Resetting not recovering: greening post-pandemic international strategies

15 May 2020

While a new global threat has emerged since the end of last year, the biggest threat facing the global community today remains unchanged. The climate emergency is still with us, and the window for reducing the rate of global warming is closing by the day.

The final session in the International Higher Education Forum sought to bring this issue back into focus, and explore how universities could make their international strategies more environmentally sustainable. The timing could hardly be more propitious. Coronavirus has made remote working, online teaching and virtual meetings a part of our lives to a degree that was barely imaginable even a short while ago. It has also brought into sharp relief the sector's dependency on international student fees. We are not just thinking the unthinkable, we are living it; with transport restrictions forcing us all to re-evaluate the viability and sustainability of our business models.

How we respond to the coronavirus challenge will define universities' place in society for years to come. Universities have traditionally excelled in 'greening' their campuses, and generating the science and technologies needed to address the climate emergency. But our standing has been constantly impaired by our avoidance to address the environmental impact of our international activities. Hopes that we might learn from the current crisis are tempered by a nervousness over whether the crippled state of university finances will prompt us to double down on international student recruitment.

How can institutions make their international strategies greener?

Few would argue in favour of sacrificing the benefits of student mobility or international research collaboration on the altar of environmental sustainability. Our aim should be to make our international strategies 'greener', not 'green'; avoiding unnecessary carbon emissions where possible, reducing when not, and off-setting any emissions that cannot be removed from our business activities, as a start.

To capitalise on the situation, institutions will need to focus on more than just business recovery. What is required is a strategic 'reset'. Those responsible for international strategy must take a lead in framing the debate. Not only are they best placed to identify alternative scenarios and solutions, but having been primarily responsible for guiding our headlong pursuit of international student fee income in recent years, their advocacy of sustainable practices is likely to carry weight.

In setting this course, university leaders cannot rely on the collective 'carbon guilt' of individual staff and students to bring about the desired results. 'Greener' internationalisation starts at home, with internal staff policies to amend promotion criteria for university staff, recalibrate expectations around what constitutes a 'successful' academic career, and institute travel policies and work practices that incentivise staff to adopt environmentally sustainable behaviours.

Critically, universities will need to include baseline data on international travel, recruitment and research activities in setting their institutional carbon budgets.

Finally, we must avoid the temptation to compete over environmental issues. Let us agree to leave rankings aside, and demonstrate our capacity, as a sector, to act responsibly and assume a position of genuine leadership in this area. This will require acting swiftly, sharing best practices, ideas and solutions, and working collaboratively to transform the way we conduct our business. As anchor institutions and significant international actors, universities have the capacity to effect considerable change. So far, sanity appears to have prevailed. We have forums and networks to help institutions divest their fossil fuel investments and curb business travel. Some universities have led from the front and published detailed internal plans that have helped others to strike a similar course.  

Shaping the new normal

Rather than being overwhelmed by coronavirus, the sector should take heart from the EU's renewed commitment to its ambitious Green Deal, and seize the opportunity to re-engineer the way it approaches its international responsibilities. The list of simple 'quick-wins' is a long one, as are the lessons we can take from life under lockdown:

  • base travel policies on environmental criteria not cost-savings
  • insist on direct flights (even with low-cost carriers)
  • change our web-browsers
  • end face-to-face doctoral viva voce examinations (or dispense with them entirely)
  • require conferences to deliver a proportion of papers virtually
  • swap out campus visits for virtual open days

We will, though, ultimately need to kick our addiction to international student fees, which is both unsustainable and distorting to the sector. Rebalancing the mix of activities is long overdue. Fortunately, innovative thinking over TNE partnerships is already well advanced, as is our new-found appreciation for the potential of online learning. Serious engagement with this issue will require a collective endeavour on behalf of universities, sector organisations, funding bodies and national governments.

Recruiting high calibre international students to our campuses will always remain a key objective, and rightly so. But we need to do better at drawing on their presence to enrich the wider student experience, and be more honest about the environmental impact of direct recruitment, offsetting emissions in this area with carbon savings elsewhere. This will take bold and decisive action. But if there is one thing the nail-biting last few months have taught us, bold and decisive actions are already part of the new norm.


Neville Wylie is Deputy Principal International at the University of Stirling. He delivered a session on 'Is it possible to have a green international strategy?' at the International Higher Education Forum online

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