94% of international students want universities to ‘do more’ in the fight against climate change

  • 6 min read
94% of international students want universities to ‘do more’ in the fight against climate change

Climate change is one of the world’s hottest challenges. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global emissions must be reduced by 45% before 2030 to avoid irreversible damage to the planet and its people1.

For far too long, the international education sector has added fuel to the fire. But as more individuals and organizations begin to mitigate their emissions, international students are calling for universities to do the same.

In a recent survey, a staggering 94% of international students believed universities could do more to be environmentally sustainable2. While a further 88% of respondents said it was either essential or very important for universities to reduce their environmental footprint2.

If your university wants to stay attractive and relevant to prospective students, then it cannot risk being out of step with their values. Failure to address the climate crisis could damage your institution’s reputation and application rates for years to come.

The environmental impact of international education

The global mobility of students, combined with the international travel that staff undertake for research projects, conferences, and recruitment, means universities rack up millions of air miles. As one education consultant explains, “the huge elephant in the room is that we’re all binge flyers and our whole sector is built on the need to fly people”3.

In 2014, the international education sector released between 14.01 and 38.54 megatons of CO2 in the atmosphere. This matched the total greenhouse gas emissions of countries like Croatia and Tunisia4.

Since the number of students studying abroad has only increased year upon year, today’s emissions will have skyrocketed too.

Despite international education’s huge carbon footprint, universities are in a unique position to catalyze real change. In fact, experts agree that “international collaboration in higher education can and must play an active role in addressing this planetary crisis”5.

Climate change and Gen Z

The latest cohort of university-eligible students is angered by the environmental degradation they’ve inherited, as well as the damage they continue to witness. So much so, climate change has been cited as the most common worry amongst 18-25 year olds3.

Today’s youth are demanding more environmentally conscious and responsible institutions. So, if your university wants to engage with Gen Z, it needs to take these concerns seriously.

What can your university do?

Despite the importance placed on sustainability by students, research states that “the majority of universities have slowed down or plateaued” in their planet-saving endeavors5.

If your university wants to stand out to potential students, it needs to build a sustainable legacy, and quickly.

Students will be able to spot lip service and virtue signaling from a mile off. So, your strategy needs to have clear actions and measurable targets.

In a recent survey2, prospective international students were asked to select the actions they thought universities should take to improve their environmental friendliness. The top five were:

  1. Increasing funding for research into sustainable initiatives

  2. Reducing the amount of single-use plastics they use

  3. Reducing the amount of waste which goes to landfill

  4. Increasing how much energy comes from renewable sources

  5. Installing energy-efficient lighting

These are relatively small, actionable steps that have the potential to transform student opinion and boost your institution’s attractiveness.

Carbon offsetting

There’s no denying that international student travel is harmful to the environment. This can be a worrying and off-putting thought for many prospective pupils.

To reassure students that their long-distance journeys won’t have damaging consequences, universities should work to implement carbon offsetting actions.

At Studee, we’re proud to have launched our Trees for Degrees campaign. This is a global movement that reduces the environmental impact of international student flights.

Every time a student enrolls through us, we donate to Plant for the Planet. This organization then plants a tree on that student’s behalf to help absorb the CO2 released from their flights.

There’s an urgent need to move towards a carbon-neutral future for international education, and projects like Trees for Degrees are paving the way.

To find out more about Studee's services - and how we can help you recruit a diverse population of international students - book your free consultation call now.

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Shout about the action you’re taking

Sharing your institution’s commitment to reducing environmental degradation is key if you want to maximize student interest and application numbers. In fact, 98% of international students agree that universities should publicize their sustainability efforts2.

However, you’ll need to carefully consider the platforms you’ll use to communicate with students and stakeholders.

Since most students gather their information online, your university website will likely be your most powerful marketing tool. It’s where students form their perceptions and opinions, so optimizing your website is crucial.

After your website, the most popular platforms amongst students are2:

  • Facebook
  • Higher education events
  • Private open days and events
  • Prospectus or brochure
  • Instagram

It’s worth experimenting with different platforms until you find the channel that works best for you. No matter which one you use, just get the message out there. Not publicizing at all only guarantees failure.

Look out for awards and certifications

Effectively marketing your institution’s sustainability efforts also increases the chances of gaining accredited recognition and awards. Some of the most prestigious awards in the field include:

  • The Green Gown Awards
  • International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) awards
  • The Eco-Schools Green Flag award

Since students regularly consult rankings and league tables when choosing a university, becoming an award-winner could significantly boost your application and enrollment rates.

What can the higher education sector do as a whole?

Harness the power of digital

Rapid advances in technology mean that we can connect with people across the globe at the touch of a button.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that many of our daily tasks can be completed remotely. Although it took a bit of getting used to and hasn’t been without the odd hiccup, virtual get-togethers are the new normal.

The internet offers limitless possibilities for the higher-education industry. Student recruitment processes could move almost entirely online, as well as international conferences, advisory boards, and research meetings.

By swapping airlines for online, the sector can play its part in the fight against climate change.

An end to short-term study?

In recent years, short study abroad periods have rocketed in popularity. They’re the ideal option for students who only want to spend a semester or two abroad. However, they can have long-lasting environmental impacts.

Brief study abroad episodes encourage a kind of hypermobility amongst students. They generally require more flying in a shorter space of time, which is bad news for the planet.

The sector is now under pressure to review its promotion of short-term international education. Some countries, like Japan, have already started to make changes.

Despite short-term exchanges accounting for around 60% of all study abroad in Japan, the Japanese Student Services Organization will cut its support of such education from 2021. This will have far-reaching environmental benefits, and it’s hoped that other nations could follow suit.


1 IPCC, 2020 2 QS Environmental Concerns Survey, 2019 3 Future of humanity report, 2020 4 The Sustainability of international higher education: Student mobility and global climate change, 2019 5 People and Planet League Report, 2019