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International education begins to look ahead to a greener future

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • There is growing momentum within the sector toward climate action and more sustainable practices
  • This is rooted both in a growing awareness of environmental issues among international educators but also in the priorities of more environmentally conscious students

“Build back better” is a phrase that we have all become more familiar with in recent months. It imagines not only an economic recovery after the pandemic but one that addresses long-standing industrial, societal, and environmental issues. In that sense, the phrase represents both a challenge and an opportunity, and perhaps something of a rallying cry as well.

Riding along with that sentiment is a growing awareness of environmental issues within the international education industry – an awareness that in recent months has sharpened into action.

“We’re not about cutting back on student mobility but trying to find ways that international education can operate in a more sustainable way,” says Ailsa Lamont, the director of Pomegranate Global, a climate action consultancy, and a co-founder of CANIE (Climate Action Network for International Educators). “We think of ourselves as rabble rousers – we’re trying to bring people together.”

CANIE is at the forefront of a relatively new conversation in international education. The founding group includes members in a number of leading study destinations, and this month it will hold its third industry summit. The International Education Climate Action Summit is planned as a virtual event on 12 November, and, with its European focus (or at least its orientation to European time zones) it follows two previous virtual conferences oriented to delegates in Australia-New Zealand and North America.

The summit events reflect CANIE’s commitment to bring industry players together, to build awareness, to share knowledge and research, and to promote action. “Everyone in international education should factor the cost of climate impact in their decision making,” says Ms Lamont.

For many international educators, one concrete expression of this will be taking steps to reduce the impact of emissions from air travel – whether that means reducing unnecessary travel, a greater reliance on virtual or hybrid events, an increasing emphasis on digital recruitment or engagement with partners abroad, or even carbon offsets to better balance the impact of necessary travel.

But CANIE is also concerned with promoting awareness of environmental impacts within the industry, and in supporting practitioners in driving change within their organisations and institutions.

The group’s larger goal is to move toward collective active within the industry. “We are pulling together key research on the sector and effective actions that [international educators] can take to counter climate impacts,” adds Ms Lamont. “We want to develop a vision for what a sustainable international education sector looks like and then bring together industry leaders to create a roadmap to move the sector to a more sustainable footing.”

The growing awareness of environmental issues within international education reflects a broader global awareness and momentum toward climate action, and of course that is partly reflected in students’ perspectives on climate issues and the extent to which good environmental practice factors in student decision making.

CANIE considers that student demand in that sense is itself a positive driver of change, and that institutions or organisations that take steps towards more sustainable practices should reap the rewards in terms of competitive advantage, attractiveness to students, or even placement in global ranking tables.

That is a view shared by Jonathan Dykes, a veteran of the language travel sector and a co-founder of another newly established climate action organisation called Green Standard Schools (GSS).

In helping to shape the GSS model, Mr Dykes drew partly on his early experience as the director of a language school that had adopted the EU’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS). “There were some very important lessons in that,” he says, but overall the EMAS scheme was also very expensive and difficult to maintain, in part because of complex audit requirements.

“The issue,” he explains, “became how to establish a scheme that could actually work for language schools. That was more relevant, more manageable, and accessible for schools.”

The GSS model is the answer that Mr Dykes and his co-founders have arrived at. It offers an accreditation process that relies on a school’s awareness and reporting of its climate impact practices. Schools apply for GSS recognition via a 48-question assessment which allows for a maximum score of 200 points and requires a threshold of 130 points for accreditation.

While GSS is newly incorporated this year, it has already fielded dozens of applications and accredited its first schools. The first GSS centres are all in Europe – including French in Normandy in France and British School Pisa in Italy – but applications are now coming in from further afield as well. Mr Dykes notes that many are not successful on their first attempt, but adds, “That’s really okay because we can then give them some guidance in terms of how to improve and they can apply again.”

Echoing the earlier point about linking international mobility – and air travel emissions in particular – to climate action, Mr Dykes is quick to stress, “We don’t want to discourage students from flying. That is the last thing we want to do as an industry. But we do need to take on board that a consequence of that is global warming and what can we do about it.”

The process, he explains, starts with awareness. “The first thing schools have to do is to log the flights of students and staff. Once they have that info, they can use online resources to calculate the carbon related to those flights. And then they can make a plan to offset those carbon impacts.”

But he also stresses that schools have to feel that they are getting some concrete benefits from that effort as well. “Accreditation should have some real commercial value,” he says. “If you are thinking of going an taking a language course and you are comparing three or four schools but one or two have accreditation for good environmental practices, that might tip the balance. I think [climate action] is a factor and is likely to become more of a factor in student decision-making.”

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