Many delegates had traveled hundreds of miles by planes, trains and automobiles to be together, while in contrast many of the speakers addressed the assembled audience via video call. This is the post-covid, hybrid world we live in.
The elephant in the room for international education is the clear and present climate crisis.
Against a backdrop of repeated calls from Lord Karan Bilimoria for the UK to introduce an ambitious new target of hosting one million international students by 2030, university academics are engaged in world-leading research into carbon reduction and delivering on COP26 commitments on sustainability.
Universities and their staff are facing an identity crisis as they struggle to marry genuine, deep-cutting climate action with the current transactional model for inbound international student recruitment, transnational education and research.
“At the very core of our profession is the requirement to engage across global boundaries”
The recently published UK student charter identified sustainability as a major priority for international students themselves, when considering studying abroad.
Celia Partridge, assistant director of partnerships and strategic insight at UUKi gave her view on the dilemma the industry faces, saying “we are very much part of the problem”.
“We fly all over the world and we go to international conferences, as researchers, as flying faculty,” she continued.
“There’s an awful lot of international travel apart from anything else and I don’t think that’s really the half of [the problem]. But, all of that work is really in aid of the solution – trying to find solutions to many of the problems the world faces.”
International travel is valued highly by higher education professionals, both as a personal incentive as part of their work and as a transformative experience for students. However the balance of personal and corporate responsibility for climate action can be confusing.
Catriona McCarthy, director of global engagement at the Ulster University highlighted that the sector has a “very big inherent challenge”.
“The choices we make as individuals are much easier to manage than those that we need to make in a work context, trying to ensure strategic and organisational alignment to climate sustainability, when at the very core of our profession is the requirement to engage across global boundaries,” she said.
UUKi research presented to the conference showed that 100% of HEI respondents were already proposing changes to their international activities that will positively impact climate change. However it was acknowledged that a large proportion of this was in fact related to Covid response, rather than a conscious reduction in travel.
Nigel Healy, vice president for global and community engagement at the University of Limerick, revealed the reality of limiting travel within his institution.
“I’ve just been handed down a cut in my travel budget from €4 million to €2.5m,” he said. “And the president said ‘that’s global responsibility, that’s what it looks like, you have to stop spending as much money on travel’.”
Healey also pointed out that large student numbers from source markets like India and China are problematic due to their proximity to major English speaking study destinations, saying “it costs a ton of CO2 to fly from Beijing to London”.
“We are bringing 150,000 Chinese students to the UK [a year], you just do the math. Particularly if they are rich students and they can go home every holiday, that’s six times a year, that’s about the same average consumption for one person in the whole of the UK,” he added.
Universities attending the conference were invited to join the CANIE Accord, a new initiative launched envisioning a sector that is net zero by 2030 in line with the Paris Agreement. Produced by international educators, the guidelines offer some compromise such as emissions trading schemes, that acknowledge the importance of essential travel in research and transnational education.
“There’s not going to be a one size fits all response here, but I think it’s really important to think about what’s right for your institution and how can you make that as sustainable as possible and least harmful to the environment,” emphasised Partridge from UUKi.
One solution for university international leaders is outsourcing recruitment activity to in-country representatives or relocating operations to key source markets to reduce staff travel from the UK. It was notable that many of the key private companies in this service space were exhibiting, including Acumen, Grok Global, QS Enrolment Solutions, UniQuest and MSM Unify.
However, a more likely long-term solution to tackling environmental change, is the growing success of online learning as a profitable business model that is accessible for people all over the world.
“The global mobility focus clearly needs to change”
Eleanor Mitchell, director of global engagement at Charles Sturt University noted “one of the key statistics which is really pertinent for all of us, is that that the global online elearning market is pegged to grow to US$130 billion currently and over $470bn a year in this decade”.
Uttiyo Raychaudhuri, vice provost for internationalisation at the University of Denver echoed a call for an alternative model for future recruitment and delivery.
“We need to look at the sustainable development goals and the global mobility focus clearly needs to change from this transactional kind of sense to something that has to be a different way; it’s [currently] unsustainable and unjust,” he said.
“We have to look at our position and have a sense of equity and ethics, really looking at who can have access to education. At least now we’ve seen the push and pull of technology, these hybrid solutions of learning have expanded,” he continued.
As the world lurches from one crisis to the next, with the Ukrainian conflict triggering a global food shortage and record inflation, all while the battle against the Covid pandemic is still being fought, climate change almost inevitably takes a lower priority.
However indecision it would appear, is no longer an option. Universities who are not part of the solution, are increasingly going to be seen as part of the problem.