Whenever I start to write an article, I have a pretty clear idea of what I intend to say, and more often than not, the finished product reflects that plan. Occasionally, however, once I start, I find myself wandering in a different direction, and that is what happened here.
I have written beforei about the endless stream of “green” conferences organised by Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum (“WEET”). Recently I was alerted to yet another conference, to be held on 14th July 2022, this time about “Next steps for net-zero Higher Education”. It’s nothing if not comprehensive, offering to cover “Sector strategy, progress, estates, travel, university culture, research practices, investment, procurement, and financial impact”.
My initial plan was to analyse the agenda, and to critique it, since there’s plenty to have a go at. However, analysing the agenda meant considering the lead speakers at each stage, and that in turn saw me considering the Universities they represent. And so things turned out a little differently from my original plan.
The agenda certainly covers a wide variety of issues, with topics for discussion embracing four main areas: Campuses and practises; Procurement; Finance; and Strategy & next steps. The agenda sees opening remarks from the Chair (Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, former Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales), and the first main agenda item is “Priorities for the HE sector’s role in sustainability and climate action”. This is to be led by Professor Judith Petts, Vice-Chancellor, University of Plymouth and Chair, Universities UK Climate Task and Finish Group. I suppose this makes sense – see below.
The University of Plymouth
A quick visit to the website of the University of Plymouth saw me confronted in short order by “Time for action to address the climate emergency”ii. Here I learn that “We [the University of Plymouth] are ranked 9th in the world out of all the institutions featured in the tables for our efforts in support of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number 17: partnerships for the goals.”
And there’s more: “Plymouth takes the lead as universities commit to climate action”iii. “Plymouth named among world’s top universities for marine excellence and climate action”. I could go on – there are many other similar links on the website – but you get the picture. Unfortunately (and in saying this I cast no aspersions on foreign students, only on the “carbon footprints” associated with them) the University of Plymouth seems rather keen on the money to be made by attracting lots of international students. The website tells usiv “We are pleased to welcome international students into our community.” Clearly they are, since elsewhere on the websitev we learn: “At the University of Plymouth, we have a thriving international community made up of 2000 students from over 100 different countries.” Which is great, since one of the benefits of being at university is to learn, and learning can be subliminal and social as well as direct and academic. However, I do see a problem, which the University itself fails to recognise. 2,000 students travelling backwards and forwards to Plymouth from all over the world must involve a sizeable “carbon footprint”. Admittedly, compared to many UK universities, that’s a relatively small proportion of the total (I gather there are over 18,000 students at the University of Plymouth – it’s big business, these days, the University tells us that it has an annual turnover of £239.4M), but it’s a sufficiently large number that it can’t – or shouldn’t – simply be ignored while boasting about the University’s “green” credentials and banging on about climate change.
All of which leads, I think, fairly neatly, into the second agenda item: “The future for travel and mobility – carbon budgets, international students and study, academic networking and conferences, and changing institutional culture”. Of the three speakers dealing with this section, two are representatives of Universities – Professor Janice Kay, Provost and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Exeter, and Professor Rachael Rothman, Academic Lead for Sustainability, University of Sheffield.
The University of Exeter
The mismatch now becomes even more pronounced. The website of the University of Exeter tells usvi that it has “25,000 students, including 5,450 international students from 140 countries.” Both as a proportion and in terms of absolute numbers, that puts the University of Plymouth in the shade. In fairness, the University of Exeter’s website is much less “in your face” than the website for the University of Plymouth when it comes to banging on about “climate action” and the like.
The University of Sheffield
It gets even worse (or better, depending on your point of view) when it comes to the University of Sheffield. According to its websitevii: “Our global reputation for teaching and research attracts more than 29,000 international students from over 150 countries”.
There’s plenty of climate change stuff on this website too. Things like “The University’s research and partnerships are focused on finding solutions to the climate emergency, providing sustainable careers paths to students, and helping to bring green job opportunities to South Yorkshire” and much, much more.
Anyway, that number of international students at Sheffield woke me from my slumber. If a single UK university can attract more than 29,000 international students, I wondered how many there are across all of the UK universities. Thanks to the wonders of the internetviii, I can tell you:
Just recently, the UK has hit its 600,000 international student target a decade earlier than hoped!
I understand the financial benefits to Universities, I understand the contribution to UK employment levels and I understand the benefit to the UK’s balance of payments. In many ways, it’s good news. However, given that you cannot visit a University website without being lectured at great length about climate change, the idea that Universities should be actively aiming massively to increase international travel (the vast bulk of which will presumably be by air, since of that number, 465,225 are students from outside the EU, of whom more than 228,000 hail from China and India) seems more than a little odd. To complete this picture:
According to 2020/2021 statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there are currently 605,130 international students pursuing their degrees in the UK. The number has experienced an increase from the previous year’s statistics which encompassed a total of 556,625 international students.
Compared to the previous year (2019/2020), the number of international students in the UK has experienced significant growth. Specifically, an increase of 8.7%.
My curiosity had by now been piqued. If the UK has over 600,000 foreign students at its universities, how many might there be at a much bigger country like the USA?
Pro rata, the answer is fewer (given the much greater size of the USA than the UK in both geographical terms and by population). However, the number is still very substantial indeed. As long ago as November 2019 (i.e. shortly before the impact of covid was felt on humankind’s international activities) we were toldix that the “Number of International Students in the United States Hits All-Time High”. More specifically:
The number of international students in the United States set an all-time high in the 2018/19 academic year, the fourth consecutive year with more than one million international students. The total number of international students, 1,095,299, is a 0.05 percent increase over last year, according to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. International students make up 5.5 percent of the total U.S. higher education population…
…For the tenth consecutive year, China remained the largest source of international students in the United States in 2018/19 with 369,548 students in undergraduate, graduate, non-degree, and optional practical training (OPT) programs, a 1.7 percent increase from 2017/18. India (202,014, +2.9 percent), South Korea (52,250, -4.2 percent), Saudi Arabia (37,080, -16.5 percent), and Canada (26,122, +0.8 percent) round out the top five. Emerging market countries showed some of the strongest growth year over year, especially Bangladesh (+10.0 percent), Brazil (+9.8 percent), Nigeria (+5.8 percent), and Pakistan (+5.6 percent).
There are many ways to slice global numbers of international students. One websitex tells us that:
In 2017, there were over 5.3 million international students, up from 2 million in 2000 (UNESCO, 2019). More than half of these were enrolled in educational programmes in six countries: The United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany and the Russian Federation. Prominent sending countries of international students include China, India, Germany, Republic of Korea, Nigeria, France, Saudi Arabia and several Central Asian countries (ibid.).
That would seem to involve an awful lot of air travel. The statistics can be diced differently, of course. Behind those bald numbers, with concentration on the total, and the starting points and destinations of most students, we can also see that some countries have higher percentages of international students than others. The Statista websitexi tells us that (as of 2020, – pre-covid – anyway) in these stakes, Australia was way out in front, with 31.3% of its higher education students being international students. Canada scored second on this metric, with 23.7%, followed by the UK with 22.3%. New Zealand came fourth (13.5%) and the next five places fell to EU nation states – France (13.4%); Netherlands (13.2%); Denmark (11.8%); Germany (11.7%); and Sweden (10.7%). Russia was in tenth place (I anticipate that this might now change). Interestingly, the USA was in 15th place, with a figure of 5.5% (it obviously has huge total numbers of higher education students).
Percentages can mislead. In terms of absolute numbers, we find a different storyxii. Here, the USA is way out in first place, followed by UK, China, Australia, France and Canada.
For more detailed information, the UNESCO websitexiii has a very interesting data source.
Travel broadens the mind, and international study can be hugely beneficial both to the student and the university host. I say nothing to disparage the practice. However, it does seem a little odd that UK universities should be at the forefront both of climate change alarmism and of international student travel. In absolute numbers of international students, the UK is second on the list. It is third on the list of countries with the highest proportion of international students. A significant proportion of those international students have to make long-haul flights to attend at their host universities, with 228,000 travelling from China and India alone. Perhaps 10% of international students across the globe attend UK universities. The impact of covid may have put a temporary spoke in the wheel of international students travelling the globe, but in the UK, as pretty much everywhere else, the trend seems to be remorselessly upwards.
Should University academics really be shouting loudly about climate change while encouraging hundreds of thousands of young people to fly thousands of miles every year backwards and forwards to university? Should profits trump ethics? Physician, heal thyself.