Maintaining the balance between student mobility and sustainability

Internationalisation of the student experience – both for students originating from ‘home’ as well as those coming from ‘overseas’ – has been, and will continue to be, an area of vibrant and dynamic change.

We all recognise the difference, as well as the similarity between recognising international aspects of higher education: students, staff, knowledge content or engagement with actual experience of another country whilst studying.

In an era of increasing awareness of the impacts of human beings on the climate however, the notion of travel as a literal vehicle for internationalisation is a critical dilemma for those attempting to square sustainable and green practices with student experience. How can we achieve carbon neutral impacts of internationalisation, whilst preserving the experiential benefits of different countries, cultures and people?

This is a complicated scenario, and one which may require a hybrid response. If we are content with maintaining travel and/or the physical experience of a country – either students coming to the UK or vice versa – we must adopt sustainable practices such as carbon accounting, offsetting and net reduction of waste as a minimum reconciliation to the planet.

However, if the above is still too much to bear in order to limit the impact of human activity of internationalisation, we need to look elsewhere to deconstruct what internationalisation may mean in a post-pandemic and increasingly digital context.


Celebrate international at home

Firstly, recognising and celebrating ‘international at home’ may be a vital first step. Almost every country has a mixture of people who have socio-cultural, if not socio-economic, overseas heritage. Engendering recognition and inclusion of such international perspectives, experiences and heritages may liberate a large quantum of international perspective without expending any airmiles. In brief, requesting contribution from ‘home students with an international background and experiences’ to actively co-create the curricula of the future.


Decolonise the curriculum

Secondly, pursuing decolonisation of the curricula itself must become an absolute must for HEIs, in order to actively bring in non-parochial perspectives of people, countries, cultures, behaviours and practices. Digital and TEL, combined with global learning resources, now means that this task should be easier to complete – once you put aside the philosophical debates on what constitutes decolonisation!


Develop a ‘one planet’ mindset

Thirdly, actively embedding, pursuing, challenging and integrating sustainability knowledge, frameworks, practices and patterns of thinking across the curricula should enforce the development of a ‘one planet’ mindset (thereby negating the need for travel, and increasing the need to understand ‘the other’). We cannot divorce our impact on the planet from our interactions and engagement that we have with it. Therefore, encouraging mobility of experience, with mobility of thinking, has to be undertaken hand in hand for every student (whether international or not). In many ways, internationalisation and sustainability are mirrors of each other.


Is internationalisation non-negotiable?

Finally, and in direct opposition to the preceding approaches that might be taken to lessen the ecological and systemic impact of international travel on our planet, we may even wish to consider the simple notion than internationalisation must be allowed to occur in order to actively embed international experiences, thinking and mindset as part of a shared and lived experience. We cannot ignore the ‘soft power’ benefits of international students (and staff) – whether it be through pro-social benefits or the purely economic benefits of different cultures and nationalities coming together. Diversity and inclusion of others into a shared education may well be a non-negotiable after all.

And so, in doing so, if we see no further choice in order to balance and maintain a healthy relationship between student mobility and sustainability, we need to be able to articulate to our stakeholders and society at large what those accrued benefits of overseas visitors continue to be – as well as actively seeking mechanisms to limit the impact of internationalisation.


 Professor Amir Sharif is Dean of Faculty, School of Management, University of Bradford, and sits on the Chartered ABS International Committee.