Inviting alumni back to Business School, for the planet

Business Schools can make a difference by providing sustainability education to alumni alongside current students, write Carina Hopper and Johanna Wagner

Lifelong learning is a crucial part of United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Quality Education), which aims to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. 

In Business Schools, lifelong learning is often offered to a wide audience of professionals, including those who did not graduate from a management programme and seek the soft and hard skills necessary to get to the next step of their career. Today, in the context of the climate emergency, the need for companies to change the way we do business calls for greater commitment from Business Schools to transforming the paradigm not only among their current students but also among their alumni.

Where we are now

Surveys (including 10 years of research around education and sustainability from UK organisation, Students Organising for Sustainability) are showing an undeniable shift in student expectations, with rising demand for the skills needed to transform companies in the Anthropocene Era. 

In the field, more and more practitioners are showing a willingness to adapt their professional practices by placing a strong focus on sustainability, but do not have the necessary training to do so. One reason for this is that sustainability teaching began as late as 1992 and has only recently begun to grow in scale. 

As a result (and what is now a defining obstacle to rapid change), during their studies, most current professionals were not equipped with the knowledge and competencies needed to manage sustainable businesses. Many higher education institutions are already working to remedy this situation for their current students, but they can also contribute to filling this gap for their alumni, thanks to the development of new, targeted lifelong learning options.

Bringing alumni back to School 

One solution, represented by the Back to School for the Planet initiative, leverages the existing relationship between higher education institutions and their alumni to provide critical sustainability learning in a way that is innovative and simple to implement. 

How? By considering alumni as potential students for newly introduced sustainability courses, sessions and activities. Most of the time, a strict boundary is set between students and graduates, but when it comes to sustainability, this boundary should be reconsidered. Indeed, on the topic of sustainability, many alumni resemble incoming students. They are new to the subject and curious to discover everything it has to offer. Business Schools can build on the trusted relationship with their alumni to offer them a free update by inviting them Back to School for the Planet. 

Whether updates are offered online or in person, this initiative brings alumni back into the classroom alongside current students to participate in the discussion. Beyond the clear advantage for alumni in terms of benefiting from quality education from their institution years, or even decades, after their graduation, their presence in the classroom proves to current students that this topic has become strategic for companies. It also sends a strong message to students, candidates and the wider community that the School is committed to providing lifelong learning on issues that matter, as part of its added value.

How it works

Alumni inclusion in your institution’s new sustainability education offering can take shape in a myriad of ways and can be adapted to School policy, course format and alumni availability.

Benefits for current students

Thanks to Back to School for the Planet, the student learning experience can be enhanced in several ways:

1. First-hand accounts of how the sustainability strategies and concepts being taught may play out – or may have already been executed – in the professional world are integrated into the classroom discussion, thanks to presence of alumni with experience in the field.

2. A strong link is created between current students and participating alumni, leading to potential networking and employment opportunities.

3. A new type of collaborative environment emerges that is intergenerational and bridges the academic and professional world in a dynamic way.


Back to School for the Planet is highly transferable and scalable thanks to the widespread transition to online and hybrid education seen in many regions of the world. Schools that wish to do so (particularly those without online learning capabilities) can invite alumni to participate in their new sustainability-focused educational offering in person.

The only requirement for institutions interested in participating is to have introduced new courses or activities in sustainability – something that is becoming increasingly common due to the rise in education for sustainable development (ESD) in recent years.

Support in implementation

Back to School for the Planet grew from a teacher-led initiative to a non-profit scheme to encourage its application, and support Schools in its implementation. By providing instructional guides, alumni recruitment support, participant certificates, a communication toolkit, access to a Back to School for the Planet network, and more, the organisation can help your institution to broaden the impact of its sustainability efforts by opening up these opportunities to alumni. The full potential of higher education to contribute to change can be achieved when the dissemination of sustainability knowledge and competencies efficiently target current professionals as well as future ones. Your School can accelerate the change by inviting its graduates Back to School for the planet.

Case study: ESSEC Business School

In 2020, as faculty teaching new sustainability classes in the MSc in hospitality management at ESSEC Business School, we created the Back to School for the Planet initiative in order to test our hypotheses that: alumni are interested in accessing sustainability training in the form of newly introduced sustainability courses in the School they graduated from; and this access can have an impact on their personal and professional lives. 

Both the number of applications, and the answers to the impact survey we conducted six months later, supported the hypotheses and demonstrated additional benefits. A few weeks before the start of the 2020-2021 School year, an alumni gathering presented the opportunity to discuss the introduction of a set of new sustainability courses for current students. One conclusion from the discussion was clear: while  graduates were pleased that sustainability teaching was now being incorporated by their former School, they did not feel that they themselves had the necessary knowledge or understanding to act in favour of greater sustainability in their companies. 

This led us to ponder how we could help them shift towards more responsible business practices. Since Covid-19 had made hybrid teaching commonplace at our institution, we realised that course attendance could now be extended to motivated alumni as a lifelong learning option. From their home or office, participants could benefit from the same new courses as current students. We submitted the idea to the programme director, who shared our vision and supported the piloting of the initiative.

For the pilot, we opened to alumni four spots each in two new 25-hour courses on sustainability. We received 16 applications from former students. The eight successful applicants were invited to attend all 25 hours of their assigned course alongside current students. During the sessions, we observed that the graduates were engaged – both in terms of asking questions and sharing relevant experience – while the students were stimulated by the of alumni and their contribution to discussions. 

Of the participating alumni, five answered our impact survey and unanimously agreed that the experience of returning to their classrooms to learn about sustainability was transformative and had positive impacts on their lives.

Carina Hopper teaches sustainability in fashion and luxury and sustainable hospitality management at Business Schools, including ESSEC Business School, SKEMA Business School and ESMOD Fashion Business School.
Johanna Wagner teaches in leading European hospitality management master’s programmes. A hospitality professional, she moved from working in finance and asset management positions to facilitating sustainability for students and professionals.
Carina Hopper and Johanna Wagner are Co-Founders of Back to School for the Planet.

This article is adapted from one which originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

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