The number of globally mobile students grows each year (more than 5 million in higher education alone) and emissions associated with this mobility are estimated in a recent study at 14-39 megatons per year, a significant proportion of which is caused by air travel. Already some European universities are seeking to channel their students towards study abroad destinations they can reach by train rather than plane.
We know that many young people are deeply concerned about climate change and want to see action. Can we identify what these trends are likely to mean for the international education sector?
Key questions include whether or not environmental issues are a factor in attracting students to an institution or destination in the first place, and whether or not they contribute to student satisfaction or their propensity to recommend their institution or study destination to others. Will students start voting with their feet based on a destination’s climate credentials or concern about climate-related natural disasters?
A fuller picture is starting to emerge. QS conducted the Environmental Concerns Survey in August 2019, with responses from more than 3,700 prospective international students interested in studies in the UK, Australia, Canada, or USA. The majority of respondents considered universities to be either very environmentally friendly (33%) or somewhat environmentally friendly (49%). 36% strongly agreed that universities care about the environment, 35% slightly agreed. An overwhelming majority (94%) agreed that universities could do more to be environmentally sustainable, but overall the survey demonstrated that students value universities taking sustainability steps on both a global and local level.
i-graduate’s International Student Barometer (ISB) survey has included a question on universities’ “eco-friendliness” for many years. Results from the Australian 2018 ISB showed that 91.7% of international students were either ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their institutions’ “eco-friendly attitude to the environment”. Domestic students, on the other hand, were slightly less enthusiastic, with 84% agreeing with their international counterparts. i-graduate also examined the link between satisfaction levels and students’ propensity to recommend their institution to others. The most impactful element of students’ living experience is their ability to make good contacts for their future (35% positive correlation). Institutions’ eco-friendly attitude to the environment has less impact on students’ propensity to recommend their institution (26% positive correlation), but has a positive impact nevertheless. The ISB in 2020 will add “eco-friendly reputation of the institution” to the decision-making section of the survey to try to understand whether environmental issues influence students during that critical stage of their education journey.
The ISB is conducted all over the world, allowing comparisons between students in different countries and regions. International students in Canada and Australia, for example, were most satisfied with their institutions’ “eco-friendly attitude to the environment” (92.5% and 91.7% respectively). “Eco-friendly attitude” was most impactful among international students in Canada – a 33% positive correlation with their propensity to recommend their institution to others. As the table below shows, for an institution’s eco-friendly attitude to the environment, Canada had both the highest satisfaction scores among the countries and regions analysed and the strongest relationship between satisfaction levels and propensity to recommend the institution to others.
The recent launch of the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking offers prospective students the chance to compare institutions on their performance against the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including climate action. This ranking is very new, but in its first year many of the top spots were held by Canadian institutions, in line with the ISB findings.
It may be that international students are beginning to take more stock of environmental issues when choosing universities for overseas studies and in their recommendations to friends and peers. IDP’s Student Buyer Behaviour survey, which measures changes in perceptions of popular study destinations, may include questions around sustainability and climate action in the next round. Results from these surveys will help us understand more about how these issues impact international student decision-making and study experience.
The extent to which countries and their governments’ attitudes to environmental issues impact student choice is another issue all together. Will international students start to call out governments that are not seen to be pulling their weight on climate change? Australia could be the test case that the rest of the world is watching.