Why universities?

Why Universities?

A central component of academic careers and universities’ internationalisation strategies is long-distance travel: whether it is to attend workshops, conferences or to engage in fieldwork, these trips are often considered beneficial to their reputation. Why is it important that educational institutions change their travel policies and fly less?

Educational institutions as role models

Educational institutions have a vital role in our society: not only do they serve as a role model; they influence a group of people who are still shaping norms and habits that will influence their behaviour for the rest of their life.

Universities are leading institutions in research on climate change and often have ambitions to decrease their carbon footprint and become more sustainable themselves. Universities should set an example in making conscious travel choices, and their policies should not incentivise staff and students to travel by plane when this is not absolutely necessary.

The Problem

  1. It has been widely acknowledged by governments, universities and other institutions that we are in a climate crisis.
  2. The staff working in higher education and students attending university are among the frequent flyers of our society.
  3. The environmental burden of extensive travelling is not adequately addressed by the majority of institutions.
  4. Academic institutions have always been thought leaders of society. It is time that their actions reflect the current situation and dramatically reduce their carbon footprint.
  5. To reduce their carbon footprint they HAVE to address their travel policies.

The Dilemma

Air travel is considered necessary for academic careers and curricula in many different ways; including but not limited to attending conferences, engaging in fieldwork, conducting research and going on exchange to another university. Staff, students, and institutions want to reduce their carbon footprint while not compromising their own academic career or reputation.

Decolonizing Universities

Not only is (academic) flying bad for the environment and helping to speed up climate change, the flying habits of academia also present significant colonial and racist structures. At ExPlane, we want to highlight all sides of the issue of academic flying, and decolonization is an important part of this.  

Some ways in which this shows is:

  • White/Western academics travel around the world to do research in and on non-Western areas and communities, where local people could often do the same work.
  • White/Western academics are paid to fly out to attend conferences and workshops, which are often difficult or impossible to attend for non-Western academics.
  • Students and staff in Western institutions are encouraged to fly for exchange programs, summer schools, and fieldwork.

Against the racist, colonial, and unjust backdrop of the ongoing climate crisis, it seems evident that flying should no longer be encouraged, but rather discouraged from Western universities and educational institutions. Universities can choose to redistribute their money to minimize their contribution to the climate crisis and create equal relations in academia. 

Institutions can save money by no longer paying their staff for doing remote research, flying them around the world to attend workshops and conferences, and hosting summer and field schools that require staff and students to travel far. This money could rather be invested in improving virtual communication for academic purposes, supporting universities and researchers that have historically been excluded from the academic stage, and enabling communities to research and monitor their own environment. 

By urging universities to reduce their unnecessary flying, we also want them to critically think about how they are involved in practices that keep colonial and racist structures in place. Western universities need to do work to decolonize, and this includes rethinking the way they do research in other parts of the world, and where they put their money. 

Learn more on this topic:

Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu (2017) How Africa can use its traditional knowledge to make progress, TEDGlobal.

Portia Roelofs (2019) Flying in the univer-topia: white people on planes, #RhodesMustFall and climate emergency, Journal of African Cultural Studies, 31:3, 267-270, DOI: 10.1080/13696815.2019.1630264