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.