Sustaining a Future: is International Student (and Staff) Mobility Unsustainable as the Climate Changes?

Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, invites us to consider how sustainable we really are when it comes to international mobility.

‘You must take action. You must do the impossible.’ – Greta Thunberg in a speech to the US Congress, Washington DC, 17 September 2019

A couple of weeks ago I flew back to Dubai from the AHUA Autumn Conference at Keele University. It had been a really successful visit – another session of my Learning Set and a thought-provoking conference which included a workshop from Universities UK International (UUKi) on creating sustainable international ventures.

The plane I took was one of at least 100,000 others in the sky that day alone, as part of over 37 million commercial flights a year (according to IATA). While I sat back at 33,000 feet and contemplated the take-aways from AHUA and the work ahead to capitalise on other meetings I attended, debate was raging at the UN and elsewhere, led by 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, who eschewing air travel had sailed to New York.

UUKi’s session was focused on their work in the areas of security, risk, and global engagement; the thrust was maximising opportunities while navigating complex geopolitical landscapes. All very important – and we had some useful debate on our tables – but I don’t recall any mention of the actual environment or the sustainability of international HE development.

On the other side of the scale, Professor Mark Dooris’s keynote at Keele explored the concept of the healthy university, considering the challenges and opportunities for HE to promote wellbeing in people, place, and planet. (Interestingly, planet came last in that list. I suspect Greta Thunberg would chastise us for having this the wrong way around.)

All these competing demands and contradictions face a stark reality in our sector. According to the Migration Advisory Committee’s report in September 2018, more than three quarters of a million international students come to the UK each year. At the moment (just – Australia is poised to push us into third), the UK is second only to the USA when it comes to international student numbers. The Department of the Environment estimated that in 2015 alone their export value was £17.6 billion to the UK economy. And almost all of them fly – just as many of us do when we travel overseas to our branch campuses, to our TNE partners, to conferences, to our alumni groups, to meet donors, or even just to get away from our own institutions when it comes to our much-needed holidays (but that’s another argument altogether..!).

As a relative newcomer to blogs (the title ‘AHUA international blog champion’ sits somewhat uncomfortably on my shoulders in the context of this theme), I’m glad I’m not expected to offer a thesis as such. Because, frankly, I don’t see any obvious or at least immediate remedy, certainly not of the urgent and dramatic kind climate activists both young and old are desperately crying out for.

I’m part of the problem, not the solution – although as some small comfort in my own institution we rely less on overseas students than our branch campus neighbours do (BUiD is roughly one third Emirati, one third non-Emirati Arabs living here, and one third others also mostly domiciled in the UAE).

So I’ve written this particular blog more as an opening for a discussion than a purveyor of wisdom or an offer of solutions.

As an international AHUA member I’d like to hear what colleagues back in the UK think, and what your institutions are doing in practice, to mitigate the effects of flying faculty and students around the globe, while at the same time recognising that for most of us these movements are vital to our financial sustainability. What are the short term plans and how long term can we keep this up? What alternatives do we have? If we make drastic change will we simply hand over our business to other parts of the world whose scruples are less wholesome?

In her speech to US lawmakers, Greta Thunberg urged us to ‘unite behind the science’. This is, or should be, our territory. After all, in universities we investigate, research, categorise, publish, and educate on climate change. But like everyone else right now we’re being schooled both literally and figuratively by children.

Doing the rounds on Facebook amongst all the misbehaving kittens and Boris memes is a cartoon by Tom Toro in The New Yorker. It features three children sitting around a fire in front of a post-apocalyptic, shattered cityscape. They listen to a man in a tattered suit. He tells them, “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”

Whatever you think, we do need to discuss this issue really soon.

Hugh Martin is the Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, AHUA’s first international associate member. He can be contacted at