Now is the time to get serious on the climate crisis

With the Glasgow COP26 climate meeting ending with mixed results, it is time for the higher education community to carefully consider how internationalisation will look in the coming years – and to take immediate action.

On 11 January 2020 we wrote in University World News that it was time to cut international education’s carbon footprint and to make the shift from internationalisation being mainly mobility driven and elitist to targeting all students through curriculum development and an intensive use of technology. It is now time to translate ideas about this into action.

Universities the world over, in the spirit of Glasgow, need to develop concrete overall climate strategies and actions, including with regard to the various aspects of internationalisation – because most of its key elements, in particular the physical mobility related to education and research, have climate implications.

We welcome and support the initiative of the Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE) and its call for Environmentally Sustainable International Education, as well as the Sustainable on the Go conference hosted by York International with its focus on sustainable and inclusive internationalisation, which takes place in January.

As Ailsa Lamont from CANIE states: “In international education, we’ve seen ourselves as the good guys, but hang on, there’s a cost to what we do... We’re not at the point where the sector realises it’s an emergency.”

It is indeed time to shift from thinking and talking to action and to be at the forefront instead of at the back of the climate change movement. If internationalisation wants to make a meaningful contribution to society, then it has to start doing so now.

Not an end but a climate-conscious revision

We are not arguing that all climate-related aspects of internationalisation must be ended, but rather that climate consciousness needs to immediately move to the centre of strategy, policy and action.

We recognise that universities will remain largely in their present form – fundamental change is unlikely – but the implications of the climate crisis will affect all international aspects of campus life, research, service to society and teaching and learning issues.

We also recognise that individual academic institutions and individual stakeholders will have specific goals and realities relating to their specific context. But the following issues require recognition and action now.

Student and staff mobility

Some five million students are studying outside their home countries on a vast array of programmes – from short-term undergraduate programmes to doctoral degree study. Major change is required.

Short-term credit mobility, especially popular in the United States with the participation of about 10% of all undergraduate students, and in Europe, with approximately 20% of graduate and undergraduate students (as result of the support by the European Commission through Erasmus+), should be seriously reconsidered and reduced.

The benefits of online interactive teaching and learning, also referred to as collaborative online international learning (COIL) or virtual exchange, as well as online conference participation have to be much more widely used.

Alternatives to studying abroad, already implemented by several institutions during the pandemic, should receive much more active support.

Universities need to think about virtual exchange, eliminating scholarships for travel by air for distances shorter than 1,000 km and educating students to be more aware of the climate implications of their study and stay abroad (including taking advantage of cheap airfares to take city and leisure trips during their study abroad).

Overseas degree study at all levels should be carefully designed to minimise climate impact, for example, by limiting air travel home during degree study and by limiting funding for in-person conference participation drastically, both for students and staff.

Conference organisers, like NAFSA: Association of International Educators in the US and the European Association for International Education (EAIE), which attract thousands of international officers, should learn from their online experiences during the pandemic to use hybrid models that can drastically reduce in-person participation, while at the same time institutions should stimulate more online participation in these conferences as well as in other types of academic and policy-oriented conferences.

We win more than we lose

The time has come for students, academics, administrators and university leaders to set concrete targets to reduce their carbon footprint. We realise that we, and other senior scholars and administrators, have been responsible for a negative carbon footprint over the past decades and that we ask from junior colleagues and students a different choice than we have made.

As a modest compensation, current technology allows everyone to use alternative options not available in the past to us. And bear in mind that during our student time we did not have the options of cheap airline tickets but made pleasant use of trains to move ourselves around.

Should we abolish academic mobility completely? Definitely not. In-person interactions and experiences are of great importance for personal and scholarly development. This is particularly true for the younger generation and those in low- and middle-income countries. But we all have to make conscious decisions about need and priority when it comes to travel as we strive for a cleaner and more inclusive and equal world.

We should set as a goal for associations, institutions and individuals in our field a reduction to at least 40% of pre-pandemic travel for 2022 to 2024 and at least 60% for the following five years.

We should be happy to interact primarily by Zoom and other platforms and we know from our experience over the past two years that, by doing so, we interact with more people from more places than before.

We also know that much is lost – there are no serendipitous contacts at conferences or on distant campuses; there is less direct collaborative scientific work in laboratories; and much else. All of this must not disappear. But saving the planet entails costs of many kinds – and internationalisation must play its necessary role.

In doing so, we win more than we lose as we will not only be more carbon neutral but also more interactive, inclusive, intercultural and international than before.

Hans de Wit is distinguished fellow and former director of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, United States. E-mail: Philip G Altbach is a distinguished fellow and founding director of the same centre. E-mail: