Glasgow Paper: Leadership and Influencing

International educators are uniquely positioned to lead on climate. Prior to the pandemic, we were not alone in producing planet-warming emissions through activities such as traveling to enormous international conferences or by using polluting energy to light, heat, and cool our offices. However, we are unique in that international travel (which, to date, has been dominated by carbon-intensive flying) has been a prerequisite to the outcomes we aim to achieve in our students. Because we control the programs and activities we create for our students, we also control their associated climate impacts. The nature of our work gives us the power to meaningfully reduce our GHG emissions, which positions us to take the important, albeit uncomfortable, initial steps to lead. In doing so, we will ensure the resilience of our sector by meeting the rapidly changing expectations of our students (THE Student Pulse, 2021) and we will serve as a model for others as they decarbonize.

International education units often operate within the broader context of a HEI or other organizations. Consequently, to successfully decarbonize we must leverage our influence to embed climate action in organizational-level missions and strategies, build it into policies and frameworks, and ensure it is adopted into all official strategic documents. Recognizing that the level of influence of individual international educators and their units varies greatly across institutions, forming alliances with other units may be necessary.

Aligning Resources with Student Decision Factors

Leaders Forum participants indicated that their greatest barriers to climate action were not lack of interest, knowledge, or organizational support but rather insufficient staff time (61%) and funding (55%) (Lamont, 2021). Yet, data show that student expectations are rapidly shifting and climate action and sustainability are increasingly influential in their decision making. For example, a 2021 Times Higher Education Student Pulse survey revealed that 71% of respondents had assessed their preferred university’s overall commitment to, and reputation for, sustainability (THE Student Pulse, 2021). Moreover, 9% of respondents indicated that an institution’s commitment to, and reputation for, sustainability was the single most important factor in determining where to apply. Of the various factors rated, graduate employability also came in at 9% as the most important. The results of this survey, among others, clearly demonstrate the need for HEIs to realign budgets with student decision factors.

Climate Action Reporting

Publicly reporting decarbonization targets, timelines, strategies, and progress is integral to climate leadership and has far-reaching benefits. Not only does transparent public reporting establish the sector as serious about leading on climate, it helps others understand the significant and disproportionate risks of inaction as well as the opportunities that come with meeting the challenge. Public reporting is an important tool in holding ourselves accountable and makes students, parents, partners, policy makers, and others aware of our priorities, which will weigh in their decisions to engage with us.

Magnitude of the Challenge

It is important to acknowledge, and prepare for, the inevitable difficulties of leading monumental change. Decarbonizing the sector is likely the greatest challenge we will face in our lifetimes and we ought to expect resistance. We would be wise to prepare to lead frank conversations about shifting priorities. We will need to remind our colleagues, and ourselves, that the financial models that served us in the past must be reevaluated for a planet in crisis.

There exists an untapped economy of scale of internationally mobile students with potential influence extending far beyond higher education. For example, even after a 27% decrease due to the pandemic, international students in the U.S.A. contributed $28.4 billion USD to the economy in the 2020/2021 academic year (NAFSA, 2021). Because air travel is a defining characteristic of international education – and we would like the number of international students to increase rather than decrease – the sector ought to leverage our influence to put pressure on airlines to lower emissions.

Leadership and influencing actions are defined in Article 4 of the CANIE Accord.