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“My expectations were blown out of the water,” says Daniella Vega, head of corporate responsibility at BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster, of her fellow students on the Masters in Sustainability and Responsibility course.

“There were corporate social responsibility and sustainability and environmental people in auditing, a clump of people from non-governmental organisations, a few consultants.” But, adds Vega, there were also “people from completely different sectors I thought were unrelated: advertising, the National Health Service – a real spread of professionals”.

The range of students illustrates the growing appeal of masters programmes focusing on the environment and sustainability, such as Vega’s at Ashridge Business School just north of London.

Chris Nichols, the programme director, says: “The world has never faced a population rise as we have now, with the desire for western lifestyles and the resource crunch that brings with it.”

The course is adapted from one begun at the University of Bath by Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, the ethical cosmetics company. After other professors retired five years ago, Gill Coleman, a founder of the Bath course, brought it to Ashridge, which had a research centre for business and sustainability running executive programmes, but did not offer a masters in the field.

The programme arrived with 14 years of alumni, including Paul Dickinson, founder of the Carbon Disclosure Project, a not-for-profit organisation measuring and helping to reduce carbon emissions by business and cities. Once Dickinson’s MSc research project, it will next year become mandatory for all companies listed on the London Stock Exchange to declare their emissions.

Bradford School of Management in northern England is working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to reduce the use of natural resources by business. The youngest person to circumnavigate the world alone, Dame Ellen’s experience of surviving for weeks with a minimum of food and drink while witnessing the effects of climate change spurred her to action.

Olga Matthias, director of studies for business and management MSc programmes at Bradford, says businesses are waking up to the challenge as commodity prices rise and legislation tightens. “Most of it is regulation driven. If organisations have to respond to legislative requirements, students need to be equipped to understand. Business change is everywhere.”

In January, Bradford is launching an MBA that has been devised with the foundation and piloted by its staff and partners. Peter Hopkinson, director of the course, is experimenting with an “iTunes structure” where students download lectures and teaching materials from a website.

Academics say that it is not only western companies that are interested in the courses but also those in emerging economies. At Bradford, the vast majority of students come from abroad, many from India and China.

Matthias says: “They don’t want to copy the west. There seems to be a move towards thinking they can leapfrog [by moving straight to a low-resource economy].”

Ashridge’s Nichols says: “You could crack climate change and still go to hell in a handcart because you lose all biodiversity. Companies in India and China are very open to that question. It’s not a western preoccupation.”

NHH in Norway reports increased international interest in its Masters in Energy, Natural Resources and the Environment.

“Energy and natural resource management have strong traditions in Norway, both from a research perspective and in terms of actual policies,” says Jan Haaland, rector of the school in Bergen. “Being a world-leading energy nation known for its environmental consciousness, few places are better suited for such a course of study.”

The gas and oil reserves that have led to Norway’s expertise in trying to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions also pay for tuition fees, meaning international students can attend for just a small fee of approximately NOK680 ($115) per semester.

They also receive an automatic 20-hour-a-week work permit.

HEC in Paris has a 12-month full-time MSc in Sustainable Development taught in English. “A real economic change is taking place, marked by more costly energy and primary resources; more diversified energy sources and …the negative effects of rebalanced labour costs,” says Pascal Chaigneau, an academic director.

Ashridge’s course is aimed more at practising professionals, with four interspersed weeks a year for two years.

BSkyB’s Vega says she was looking for a “fresh perspective”. “I needed a new sense of energy,” she says. “I looked at a few sustainability courses. A lot were focused on mechanics and measuring impact. Ashridge takes a different and holistic approach.”

It is based on “action research”, which involves undertaking projects and observing how people react, so you can become a “leader of change”.

“It has affected my entire approach to management and leadership. I am much more focused on progress and relationships. I was focused on targets and outcomes,” she says.

She has even undergone personal change, becoming a vegetarian after discovering the impact of meat eating on the environment.

Matthias says Bradford will continue to pioneer courses in sustainability. “We think it is important to be current and lead the way.”

While the courses are attracting more students, often recent graduates wanting an edge on others applying for jobs, she admits: “I don’t think they are as popular as they should be.”

However, Nichols believes that soon all programmes will incorporate sustainability “as core to strategy and leadership. In five to 10 years we would like these degrees to be irrelevant because every degree would have it. Why would you want a non-sustainable business?”

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