Professor Peter Higgins (PFHEA, FRGS, FRSE)

Chair in Outdoor Environmental & Sustainability Education, Director of the United Nations University Regional Centre for ESD (Scotland), Director of the Global Environment & Society Academy


Professor Peter Higgins holds a Personal Chair in Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education at Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. The department has an international reputation and is one of few in the world with both a practical and teaching orientation as well as substantial research interests in the field of 'learning outdoors' and 'learning for sustainability'. Their work focuses primarly on two areas - preparing critically aware professionals to teach within and improve practice in these fields; and making a significant contribution to research, knowledge and policy.

Peter's national and international contributions to his fields have been recognised by the University of Edinburgh through the award of a Personal Chair, the only one in the field in the UK and Europe, and the University's highest recognition of sustained contributions to teaching - the Chancellor's Award for Teaching.

His significant contributions to teaching policy and practise in Higher Education have been recognised with the award of 'Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Authority ', and for teaching and research in environmental education through Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. For his work on national and international education he has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Peter's early career was as an environmental scientist and freshwater biologist. He holds a BSc in Environmental Physical Sciences, an MSc in Freshwater Ecology and a PhD in the biology of Atlantic Salmon. He has conducted freshater ecological work in England, Scotland, Honduras and Alaska, and was one of the ecologists responsible for the re-introduction of Atlantic Salmon into the River Thames. (See also academic publications listing).

Subsequently Peter retrained as a teacher of Outdoor Education and Biology and in addition to his formal teaching qualifications has gained a wide range of high-level UK and European governing body teaching awards notably in canoeing/kayaking, mountaineering and free-heel skiing, in all of which he retains a strong recreational interest. His training and qualifications were central to his work in several UK outdoor education centres and in New Zealand.

He teaches on a range of Outdoor Education and Environmental Education programmes. Of these, and notable for their 50+year history are Masters programmes in Outdoor Education, Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education, and Learning for Sustainability which are amongst few in the world. The programmes have high national and international reputation, attracting students from many parts of the world. He teaches both academic and practical aspects of these (including field courses on the River Spey and the Isle of Rum), an on-line course in sustainability, and contributes to other sustainable development and education programmes in the university in areas as diverse as Carbon Management and Nursing Studies.

Peter has had a wide-ranging role in the university’s drive to ‘enhance the student learning experience’ with specific roles as CAHSS Dean of Students, leading the introduction of Personal Tutoring System for PGT students, supporting Senior Tutors, convening the College Student Support Forum and contributing to a wide range of university committees and policy developments. He has also had an on-going role in a wide range of areas related to the student experience – e.g. developing creative approaches to student assessment and feedback (see e.g. his Teaching Matters Blog on Feedback ( and his recent TEDx talk (

He has successfully supervised over 20 PhD students in fields such as residential outdoor provision, education in indigenous cultures, environmental education in Africa and Scandinavia, skill acquisition in kayaking, decision-making by mountain guides, environmental/sustainability implications of diet and food waste, and sustainability in early years education. He currently supervises several Doctoral students in an equally wide range of areas.

He has recently been active in developing on-line approaches to ‘learning for sustainability’, including University of Edinburgh Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs). In 2015 he joinlty developed a MOOC in Learning for Sustainability -Developing a Personal Ethic, which was followed by over 13,000 individuals in 170 countries; and a similar joint venture with Cornell University (USA) (Environmental Education: A transdisciplinary approach to addressing wicked problems). In 2016-17 he jointly developed a course in Sustainability and Social Responsibility, which continues to be the only the only University-wide on-line course available to the majority of students in the University.

In 2015 he jointly initiated a initiated and promoted the idea of the University patially meeting its climate commitemnts by sequestering carbon through woodland planting and peatland restoration. After several years work by colleagues across the University this has become the Carbon Sequestration (Forests and Peatlands) Programme, with a 50-year commitment to both sequester carbon and restore nature at a range of locations in Scotland (

He is the author of over 170 articles and books relating to hos fields. Through individual and collaborative (with other UK and European universities) research grants and consultancy activities he has attracted income of over £5M. In addition to his academic work he is active in public disseminatiation of work in the field, through comment in the press and other media.

Public lecture: United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Learning for Sustainability and government policies

The policy impact of the work Peter and colleagues have carried out is significant, and was highlighted in University of Edinburgh submissions for the  (2014 and 2022) UK Research Excellence Framework.  Their research and that of their PhD students and collaborators since 2000, has led directly to national and international developments: 1. Scottish Government policy on outdoor environmental and sustainability education; 2. Scottish Government and General Teaching Council for Scotland policy on sustainability education and outdoor learning; 3. specialist degree programmes, and continuing professional development for UK and overseas teachers. Related work has supported policy developments on recreational and educational countryside access. Peter's work with colleagues has been recogised by recent Scottish Government and UNESCO nominations for international awards.

Outdoor Learning and Education Policy Development in Scotland

To further increase the impact of this extensive policy work, Peter and colleagues have recently been awarded a major British Council 'Connecting Classrooms' 3-year award (2015-2018) and further awards (2018-22) to support the development of teachers' skills in Learning for Sustainability.

Outdoor and Environmental Education at the University

Recent Awards and Recognition

  • Association for Experiential Education International Award for Lifetime Achievement
  • University of Edinburgh - Chancellor’s Award for sustained contributions to teaching - 2018
  • Elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society - 2018-
  • Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (Highest award of the academy) - 2015-
  • Expert Advisor to the UK Commission for UNESCO - 2015-
  • Expert Advisor to the Asia-Pacific ESD Network - 2016-
  • Expert Advisor to the China Nature Education Network - 2019-
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh - 2023-


BSc Environmental Science, University of Kent at Canterbury

MSc Applied Freshwater Ecology, University of London

PhD Physiology of Atlantic Salmon, University of Aberdeen

PGCE Biology and Outdoor Education, University College of North Wales, Bangor


Outdoor Activities Qualifications


Mountain Instructor’s Certificate

Summer Mountain Leadership Award  

Winter Mountain Leadership Award

Summer and Winter Mountain Leadership Award Trainer and Assessor

European Mountain Leader Award (now International Mountain Leader)


Level 5 Coach (Inland) (British Canoe Union)

Level 4 Coach (Sea)

Level 4 Coach (Open Canoe)

Assessor A4/A5 and Coach Tutor


British Association of Ski Instructors, Instructor (Nordic)

British Association of Ski Instructors, Instructor (Telemark)

Scottish National Ski Council Ski Leader

Scottish National Ski Council Mountain Ski Leader

Scottish National Ski Council Nordic Ski Leader Tutor


British Orienteering Federation Instructor


Royal Yachting Association Dinghy Instructor



Responsibilities & affiliations

Peter is a member of a number of national and international panels and advisory groups on outdoor and environmental education and education for sustainable development. He has acted in advisory capacity to the UK and Scottish Governments on outdoor, environmental and sustainability education, access to the countryside, land reform and related environmental issues. He was Chair of the Scottish Government National Advisory and Implementation Groups on 'Learning for Sustainability' (2011-16) - integrating education for sustainabie development, global citizenship and outdoor education.

He is a Board Member of NatureScot (the Scottish Government's nature advisory agency) and Chair of its Scientific Advisory Committee; a Board Member of the UK's Joint Nature Conservation Committee; Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Field Studies Council and an Advisor to the Venture Trust (a Scottish Charity helping people struggling with involvement in Scotland's criminal justice system, long term unemployment and mental health and wellbeing). He has held advisory roles with a wide range of other outdoor and environmental educational providers and agencies and has contributed to their continuing professional development.

Peter is a member of the UNESCO international network on 'reorienting education to address sustainability' and the UK Commission for UNESCO 'Expert Panel', for which he has recently jointly written reviews of Education for Sustainable Development in the UK, and good practise examples of ESD. He has been appointed by Chinese Government as Expert Advisor to the Asia-Pacific ESD Network, and the China Nature Education Association.  He has also contributed to several large European Union educational projects.

He jointly established and is currently Director of the United Nations University 'Regional Centre of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development' for Scotland (Learning for Sustainability Scotland).

Learning for Sustainability Scotland

Undergraduate teaching

BEd Primary

  • Contribution to extension course in outdoor learning
  • Contribution to extension course in global learning

Sustainability and Social Responsibilities - University-wide Undergraduate Elective Course

  • Course Director

Postgraduate teaching

MSc Programmes in 'Outdoor Education' and 'Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education'

  • Interpreting the Landscape
  • Professional Practice and Experiential Learning
  • Ecology and Field Studies
  • Practical programme - Canoeing (River Spey Descent), Winter Mountaineering etc.

MSc Programme in 'Learning for Sustainability'

  • Ecosystems for Educators

PGDE Secondary

  • Contribution to extension course in outdoor learning

MSc Carbon Management

  • Contribution to taught part of the course

MSc Nursing Studies

  • Contribution to taught part of the course

Areas of interest for supervision

Peter currently supervises doctoral students studying a wide range of topics in Outdoor, Environmental and Sustainability Education in the context of the UK, Europe and other parts of the world.

He has supervised doctoral students now working in the UK, Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia.

He also works with an Honorary Research Fellow and an Senior Resarch Fellow.

Current PhD students supervised

  • Luke Addison - Bringing Children’s Voices to the Fore of ‘Learning for Sustainability’. Froebel Trust Award.
  • Chris Mackie - The role of natural heritage in supporting learning and development in Scotland.  Scottish Natural Heritage Magnus Magnussen Award.
  • John Pierce - A Longitudinal Case Study into the Practices and Processes of Outdoor Centres in Ireland
  • Jerry Tracey - An investigation into the cultural interaction between slalom and play-boating with white-water canoeing and kayaking
  • Louise Hawxwell - An exploration into the impact of outdoor experiences on the perceptions and practices of trainee teachers over the course of their undergraduate study and into their NQT year - a longitudinal study
  • Shang Zhan Lee - Impact of outdoor learning continuing professional development and policy change on teachers in Taiwan
  • Kay Fretwell -  Going beyond Transmission: Promoting the Transformative Potential of Education for Sustainable Development. SAGES funded studentship.
  • Dorothea Vincent - A Civil Society United Nations House: A Forum for Proactive Collaboration for SDG4  & Collaboration for Quality Education


Past PhD students supervised

  • Steve Banks - Distal and proximal attentional focus effects on the performanceof closed and open continuous motor skills.
  • Beth Christie -Raising Achievement in Secondary Schools:  A study of outdoor experiential learning. 
  • John Crosbie- The value of outdoor education for people with disabilities: An in-depth case study of the Calvert Trust
  • Justine Geyer- Developing an Understanding of Greenspace as a Resource for Physical Activity in Adolescents in Scotland
  • Jamie Hamilton- A systems-based evaluation of the feasibility of a national outdoor education programme and the long-term socio-economic and developmental dynamics of implementation. (Heriot Watt University).
  • Rachel Howell- Promoting Lower-Carbon Lifestyles: The role of personal values, climate change communications and carbon allowances in processes of change
  • Abdul Kahlid- The nature and scope of outdoor education in the city-state of Singapore
  • Myra Kandemiri - A Comparative Study of School-Based Environmental Education in Zimbabwe and Scotland.
  • Robbie Nicol - Outdoor Education for Sustainable Living?  An investigation into the potential of Scottish Local Authority residential outdoor education centres to deliver programmes related to sustainable living
  • Clare Nugent- Nature kindergartens as pedagogical environment for early childhood: a multi-case study  
  • Stephen Porter- The climate change mitigation potential of tackling global food waste
  • Hannah Ritchie - Global Food Systems: Addressing Malnutrition Through Sustainable System Pathways.
  • Roger Scrutton- The effectiveness of residential outdoor education programmes
  • Jane Spiteri- Young Children’s Perceptions of Environmental Sustainability: A Maltese Perspective
  • Iain Stewart-Patterson- The Role of Intuition in the Decision Process of Expert Ski Guides
  • Takako Takano - Bonding with the Land:  Outdoor environmental education programmes and their cultural contexts. 
  • Rebekah Tauritz- Developing Uncertainty Competences through Outdoor Education for Sustainability
  • John Telford - Meanings, values, and life course: A study of participants’ experiences at a Scottish outdoor education centre.
  • Ralf Westphal- Understanding Personal and Social Development (PSD) within the discourses of Outdoor Education in the UK and Friluftsliv in Norway

Research summary

  • Theory, philosophy and practice of outdoor education / outdoor learning
  • Theory, philosophy and practice of environmental and sustainability education
  • International comparative approaches to outdoor, environmental and sustainability education
  • Coaching and skill acquisition in outdoor activities

Knowledge exchange

National and International Education Policy Development

Peter has worked on policy development with the Scottish Government since soon after the parliament was established. In 2012 he was appointed by Scottish Ministers to Chair the ‘Ministerial Advisory Committee on Learning for Sustainability’ and then Co-Chair the subsequent Implementation Group (Scottish Government National Implementation Group on 'Learning for Sustainability).

He led the writing group producing the final report which links progress in implementation with future work aligned with the 2015-2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals. This report (Vision 2030+: The final report of the Scottish Government LfS implementation Group) was accepted in full in March 2016 by three Scottish Ministers (Education, Sciences and Scotland’s Languages; Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform; International Development and Europe) and its recommendations are now being implemented across Scottish education through an action plan launced in 2019.

He support the British Council on educational policy matters with for example contributions to the 2018 T20 education policy process which provides support and advice for the G20/G7 Summits.

His work has resulted in significant policy change in Scotland and led to international acclaim including a nomination for the most prestigious prize in education - the Yidan Prize for Education Development. The nomination was led by the Funding Council, with supporting nominations from amongst others, Education Scotland, Scottish Government, Depute First Minister, UNESCO Chair, World Futures Trust, Chinese Commission for UNESCO (


UN Centre for Education for Sustainable Development (Scotland)

As Director of this centre Peter has worked with colleagues to maintain funding streams to sustain the employment of the staff and support its work nationally. This has been in Scottish Government policy support and integration with the work of the sector, organisation and delivery of seminars etc., and in practical training provision. He led a £170k bid (2015-18) for British Council funding to provide blended-learning and fully on-line LfS courses for Scottish teachers (>500) and a further larger successful bid for 2018-21. He and colleagues designed and teach these courses, providing teachers with professional-development to deliver LfS policy; resulting in professional recognition (GTCS), praise from Scottish Government, and MSc recruitment.

In 2018, the United Nations University’s Global Regional Centre for Expertise on Education and Sustainable Development awarded the researchers’ collaboration the ‘Outstanding Flagship Project’, in recognition of its contribution to SDG 4 (Quality Education) and target 4.7 to ensure ‘all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development'.


Project activity

  • Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.  A Natural Curriculum: Improving the quality and availability of outdoor learning experiences in schools. (with Christie, B., Beames, S., Nicol, R. and Ross, H.)
  • A review of WWF-UK’s approach to formal education.  World Wide Fund for Nature (UK). (with Lavery, A.)
  • Scottish Universities Insight Institute Walking for Wellbeing: Developing Sustainable Engagement between Research, Policy and Practice.  (with PHARC, MHSE. 
  • A review of Ecoschools in Scotland.  Commissioned Report for Keep Scotland Beautiful.  (with Birley, T., King, B., & Watson, M.)
  • Learning for Sustainabilty: Connecting Classrooms.  For the British Council. (with Christie, B., King, B. & Murray, R.)
  • Gordon Cook Foundation Award  - £90k (2015-18). This award is the result of collaboration with the General Teaching Council of Scotland to support the implementation of Learning for Sustainability in Scotland’s Teacher Education Institutes (TEIs).  The core of the work is to develop an ‘audit tool’ which TEIs and the GTCS will use to review the content and approach of any teacher education programme designed by any of the ITE establishments, to ensure that it will fully address the GTCS Professional Values and Standards, specifically in Learning for Sustainability.

  • British Council ‘Connecting Classrooms’ Award - £160k (2015-18). This is to devise and deliver professional development opportunities in Learning for Sustainability for Scottish teachers, to build capacity in schools to meet the Scottish Government and General Teaching Council commitments. The course is delivered three times a year in a mixed-mode (face-to-face and on-line) 10-week block, in various locations across Scotland. Additional funding was provided in 2017-18 leading to PH and colleagues developing and delivering a fully on-line version of the course to make it accessible to all without the need to travel.

Current project grants

British Council ‘Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning’ Award - £500k (2018-21). This is a further development of the previous award (2015-18).

Developing the Young Workforce through Outdoor Learning (2018-20). €250k Award as part of an EU Consortium of partners working on a project ‘From the outdoors to the labour market’. Total ~ €4M awarded by Norway/Lichtenstein Fund.

View all 126 publications on Research Explorer

Peter holds a range of board positions on charities and national govenment organisations:

Board Member - NatureScot - the Scottish Govenment's nature advisory agency.  Chair of the NatureScot Scientific Advisotry Committee

Board Member - Joint Nature Conservation Committee (UK Government)

Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Field Studies Council - the largest environmental education charity in Europe.

Board Member - The Venture Trust - a national Scottish charity helping people struggling with involvement in Scotland's criminal justice system, long term unemployment and mental health and wellbeing.

Past member of a range of other boards, including the SportScotland Trust Company Board which oversees the national outdoor centres etc.