A decade and a half into the 21st century, many believe that the metamorphosis of student into consumer is complete. The student activist and the radical student movement are consigned to history. Despite the hiccup of the anti-fees protests in 2010, the modern student is more concerned with getting their money’s worth in education than they are about changing the world.

So some would have you think. Over the two years since the first run of this series, the student movement has grown further in depth, diversity and scope. This new set of articles seeks to explore the student campaigns that are redefining our time: what they have achieved, what they mean for the student movement, and their impact on the Higher Education sector as a whole.

By Maria Cooper

I went to university in St Andrews, Scotland. Well, in a sense I went to two – the old conventional institution you’ve heard of, and the far more inspiring Transition University of St Andrews. Transition started out for me as something I just did to survive – it was cheaper to grow food than buy it, cheaper to swap clothes and books than buy them, and being outside planting trees or mending bikes was a life-giving contrast to the stuffy library and theoretical learning that otherwise filled my days. Besides, many of my friends and I often felt that sort of depression so prevalent among students. What difference am I making in the world? Who cares about yet another essay, being read by one tutor and then put on the pile of student pride or shame never to be looked at again?

Transition gave us something outside this bubble we could engage in, and crucially, learn skills that made us feel like we could actually be able to lead a good life in harmony with the planet:

  • How to grow our own food – we had community gardens scattered around town and campus;
  • How to increase energy efficiency – we had workshops and materials for retrofitting often rather dingy sublet flats;
  • How to travel well – we had bike schemes and car shares;
  • How to re-skill ourselves – we had so many skillshares, from sewing dresses to making chutneys, from dowsing to running a social enterprise;
  • How to work together in constructive ways – we tried out different forms of governance and decision making;
  • How to inspire others and have fun while doing it – we had many outreach events, festivals, parties, and potlucks;
  • And perhaps most importantly, the skill I felt was most lacking from my university course – how to take care of myself and deal with the overwhelm and confusion anyone can feel when trying to discover how to have a future in a world characterised by climate change, ecological crises, economic collapses, consumerism on steroids, war, terrorism, Trump, Brexit and all the rest of it.

Within the very transient nature of university life, where people are arriving and leaving almost constantly, the Transition group gave me a good grounding and sense of place. Through it I felt more connected to the town and the natural landscape that was hosting me during my university years, and better able to put academic studies into context.


As the years passed by and I got deeper into the Transition group, I discovered so many more reasons to be involved and pursue our very own special transition in the university.

First of all, I was thrilled by the social change that our very practical projects were having. I found myself in a community garden digging potatoes with my lecturers and the head of Estates & Facilities, which drastically changed how we related to each other and each other’s functions within the university structure. Friendships started breaking down the traditional hierarchies in academic environments, to the benefit of everybody. And it was just so much more fun and meaningful to step out of the standard siloed approach to university life.

I also love that Transition embraces such a holistic approach, achieving change on a systemic level in the university. These are powerful institutions, often owning a lot of land, and having a huge footprint on their local area in terms of consumption, energy, and travel. If we can get a change through the institutions, such as introducing a biodiversity plan, or energy efficiency measures, the scope for impact is so much higher and more tangible than when we try to do it one private home at a time.

Friendships started breaking down the traditional hierarchies in academic environments

But what makes me most excited is that so many people pass through a university. And universities are such great learning environments, incubators for behaviour change, and experimentation sites. Many people who are there are looking for new ideas, new ways of living life, and are open to engaging with Transition. If there is anywhere we can reach a large chunk of the population and spread ideas about how to design our future, it’s through universities. All of these students, lecturers, visiting doctorates, staff members, even though they spend just a few years and then move on, can all be inoculated with little seeds of sustainability. We see our Transition alumni as taking Transition with them to wherever next they go in the world. Perhaps a new Transition group (or something similar) will sprout around them. In fact, many of my friends from our Transition university group have gone on to have what I can only describe as Transitioned careers. Transition University of St Andrews is still going strong – you can see their website here.

Once I had graduated from my course of International Relations (but really, from the Transition University), I realised that perhaps there was something in that experience that was worth sharing.

I travelled around to some other Transition Universities in Scotland and talked to them about their initiatives, how they worked, highpoints and lowpoints, opportunities and challenges. The result is the guide we launched this month, the first edition of How To Do Transition In Universities And Colleges, which is a collection of examples of how Transition has been applied in the universities I visited. As with all Transition groups, there is no one right way to do it. Each university and college will have its own unique characteristics and appropriate solutions.


A page from the new guide

Transition Edinburgh University started out in 2009 as an offshoot from the People & Planet group there, and ran a number of projects around energy, transport and food to 2011, when funding ended and it became the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability within the uni. Down the road at Heriot-Watt, a Transition initiative has been started and run almost entirely by staff, with a focus on sustainable travel through a bike hub and other cycling-related projects. At Stirling University, a number of Transition-style projects are running under the banner of The Green and Blue Space. There the initial impetus came from a local Transition project contacting the Students’ Union, and most of the associated projects are in the process of becoming membership co-operatives to ensure longevity. Long story short, there’s a lot of variety in how students, staff and communities are implementing Transition ideas.

This guide is offered as a source of suggestions and inspiration. We will be using it as a foundation for workshops to take out to other universities in the future – the first of which will be taking place at Dundee on April 7th, hopefully with some folks from as far afield as Bologna and Lisbon! But for now, please have a read, find what speaks to you, and run with it. I do hope you enjoy it!

This article has been edited from a blog originally published on the Transition Network. All images taken from the original post.


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