Going global needn’t mean racking up air miles, universities told

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Universities must wean themselves off the idea that having a global outlook means “racking up air miles” if they are to help tackle the climate crisis, says a new report.

The study, published by the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute on 10 December, suggests that internationalisation strategies should be “characterised more by remote campuses, online learning and increased virtual international student collaboration and less by international student and academic travel”.

“Internationalisation rediscovered as participation in a global intellectual community, rather than simply racking up the air miles, might become the new norm,” it adds.

The report calls for all UK universities and colleges to have zero carbon emissions by 2035, with 75 per cent reduction by 2030, arguing that the sector’s response to the pandemic proves that the rapid transformation of the kind necessary to address climate change is possible.

Keri Facer, Zennström professor of climate change leadership at Sweden’s Uppsala University and professor of educational and social futures at the University of Bristol, who wrote the paper, called for institutions to be “a lot more creative” in their approach to international education and research.

“What we’re doing when we’re shipping students around the world is building an expectation that you live your life in airplanes. We can see that students who travel internationally become high emitters, so we’re actually fuelling a particular set of relationships with the world,” she said.

Professor Facer suggested that universities could focus on creating clusters or hubs of learning in local areas so groups of students living near each other can collaborate face to face as well as network virtually with their global peers. Meanwhile, the sector had to move beyond thinking of the academic identity as “the air-miles identity” and focus instead on the connection and responsibility scholars have to the place they are in, she said.

“There’s some really important work to be done by knowing that you’re not just a global traveller, you are actually living and working in a particular place,” she said.

Professor Facer added that countries could establish an equivalent of the US’ GI Bill, which helped war veterans pay for degrees, to fund workers in carbon-intensive industries to retrain or invent new sustainable ways of working.

The study also calls for the UK government to establish a “moonshot” capital and revenue research fund to stimulate research on the ways universities can transform their physical infrastructure and practices to become zero carbon.

But Professor Facer added that universities’ ability to combat climate change was not just about institutional practices but also about the fundamental question of what higher education was for.

“If we just keep thinking that higher education is about generating human capital and jobs and growth, however low our emissions are as a community, we’re going to have missed the point. Because if we have really high-tech green buildings but we’re turning out students who think that their job is to get rich quick, travel the world and buy loads of stuff, then we’ve made a mistake,” she said.

“The educational purpose is to allow students to learn what it means to live in a world where climate change is a reality.”

Tristan McCowan, professor of international education at UCL, who is leading a research project on transforming universities for a changing climate, said the report was “extremely welcome”.

“Crucially, it advocates not only greening the campus – measures that fortunately many universities are already taking – but the much more challenging task of transforming curricula, knowledge production and its relationship with the broader society,” he said.

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