Balancing International Education and its Carbon Footprint

by Dr. Pii-Tuulia Nikula and Adinda van Gaalen

Suggested Citation: Nikula, PT, & Gaalen, A. van (2021). Balancing International Education and its Carbon Footprint (Critical Internationalization Studies Network Newsletter). Critical Voices 1(4). 

In the era that we first travelled abroad for our studies, there was little discussion about the environmental footprint related to flying. There were also limited alternatives to physical mobility with the internet being in its infancy. Now we know that the carbon footprint of student mobility is considerable (Shields, 2019) and that a number of virtual alternatives exist. But does that mean that these new modes of internationalisation are equivalent? And can we expect current and future students to be satisfied with these alternatives? Aren’t they entitled to the experiences our generation has had? Are there other caveats to consider?

Personally, we have derived significant value from our international education experiences. Getting to know areas, cultures and people in other parts of the world continues to have great appeal and benefits to individuals, countries and our global community. At best, international education can create global citizens by enhancing tolerance and intercultural understanding–essential skills when trying to solve global issues such as the climate crisis. How do we protect and amplify this impact whilst taking responsibility for our environmental footprint? 

A number of greener modes of international education exist. Examples of such modes include better utilization of internationalization at home, transnational education opportunities replacing student travel and enhanced use of online/distance delivery, such as virtual exchanges/collaborative online international learning. For physical mobility, institutions can incentivise more regional mobility, low(er) carbon means of transport, and, as a last resort, compensate for all travel-related emissions.

A number of dilemmas warrant further consideration. For instance, more regional mobility may result in a narrower understanding of the world and different cultures. Also, lower carbon modes of transportation can mean that students will spend less time at their destination. Moreover, it has to be acknowledged that, hitherto, physical student mobility has been an option for a small group of students only (Salisbury et al., 2011). Virtual mobility may break with this inequality by, in principle, offering more opportunities to develop international competencies. However, this option may not be feasible for students in many countries that still lack stable and widespread internet. Hence, virtual mobility and other alternative modes of internationalization are not unproblematic. 

  In 2019, the Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE) was established as a grassroots initiative to incentivize international education practitioners across the globe to step up and act on climate. CANIE’s work has enhanced the sector’s understanding of the issue and available solutions. In recent years, there has been a wider acknowledgment of this topic in the media targeted to higher education and international education professionals as well as by a growing number of academics in the field (see also Hale, 2019; Long et al. 2014; Nikula, 2019; Rumbley, 2020; Shields, 2019).

However, more research is required to explore the intersection of international education practice/policy and the climate crisis. To balance the benefits and the footprint associated with international education, one of the areas of future research should focus on expanding the excellent work done by Robin Shields (2019). This could include research measuring emissions of non-degree-seeking mobility, such as study abroad/short-term mobility programmes (e.g., Hale, 2019; Long et al. 2014 ) and international mobility associated with compulsory schooling. In addition, a better understanding of all emissions related to student mobility is required, such as emissions related to other travel by students/family members (Davies & Dunk, 2015), overall home-destination country differences in emissions, and emissions related to different delivery modes, such as virtual versus physical mobility (see e.g., Versteijlen et al. 2017).  

A different perspective on this topic is from the educational point of view. Which alternatives to traveling deliver equal learning outcomes for students? Can students be stimulated to adopt greener lifestyles through global citizenship skills development? If that is the case, do these effects outweigh the carbon footprint of developing those competencies? Inclusion and equal opportunities are important values. What is a fair distribution of travel miles among staff and students? 

From the organisational perspective: which policy measures are most effective in reducing carbon emissions of international education while posing the least limitations? How can national or institutional policies on internationalisation be connected to sustainability policies? (van Gaalen et al., 2020). What role can grant schemes play in greening mobility? How can a change in culture in terms of the choice to travel be achieved? (De Jonge Akademie, 2020; Wynes et al., 2019) 

The intersection of international education practice/policy and the climate crisis requires further examination. In this post, we have suggested questions that warrant research by those involved in critical internationalization studies. Moreover, we have highlighted a number of dilemmas that practitioners need to consider when designing low(er) carbon international education alternatives.

About the Authors:

Dr. Pii-Tuulia Nikula is a senior lecturer at Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand. Most of Pii-Tuulia’s research focuses on sustainability and ethical behavior within the international education industry with an evolving interest in environmental questions. Pii-Tuulia is also one of the co-founders of CANIE: Climate Action Network for International Educators.

Adinda van Gaalen is a senior policy officer at Nuffic in the Netherlands and part time PhD candidate at Ghent University in Belgium. Her research focuses on ethical aspects of internationalisation strategies and policies, including the carbon footprint. Adinda has been involved in the development of a Green Travel Policy at both Nuffic and Ghent University.


Davies, J.C., & Dunk, R. M. (2015). Flying along the supply chain: Accounting for emissions from student air travel in the higher education sector. Carbon Management, 6(5–6), 233–246.

De Jonge Akademie (2020). Flying high but flying less. An overview study of Dutch university policies to reduce carbon emissions from research related air travel. 

Gaalen, A. van, Huisman, J., & Sidhu, R. (2020). National policies on education abroad – addressing undesired consequences. In A. Ogden, B. Streitwieser, & C. van Mol (Eds.), Education Abroad: Bridging Scholarship and Practice. (pp. 203–217). Routledge. 

Hale, B.W. (2019). Wisdom for Traveling Far: Making Educational Travel Sustainable. Sustainability, 11(11), 3048. MDPI AG. Retrieved from 

Long, J., Vogelaar, A., & Hale, B.W. (2014). Toward sustainable educational travel. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 22(3), 421–439. 

Nikula, PT. (2019). Towards carbon neutral international education. EAIE, Spring Forum Magazine, 12 – 13.

Rumbley, L. (2020). Internationalization of Higher Education and the Future of the Planet.  International Higher Education, 100, 32-24.

Salisbury, M. H., Paulsen, M. B., & Pascarella, E. T. (2011). Why do All the Study Abroad Students Look Alike? Applying an Integrated Student Choice Model to Explore Differences in the Factors that Influence White and Minority Students’ Intent to Study Abroad. Research in Higher Education, 52(2), 123–150. 

Shields, R. (2019). The sustainability of international higher education: Student mobility and global climate change. Journal of Cleaner Production, 217, 594–602.          

Versteijlen, M., Perez Salgado, F., Janssen Groesbeek, M., & Counotte, A. (2017). Pros and cons of online education as a measure to reduce carbon emissions in higher education in the Netherlands. Sustainability Governance, 28, 80–89. 

Wynes, S., Donner, S.D., Tannason, S., & Nabors, N. (2019). Academic air travel has a limited influence on professional success. Journal of Cleaner Production, 226, 959–967. 

Redesigning Internationalisation with Beginner’s Mind

Note: We are currently accepting responses to this Critical Voices piece of approximately 500 words from individuals involved in international education practice and thought leadership. We are able to provide an electronic copy of Dr. Unkule’s book to readers who would like to write a response (please email us at to request a copy). Responses can take any form the author wishes (Practice Brief, Research Brief, or Critical Voices piece). We will publish responses together in a thematic issue of the newsletter to be released in July 2021. For full consideration, please submit your response by June 30, 2021 via this form and select the option “Response to a previously published essay or brief.”

By Dr. Kalyani Unkule– Associate Professor, JGLS and Director & Head of the Office of Alumni Relations, Jindal Global University

I wrote the book Internationalising the University: A Spiritual Approach on an invitation from the editors of the Spirituality, Religion, and Education series of Palgrave Macmillan. As a scholar based in the global south, I felt that the time had come to stand up and say: “listen, we too have something to contribute to on-going discussions about the future of education. If years of teaching and practicing higher education internationalization in a part of the world that was perpetually dismissed as a “sending region” and as a passive recipient of “capacity building” is what it takes to find your voice and summon your courage, then so be it.” And so, I channeled Tagore’s message that it is not the parched desert that receives the bounty of the rain but the flowing river, dug deep into my training in political economy, international relations and global history, and got to it. 

Since my foray into internationalization practice was owed to a passion for intercultural dialogue and understanding, the key motivation for me was to free up the practice to actually achieve that, rather than continue as an accessory to the hegemonic enterprise of knowledge creation. Within this broad framework, establishing the link between the politics of globalization and neo-imperialism on the one hand and the hegemonic and homogenizing stance of Eurocentric science on the other was imperative, as was demonstrating how internationalization of education was harnessed throughout the twentieth century to serve these agendas – something I attempted in the chapters called Anitya (the impermanence of joy and sorrow) and Jian’ai (universal love or impartial concern). One frequently falls into the trap of resurrecting episodes from history to support the claim that “it was in fact we who came up with these bright ideas,” all the while not realizing that we are undermining diversity and impoverishing thought. When I give the cultural exchanges between ancient China and ancient India their due place in the annals of internationalization, I try my best to avoid this pitfall. The jump from science to spirituality is slightly easier to make than it used to be but for me, ideas from religion and spirituality were really a proxy for “other ways of knowing”. The chapter Ilm (knowledge) delves into the intersections of Science and Spirituality and outlines the overlap and divergence between varied understandings of the terms “Religion” and “Spirituality”: not to indulge in pedantic hair-splitting but to take stock of what is gained and what is lost when we sacrifice other ways of knowing at the altar of rational positivist science. 

The final chapter of the book is titled Shoshin (beginners’ mind) in the hope that those who see promise in the internationalization project will go back to the drawing board with a beginner’s mind, recognizing that the significance of their mission demands intentionality and dynamism. I call on us to roundly jettison a superficial and instrumental view of intercultural competence which essentializes and stereotypes other cultures (and to the critical mind smacks of a deep-seated coloniality). I remind us that nurturing a pluriversal knowledge commons requires first and foremost that we take the trusteeship of our local particulars seriously, put to rest those tired associations of “global” which no longer serve us, and open up our practices to be suffused with the eccentricities of the glocal. The spiritual approach to internationalization cares more about self-discovery through study abroad and triggers the radical realization that we share so much though we may all value different things. 

The book was published in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic shocked the dominant model of the international education system, and for that reason is possibly receiving greater attention now. As tickled as my inner nerd is about having added to the world’s stock of things to read, my hunch is that this work will help establish the great potential of practice to contribute to discourse, and in that spirit, I look forward to reactions and feedback from my fellow-practitioners.  

Author bio: Dr. Kalyani Unkule is Associate Professor, JGLS and Director & Head of the Office of Alumni Relations, Jindal Global University. She is also a visiting professor at ISDE Law and Business School in Spain and Stockholm University Faculty of Law in Sweden. Having completed her BA and MA degrees respectively in Economics and Social Work, in 2007 she received the Erasmus Mundus scholarship to pursue MA/MSc Global Studies at London School of Economics and University of Leipzig. Her doctoral work at Maurer School of Law, Indiana University, was at the intersection of international relations theory and international law. Kalyani regularly appears as an expert commentator on global affairs on India’s most respected national news network NDTV 24/7.

From “Foreign Languages” to “World Languages” within U.S. Institutions: Abandoning misleading terminologies

by Dr. Roger Anderson – Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures, Central State University

In the U.S., the social unrest and pandemic-induced hardships of 2020-21 implore Americans to critically examine our relationship to society’s most vulnerable or marginalized members. We must be honest in our assessments about how our identities and positions impact them. Educators who seek to internationalize their learners are not exempt from such self-reflection. 

“Foreign language” learning is a crucial component of an internationalizing education, yet the term itself is highly problematic, particularly for people living in a multilingual country like the United States. Dictionary definitions never fully capture the range of societal values embedded within a word. A general meaning of “foreign” is that something is not of that place; it somehow does not belong there, not wholly, or legitimately. 

Turning then to “foreign” language, it becomes clear that “foreign” is reflective of and reinforces an epistemological hierarchy in which English is positioned as native and all other languages are positioned as foreign. Not only does this hierarchy marginalize the millions of citizens and residents of the U.S. who use languages other than English alongside it, but it constitutes a historical inaccuracy. Modern English is not native to North America; it developed out of Old English, which developed out of Germanic languages in Europe. Moreover, the United States has never been a monolingual country, not before or after removing Indigenous peoples from their land or importing enslaved humans to work these lands. To imply the (non-English) languages of Indigenous peoples were—and remain—foreign seems self-contradictory.

The U.S. has no official language, despite the actions of individual states. As some states have adopted measures that officialize English, others have taken steps to repeal such measures (Kaur, 2020). Officializing a language, of course, does not render all other languages foreign, only non-official. Neither is a language native by virtue of it being spoken by the majority of a given country’s citizens. Were this the case, French would be non-native, i.e. foreign, to Canada, and Mayan dialects would be foreign to Mexico, given that these languages are spoken by a minority of these countries’ respective populations – both laughable propositions in those countries.

Positioning non-English languages as foreign within the U.S. context also implies that monolingualism is normative for membership in this nationality. Any second language – other than English in this case—is non-native, and thus positioned as alien and extraneous to the national identity. In other words, in this configuration, monolingualism is native and natural, and bilingualism is un-native and unnatural. Bilingualism then becomes something foreign rather than a legitimate identity of millions of Americans. It also communicates to learners of a “foreign language” that languages other than English have no application inside the U.S. This implication assaults reality and would mislead our learners.

“Foreign” languages are spoken abroad, but not exclusively abroad. Most glaringly, the United States may move up from its second-place ranking to become the county with the world’s largest Spanish-speaking population within the near future (Grajales-Hall, 2011). According to the 2010 U.S. census data, 350 different languages were spoken in homes across the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). In this view, the constructs of “foreign” and its companion “native” need to be problematized as more political constructs than ones reflecting a historical or cultural reality. Otherwise, it would seem the only non-foreign (native) languages of the United States would be Cherokee, Ojibwe, Sioux, etc.

Thinking critically about “foreign” languages within the United States connects with global issues of nationalism, cultural diversity, and initiatives to impose homogeneity on societies. The same nativist impulse behind efforts to position English as the sole native language of the U.S. can be found elsewhere, of which learners should be aware. Locally, unpacking these terms reveals their harmful implications on bilingual individuals living in the United States and on English Language Learners (ELLs). If, for example, a language that an Arab-American speaks and the identity enveloping it, Arabic, is “foreign”, then either the speaker is also somehow foreign or they perform a foreign action every time an Arabic word leaves their lips. Rather than discouraging bilingualism, governments and institutions need to recognize multilingual individuals and ELLs as sources of rich skill sets and knowledge, and find ways to involve their contributions into the development of their and their peers’ intercultural competence (Deardorff, 2006). Hopefully, more respectful relationships will result in a more inclusive society.

Educators promoting internationalization should take great pride in the service they provide their communities. Yet we must continue to grow and to become better versions of ourselves. Institutions in the U.S. that offer the study of “foreign” languages should critically reevaluate the terminologies used throughout their institutions. Those that choose to continue using the terminology of “foreign languages” will continue to ignore complex linguistic realities and become complicit in the promulgation of inaccurate and damaging perspectives. More inclusive terms could be adopted, like “world language”, a term defined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL, 2017). Institutions should seize this historic moment and rethink inherited epistemologies that had previously escaped critical evaluation. 


ACTFL. (2017). What is a World Language? Retrieved from

Deardorff, D. K. (2006). Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(3), 241-266. 

Grajales-Hall, M. (2011). U.S. will be the country with the most Spanish-speakers in 2050. Latino News Briefs, 

Kaur, H. (2020). FYI:  English isn’t the official language of the United States. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). Census Bureau reports at least 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes. ( No. CB15-185). Retrieved from,-November%2003%2C%202015&text=U.S.%20Census%20Bureau%20released%20a,available%20for%20only%2039%20languages.

International Students and Hostage Taking

by Gerardo L. Blanco

One of my intellectual projects during the techno-dystopian summer of 2020 involves exploring the concept of hostage taking, conceptualized as a social institution, and its potential applications for understanding higher education in the larger context of contemporary geopolitics. When I began that project, I didn’t know that reality would soon catch up to my theorization: At the end of June, the US government issued restrictions limiting H-1B and J -1 visas. In early July, restrictions were imposed on international students at U.S. institutions that selected online-only as their mode of instruction.

My original question about hostages was motivated by my work with Chinese international students in the U.S., before the COVID-19 outbreak. Rather than the common notion of hostage taking as—exclusively—a violent activity, I was thinking about the medieval social institution of hostage exchange, which served us away to maintain peace between two hostile powers. Accordingly, hostages establish a social relation distinct from, but connected to, fosterage and godparenting. The basic idea is that despite hostile rhetoric and the ongoing trade war, China and the U.S. won’t attack each other if vast numbers of their citizens are in the other country. While this may seem a morbid concept to explore, I remain interested in the ethical obligations of a hostage-taking power toward its hostages, which even for a violent institution as hostage-taking have to be higher than the current rules the U.S. government is living by. The growing antagonism between China and the United States, the large proportion of international students from China on my campus, and the mistreatment they are often subject to, converged as the main ideas for the project.

That was a few months ago, and now, over the course of two weeks, the Trump administration has taken steps to limit H-1B and some J-1 visas, that I have argued elsewhere are fundamental for the operation of U.S. colleges and universities. The recent guidance preventing international students to enroll in safer online courses and remain in the United States has resulted in protest and voices speaking up for international students. Recent perspectives have equated international students to hostages, but in the traditional sense, usually connected to late-20th and early-21st Century and terrorism that is not State-sponsored. In contrast, the United States, as the sole hegemonic power in contemporary geopolitics, has developed sophisticated tools for technologic violence. These include drone warfare and cyber war. So, it stands to reason that the U.S. has also developed sophisticated mechanisms for the recruitment and management of hostages that mask its violence.


A few months ago, before the COVID- 19 pandemic took place, a respected colleague shared with me his concerns that the calls to abolish ICE among prominent politicians and intellectuals would result in the elect reelection of Donald Trump. At that time, these calls reflected the outrage about the family separation program within ICE detention facilities and a sting operation aimed at luring international students misusing their visas at a fake university. I am sympathetic to that argument, however, the recent decisions by the White House and by ICE amount, in my analysis, to a direct assault on higher education and on internationalization. While the members of this Critical Internationalization Studies Network seek to re-imagine internationalization and higher education more broadly, the US government has taken actions that can seriously destabilize the system. Of course, their motivations are very different than ours.

If forced to choose between dismantling the higher education system or ICE, I would certainly choose ICE. The recent actions against international students have made me reflect about the ways in which I have taken for granted institutionalized violence as part of the management of international students and scholars in the US. The healthy amount of disagreement expressed toward the government’s measures made me aware of how normalized compliance with ICE and SEVP has become. And yet, it is important to remember that these institutions began in the context of the “War on Terror” that George W. Bush identified as his legacy during the last months of his declining presidency. What is evident is that the management of international students and scholars does not naturally belong in the Department of Homeland Security, that that the U.S. structure is an outlier—when placed in a comparative context, and that there has never been a time when SEVIS, SEVP, or ICE have not been Instruments of techno- institutionalized terror, legitimized by power asymmetry.

Re-imagining resistance

 I am skeptical that the current calls to abolish ICE will succeed. That is fine, because I am generally skeptical about direct forms of resistance. My two main theoretical orientations, Postcolonial Theory and Poststructuralism, seem to converge here. Postcolonial Theory teaches us about passive, indirect resistance and about the radicality of survival. Poststructuralism warns us against a system that incorporates everything, even resistance, in a process of total annexation. Jean Baudrillard argued that we are witnessing World War IV. The first world wars are the ones we already know; the third world war was the Cold War, and the fourth is the war that the hegemonic system wages against itself. The U.S. government actions of the last 2 weeks, while it claims wanting to have a rapid post-COVID recovery, while also dealing two significant blows to the mechanisms that could make that recovery possible, if not easy, make Baudrillard’s argument evermore compelling.

It is doubtful that a successful social movement will result in abolishing ICE. However, by merely thinking this alternative, the idea (unthinkable before) already succeeded. I don’t believe that, despite the sheer incompetence displayed in recent weeks (read years), the federal government will self-destruct or will succeed at cutting off the lifeline that international students represent for U.S. universities. I don’t hope for either of these outcomes, either. Where I find comfort is in the inspiring mobilization of our petty bureaucracies, arcane jargon, and time-tested ways to circumvent and undermine the agendas of those who hold more power than we do, without ruffling too many feathers. I am inspired by the faculty members willing to put themselves at risk to offer independent study courses so that international students on their campus can register for a face-to-face course in the fall and remain in SEVP compliance. To a lesser extent, I am heartened by my colleagues who have decided to use the protections of tenure and citizenship in, arguably, an open society to speak up for students. Above all, I am inspired by international students (as I was from 2005 to 2013) who despite the current uncertainty go on with their research and other activities. I see you; you inspire me.

 Gerardo L. Blanco is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development and Associate Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

You can watch his 2019 presentation to the Critical Internationalization Studies Network, “Can We Critically Approach Work That Has Been Framed Uncritically? Doing Internationalization as Collective Account-Giving”, as well as his recent presentation with Amy Scott Metcalfe, “Internationalization as Fatal Strategy.”