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2021 Survey of Sustainability in Education Abroad

Report Crop

Bound International, and its partner Earth Deeds, are very pleased to present the inaugural Survey of Sustainability in Education Abroad. This survey was distributed to the field in September and October 2021.

Read the Executive Summary below to learn about the current status of sustainability performance in study abroad/student mobility.

A “code red for humanity” was recently issued by the U.N. Secretary General along with the warning that Global Warming is dangerously close to spiraling out of control. Every sector of society must respond and adapt to this existential crisis, and this includes academia and education abroad.

While colleges and universities are increasingly embracing sustainable practices and policies, study abroad offices and programs are too often left out of institutional strategies and reporting. This is ironic as the very internationality of education abroad offers ideal opportunities to better understand and respond to these global crises.

So, how is the field of education abroad doing with respect to sustainability? Well, it’s been hard to know since, as Peter Drucker famously said, “You can't improve what you don’t measure.” To address this shortcoming, Bound International has recently completed the very first Survey of Sustainability in Education Abroad in order to set a baseline for the field and assess our strengths and weaknesses as well as our threats and opportunities moving forward.

The survey was made available from September 7th to October 25, 2021 and received 77 responses (61 complete). While not a fully representative sample of the approximately 25,000 colleges and universities around the world, it does offer an initial glimpse into current practices and potential next steps. In addition to this brief summary, a full report can be accessed below.

First, the good news. Over half of respondents actively recycle in their home offices, which isn’t so surprising as it a growing trend among academic institutions. In addition, most offices have started to implement virtual meetings and programs, where appropriate, which vastly reduces travel-related emissions. In general, private institutions incorporate more sustainable practices into their study abroad programs than public entities, likely due to their greater freedom in allocating resources.

And now the bad news… While institutions are more active in implementing such practices internally (i.e. in their home offices) than externally (e.g. in the field), even these efforts are all too rare. Internally, less than a quarter embed sustainability into their policies, mission, goals or objectives. Only about one-third utilize energy efficient utilities and most are not tracking emissions from flights. And less than one-third account for these emissions in any way.

Externally, only about a quarter of respondents include sustainability as a topic of study on any of their programs. Only one-third support environmental efforts in local communities abroad. And even fewer (6%) incentivize students to be eco-friendly in their travel and daily activities while abroad.

Why has it been so difficult to implement sustainability into education abroad? Almost half of respondents point to funding and staff time as primary barriers and, of course, the pandemic didn’t help with either of these.

Stepping back, however, the underlying issue seems to be one of values and priorities. Sustainable practices and policies have generally been seen as “nice to have”, but not “must have” components of our programs and procedures. Of course, as the world wakes up to the impacts of our resource-intensive lifestyles, including international travel, it will become increasingly clear that we must all do everything we can to preserve a livable planet.

Fortunately, the “tree” of sustainability is bountiful with many low-hanging fruits that don’t require a lot of staffing or funding. For example, tracking emissions from student and staff travel is relatively easy and builds our understanding and motivation to implement further changes. It is also not difficult to add resources to orientations and programs to support students learning to become more eco-friendly on their programs and in their lives. And while the pandemic has set many institutions and programs back on their heels, it also presents the opportunity to “build back better” and look afresh at our efforts and even the bigger “why” behind them.

If we choose to be proactive rather than reactive in response to these growing challenges, we can help train leaders who are truly effective global citizens. If we recognize and address education abroad’s complicity in warming our planet, we can work to mitigate our impacts and, hopefully, even become a leverage point in humanity’s fight against climate catastrophe.