21 Sep 2019

Climate change woes could hit international student numbers

5:08 pm on 21 September 2019

Massey University is embarking on a study to measure students' and staff's emissions as part of its goal to become carbon neutral by 2030.

Queues at Auckland International Airport

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The study would include international students' travel too, as they became increasingly aware of their emissions and climate concerns, Massey University director of sustainability Allanah Ryan said.

"We are aware that we want to continue having international students, and we are aware that there is a cost around that in terms of carbon so we are interested in looking at how we ensure we still have international students but that we somehow mitigate those emissions the students are producing.

"We'll be undertaking a travel behaviour survey in the next few months to get a sense of what that footprint looks like, and then we'll be looking at what we might do to mitigate those emissions."

Mitigation strategies could include tree planting to offset enrolment-related carbon emissions and more offshore delivery of courses, Dr Ryan said.

It comes as a researcher warns universities and polytechnics could suffer as international students shy away from taking long-distance flights to New Zealand for their education because of climate change concerns.

Dr Pii-Tuulia Nikula, senior lecturer Eastern Institute of Technology's School of Business

Dr Pii-Tuulia Nikula is a senior lecturer Eastern Institute of Technology's School of Business. Photo: RNZ / Anusha Bradley

Eastern Institute of Technology's School of Business senior lecturer Pii-Tuulia Nikula had calculated the approximately 100,000 international students who travelled here each year generated around 420,000 tonnes of emissions.

"In terms of the overall scale it's a small emission footprint for NZ, which has about 80 megatonnes of emissions a year, but per-student emissions are quite large."

The tourism industry has also been warned that so-called "flight-shame" among travellers worried about their environmental impact, could hit the sector.

Dr Nikula said many international students to New Zealand, most of whom came from India and China, used up their annual emissions with a return trip here.

Universities and polytechs needed to think about how this might impact them in the coming years, she said.

"There is also evidence showing that some of the young people are really concerned about climate change and will not want to be flying in the future. So we have to think about well, are we actually going to be losing students who were previously willing to come and study in New Zealand?"

Many British and American universities had set up overseas campuses to counter this trend, which was something New Zealand institutions may have to consider, Dr Nikula said.

"Rather than having 100,000 students travelling we would have staff members travelling or rely more on local staff, yet still delivering New Zealand qualifications and giving them an understanding of New Zealand's education system."

International education contributes about $5 billion a year to the economy.

Massey University hoped to have the results of its travel emissions study by April 2020.

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