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‘Count int’l student flights in HE emissions’

Universities need to acknowledge the emission impact of their international student cohorts as institutions work toward net zero carbon, a report has urged.

There is currently no clearly defined or proven, short to medium term decarbonisation route map for the aviation sector, the report noted. Photo: pexels

Branch campuses are "a real option" for long haul flights

With international students a key contributor to so many institutions’ incomes, they should endeavour to accurately report on the emissions international students contribute while traveling to campuses and start doing what they can to reduce them, the paper from sustainable development specialist Arup says.

The report notes that “certain universities” are aware of the environmental impacts of policies of attracting international students and are “taking bold steps to understand and mitigate their impact”.

It notes that the Standardised Carbon Emissions Reporting for Further and Higher Education approach, led by the EAUC – The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, features the impact of student home to term address travel.

Research from January suggests that 24% of the UK sector’s total emissions relates to business travel, employee and student commuting and international student travel.

In addition to mitigating environmental impact from new buildings and research facilities, the paper urges institutions to be “open and transparent about these strategic conflicts”.

“Completely decoupling growth in these areas from an increase to a university’s emissions, is extremely challenging and will rely heavily on factors outside of an institution’s control,” it however acknowledges.

“Over the coming years the sector needs to seriously focus upon mitigating its impact and exploring ways to decarbonise some of the biggest contributing sources to its footprint.”

A pathway to successful decarbonisation also includes avoiding claims of green washing by ensuring net zero commitments include the emissions in high impact areas and setting ambitious whole life carbon targets for construction works.

The use of branch campuses can minimise students’ flights over the short to medium term, longer term times for international students, together with better online teaching provision, can help, it maintained.

Over the long term, the exploration of new operating models could “drastically reduce” the need for student flying, it added.

A spokesperson from Arup said that universities actively acknowledging the impact of their international students arriving on campus is an “issue that needs addressing”.

“Currently it’s not being measured consistently,” they said, despite efforts by EAUC.

“From our engagement and ongoing relationships with a number of universities, most either report, calculate internally or want to start calculating the impact of these emissions,” they continued.

“Currently it’s not being measured consistently”

It’s not only higher education that need to minimise the amount of air travel associated with business activities, Arup added.

“The challenge that many universities face is finding a way to retain all the benefits of international students, which extend beyond just the fees they pay, while simultaneously reducing the emission impacts associated with their travel from their home addresses to the university.”

For short haul flights train travel can be incentivised, and branch campuses are “a real option” for long haul flights.

“People have been travelling to other countries for education for many years, the question really is should international students commute on a termly basis or be based for a year at the institution and what can the institutions do to make that realistic option,” they added.

“The pandemic clearly identified that a significant amount of work / marketing and interaction could happen online, whereas in the past we felt we had to do most things in person. There is a balance but its about evaluating the value of a trip overseas, minimising trips and supplementing with online options.”

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