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Exploring the inherent conflict between the internationalisation and carbon management agendas in the UK higher education sector

Davies, Jonathan Christopher (2016) Exploring the inherent conflict between the internationalisation and carbon management agendas in the UK higher education sector. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

Globally, higher education institutions (HEIs) can help facilitate the transition to a low-carbon society through their role as educators, researchers and community leaders. Focusing on their role as educators, one of the central concepts of education for sustainable development is global citizenship, where for UK HEIs the recruitment of international students and study abroad schemes have been a fundamental way of encouraging home students to develop global perspectives. However, this approach conflicts with the sector’s low-carbon agenda due to the significant emissions from air travel (hereafter ‘the Conflict’). To evaluate the scale of student air travel emissions, and to explore students and HEIs awareness of, and willingness to mitigate and/or compensate for these emissions, this study adopted a convergent and integrated parallel strand mixed methods design. This comprised of a cross-sectional survey of 663 international and study abroad students and document analysis and in-depth interviews under the umbrella of eight HEI case studies. An analysis of UK HE sector statistics, in combination with flight frequencies determined from the student survey, found that student air travel emissions were equivalent to 68% of estates emissions, or 119% when visiting friends and relatives were taken into account. Furthermore, scenario analysis suggested that by 2020/21, increases in these emissions are likely to exceed the reductions achieved in estates emissions unless HEIs reinvigorate efforts to achieve their ambitious reduction targets, and/or there is close to zero annual growth in inbound and outbound student numbers. The findings from the eight case studies revealed that the sector is poorly equipped to respond to the Conflict. This relates to an ongoing focus on, and difficulties achieving, estates emission reductions, varied engagement with indirect (supply chain) emissions, and an unwillingness at the institutional level from the majority of HEIs to engage with the Conflict. To have credibility and be in a position to respond strategically to the Conflict, HEIs should include student air travel emissions in a comprehensive carbon footprint. Moreover, a robust carbon management strategy for the sector should include offsetting due to the limited potential to avoid or reduce these emissions through reduction in air travel consumption. This is evidenced by both responses to the student survey and the importance placed on student mobility by the HEIs. Clearly, there are challenges for organisations who face conflicting business priorities in responding to the carbon management agenda. Organisations need to account for and engage with indirect emission sources such as employee commuting and business travel, and the emissions associated with products (goods and services). The reluctance and inability to engage with challenges that require a trade-off, or compromise between socio-economic benefits and environmental costs has implications for the achievability of a global reduction in emissions.

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