Existential crisis edition

Why climate change may be the “elephant in the room” for international education

The Climate Threat

Millions of people around the globe, many of them young, have rallied in recent weeks for action on climate change.

American colleges, meanwhile, welcomed more than 1 million international students for the start of the fall semester. They sent another 330,000 students to study abroad. You have to ask: Is the very nature of international education, putting people on planes, at odds with mounting concern about the climate crisis?

“It’s the huge elephant in the room,” Ailsa Lamont says. Lamont, a veteran of Australia’s international education sector, started the Climate Action Network for International Education, or CANIE, a group that’s trying to raise awareness of the environmental impact of international education – and to come up with solutions to mitigate it.

In her last job, as the head of international programs for an Australian university, Lamont was on a plane “practically every day, certainly every week.” She became aware of the unsustainability of such practices.

A professor at the University of Bath estimates that global student mobility generates carbon emissions of 14 megatons a year, roughly equivalent to the emissions of Croatia or Jamaica. And that figure doesn’t taken into account the impact of other forms of academic travel, to conduct research, attend conferences, build overseas partnerships, and recruit international students.

Higher education as a whole is becoming more environmentally conscious. Times Higher Education for the first time began ranking universities globally on “climate action,” as part of its new rankings for university impact on United Nations sustainable development goals. (The University of British Columbia topped the list.) But while institutions have focused on making campus buildings greener and some have divested from fossil fuels, few efforts have focused on international education.

Today’s students are deeply worried about climate change. Nine of 10 prospective international students surveyed by QS, a British higher-ed consulting company, said universities should do more to reduce their environmental footprint. What would happen, says Lamont, if those concerns led students to stop studying abroad? 

“This is a huge risk for us,” she says. “It could be an existential crisis.”

I asked Lamont what international educators can do to be more environmentally friendly:

  • Be a smarter traveler. Lamont believes in the value of cultural exchange, so she doesn’t think students and educators should stop traveling. But they can be more intentional, by clustering visits or meeting partners at conferences.

  • Look for offsets. New Zealand’s Massey University purchases carbon credits to offset emissions for staff travel, while study abroad provider API matches students’ $15 offset contribution. Middlebury offers $500 grants to students going overseas to do sustainability projects or research. And Gothenburg University, in Sweden, levies a fee on staff members’ air travel and uses the funds to support projects to reduce the institution’s environmental impact.

  • Use technology. Technology isn’t a substitute, but holding remote meetings with international partners can help limit travel. Collaborative online courses, such as the State University of New York’s COIL program, link American students with classrooms overseas.

  • Raise visibility. Universities are siloed places, so international educators need to speak up to become part of the broader campuswide conversation on sustainability, Lamont says. CANIE also hopes to get climate change on the agenda at international education conferences, through panel discussions, poster fairs, and meetups.

Let’s continue the conversation. Find me on Twitter and LinkedIn and share your perspective.

Global Aspirations But a Crackdown at Home

China has world-class aspirations for its universities. Yet, its Communist government has asserted ever-tightening control of higher education, imposing a more ideological curriculum, cracking down on dissident students and scholars, and trampling on academic freedom. A new report from the Scholars at Risk Network shines a light on the effect of threats to academic freedom under President Xi Jinping, detailing tactics to silence and intimidate students and professors and a climate of surveillance and self-censorship.

SAR, an international group that protects scholars and supports academic freedom worldwide, offers recommendations for academics, foreign universities, and others who work in China or with Chinese students and scholars: advocate for the academic freedom of Chinese students and researchers, both in China and abroad; ensure that partnerships with Chinese universities include safeguards for academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and other core educational values; and demand that academic freedom be factored in to international higher-education rankings.

“To be a world-class university, you have got to have the widest notion of academic freedom,” Robert Quinn, the group’s founder and executive director, told me. “I don’t think that should be debatable.”

Speaking of academic freedom, I been collecting reader responses to the piece in last week’s edition on the role of academic freedom in international partnerships, sparked by an incident at Yale-NUS. I’ll share some next week.

Around the Globe

A Chinese government official has been charged with trying to convince American colleges to sponsor visas for Chinese citizens who claimed to be research scholars but who were really coming to the U.S. to recruit scientists to a Chinese talent program.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba is hurting research, preventing Cuban universities from purchasing cutting-edge technology and even textbooks.

A Canadian university has revoked recognition its Chinese student association as an official campus club after group memebers allegedly coordinated with the consulate to protest a Uighur activist’s talk.

Wesleyan University is considering opening a new campus in China

The U.S. Department of Education criticized a joint Duke-UNC Middle East studies program of misusing government funds. But neither of the activities the department singled out are supported by government monies. Meanwhile, scholarly associations expressed concern over the “unprecedented and counterproductive intervention” into academic programs.

Latin American and Caribbean countries are trying to encourage student mobility within the region and greater international recognition of their degrees.

“On certain issues, different values were not in question, but different realities.” A student at a prestigious international program in China on why it’s so difficult to build bridges between China and the West.

Tell Me! International Students

When it comes to international students, a lot of the conversation revolves around those who aren’t coming: those scared off by the political climate or frustrated by OPT headaches, those turned away at the border or shut out by the travel ban or priced out by the dollar. (Yeah, yeah – guilty.)

But now I want to hear from you about who is coming – and who will be. Are there places from which your institution is suddenly getting applications? New markets that seem promising? Majors that are seeing fresh interest? Strategies and approaches to recruitment that you think will pay off? Tell me about the New International Student. Send a couple of lines of your observations and predictions to latitudesnews@gmail.com, and let me know the best way to follow up. 

And finally…

Each day he took them to school. But the bus driver was a leading force behind the backlash against immigrant students in a small Minnesota town, helping defeat ballot measures to expand public schools to meet the surge in enrollment. “They can call it whatever they want,” said a supporter of the students, “but the bottom line is that it is racism.” The bus driver said: “I wish they would have another ICE raid. They need to get rid of the illegals.” A dispatch from the frontlines of the immigration debate.

On a lighter (and delicious) note, the New York Times went into kitchens from Lima to Lagos to capture a portrait of dinnertime around the globe. Try not to drool on your computer.

’Til next week – Karin

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