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University sustainability agendas: is international student mobility the elephant in the room?

  • 15 September 2023
  • By David McCollum
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Dr David McCollum, Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography and Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews.
  • For information about the events that HEPI is hosting at the forthcoming party conferences, see our Events page. These are open to all and outside the secure zones – meaning you do not need a conference pass to attend them.

The prolonged heatwaves in Europe and North America over the summer of 2023 are a stark reminder that the Climate Emergency is well and truly upon us. Universities have been vociferous in advocating for action to address climate change and most institutions have accordingly developed often ambitious sustainability strategies. Whilst these are to be applauded, an often-overlooked issue is how these sustainability agendas may sit at odds with the simultaneous internationalisation drive that is underway within the sector.

The fiscal wellbeing of Higher Education (HE) is increasingly dependent on the recruitment of international students. There are well over 600,000 international students in the UK, three-quarters of whom come from beyond Europe. China is by far the largest source country (c150,000), followed by India (c85,000) and Nigeria and the USA (both c20,000). It is unquestionably the case that the growth in international student mobility (ISM) brings a myriad of financial and nonpecuniary benefits to universities and country more broadly.

However, it does raise the thorny issue of what the environmental consequences of the growth in ISM might be and whether they undermine the sustainability agenda in the HE sector. The lack of certainty around how much carbon is generated by the substantial air travel that will occur due to international journeys being made by hundreds of thousands of international students on an at least annual basis is remarkable, as is the absence of discussion regarding what might be done in response to it.

Recent research involving university international offices points to environmental concerns being a factor in internationalisation strategies, but it is the fiscal imperative to recruit international students that ultimately determines their practices. This is attributable to the HE funding model necessitating the recruitment of substantial quantities of international students and demand for UK degrees from overseas students. There is widespread unease regarding a perceived overreliance on the Chinese ‘market’ for international students, although not for environmental reasons.

On a more positive note, the temporary suppression of mobility during the covid pandemic might have more lasting effects in terms of a reduction in flippant air travel. The forced move to online modes of operating has led international offices to now conduct more of their recruitment remotely and has thus reduced air travel on their part. However, most carbon associated with ISM comes from student rather than staff travel, and universities are understandably reluctant to enforce restrictions on student modes or frequency of travel.

The carbon generated by ISM is likely to be considerable but has been the subject of surprisingly little empirical scrutiny or policy discussion. This situation matters because it risks undermining the commendable steps taken by the sector to promote environmental sustainability. So what might be done? The two main solutions are greening ISM and offsetting the carbon created by it. There are limited realistic options for the former, as ISM is likely to continue to grow going forward, and there are few practical alternatives to air travel for the vast majority of international students. Aside from the non-pecuniary controversies regarding offsetting, the scale of ISM means that the costs of offsetting it would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention the contested issue of who should bear responsibility for these costs: students themselves, or their universities.

The considerable costs of making ISM more environmentally sustainable thus run the risk of rendering it even more exclusive: better-off students are better placed to cover the greater time and costs involved in travelling in a greener manner, and wealthier institutions are better placed to subsidise travel and/or offset the carbon it creates. Virtual student mobilities are an obvious solution to some of these concerns. However, research suggests that these may complement rather than act as a substitute for ISM. Another, oft-neglected issue, is the considerable carbon emissions that are generated by online activity.

Given these significant structural challenges, the following pragmatic measures could be implemented in the immediate term to try and green ISM.

  • A thorough carbon audit of ISM is urgently needed to understand the scale of the challenge and inform subsequent responses to it. This could take the form of a large-scale survey aimed at gauging how students travel and the frequency and purpose of the trips that they make. Travel on the part of domestic students also has a carbon footprint, so it is important that they are included in this exercise. A large and representative survey sample is essential. So the support of universities and organisations such as Universities UK would be important in promoting awareness and completion of the survey. As discussed, online learning also generates carbon, so a carbon audit of virtual student mobilities is also merited. 
  • Enhanced on-campus activities and support for students over the holidays within academic years is something that could be rolled out relatively easily and quickly. This could help to prevent longer distance travel for short periods. As well as having environmental benefits, these provisions could have well-being benefits for the many students who already do not travel ‘home’ and thus remain on-campus during holidays within term time.
  • Incorporating measures of sustainability (including relating to ISM) into international and domestic university ranking systems could be an important step towards greater transparency, given that such indicators are currently absent from mainstream ranking systems. This could be a significant step as it could create more tangible incentives for universities to invest in sustainability, given the influence of rankings in shaping student decision-making. It could potentially also increase awareness amongst students and allow them to make these choices, should they wish, based on transparent information regarding the sustainability of their potential host university.
  • Distance learning and transnational education have been around for some time, but have been greatly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is considerable scope for these modes of learning to have positive environmental side effects. Challenges in this respect involve the possibility that they mostly complement rather than substitute existing ISM plus an enduring desire amongst many students and universities to continue to engage in the conventional model of on-campus learning.

Earlier in 2023, HEPI published research with Kaplan, Universities UK and London Economics showing international students boost the economy by £41.9bn a year – you can read that report here.

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1 comment

  1. Gavin Moodie says:

    Universities should complement a study of the climate costs of their students flying with a cut to their subsidies of staff flying.

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