Marco Bellemo initially wanted to study the environment through a “fascination point of view”, but like Aleesha, his priorities changed in the past few years.

“As I started to understand how severe the climate crisis was becoming and will become, I’ve started to think about the course that will best enable me to make change in the climate emergency,” the 18-year-old said.

Mr Bellemo has enrolled in a double degree of Environmental Science and Environment and Society at RMIT University in Melbourne.

Eighteen-year-old Marco Bellemo.
Source: Julian Meehan

“I applied for the social science-focused course, as well, because the scientific community is not being listened to," he said.

But he won’t attend classes start until next year, having made the decision to defer in order to participate more in grassroots activism.

“I have a moral responsibility to act and fight the climate crisis in as best a way I can,” he said.

“I’m still very excited to go to uni, but this year, I believe grassroots campaigning and activism is the best way to achieve meaningful change"

"I think science is very important, but so is activism."

Several other universities also confirmed to SBS News their environmental courses were increasing in popularity, but could not provide exact figures because the 2020 enrollment statistics are yet to be finalised.

A Macquarie University spokesperson told SBS News interest in its undergraduate environment courses have seen a “substantial increase” from 2019 to 2020.

A spokesperson from the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Science said admissions to environment-focused graduate programs have “grown steadily” over the past few years, and “based on previous experience, anticipates the impact of this summer’s extreme temperatures, bushfires and drought to be reflected in a spike in enrolments in 2021".

Spokespeople from Flinders University, the University of Newcastle, RMIT University, the University of Wollongong and the University of Western Australia also confirmed to SBS News their environmental-related courses have increased in popularity in recent years.

'I want to have more of an impact'

Rachael said a possible career option at the end of her degree would be to work in animal conservation.

“It’s really breaking my heart with what’s going on at the moment in terms of extinction rates,” she said.

“Looking at the wildlife that’s been wiped out in the bushfires, it’s really scary because some of the species were already vulnerable.

“When I think about the future, I wonder whether I am going to have to get used to watching six months of intense fires every year.”

A sea turtle swimming near Lady Elliot Island, Bundaberg.
Source: AAP

Aleesha said she's not sure what workplace she'll find herself in after graduation, but she knows exactly the kind of role she wants to play there. 

“My plans are to get into politics to be able to get more heavily involved in policymaking, or even just working as part of a council,” she said.

“Really, I just want to have more of an impact on the decisions being made on behalf of Australians.”

Published 3 March 2020 at 7:16pm
By Evan Young