Internationalisation, sustainability and the contested environmental impacts of international student mobility

David McCollum, Hebe Calypso Nicholson

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This paper aims to stimulate the nascent research agenda on the environmental sustainability of the ongoing mushrooming of international student mobility (ISM). The higher education (HE) system in the UK and elsewhere is increasingly predicated upon the hosting of international students. Whilst this drive towards internationalisation undoubtably has multiple benefits, little attention thus far has been paid to its potentially very considerable environmental impact. The drive for internationalisation within HE thus potentially sits at odds with ambitions and strategies to promote sustainability within the sector and beyond.


In-depth interviews with 21 students and representatives of 14 university international offices offer insights into how the environment features in the decisions that young people and HE institutions make with regards to partaking in and promoting education-related mobility.


The results find that students take environmental considerations into account when undertaking education-related mobility, but these aspirations are often secondary to logistical issues concerning the financial cost and longer travel times associated with greener travel options. At the institutional scale, vociferously championed university sustainability agendas have yet to be reconciled with the financial imperative to recruit evermore international students.


This paper identifies a thus far neglected contradiction within HE whereby the sustainability agenda that it so rightly espouses is potentially undermined by the drive towards internationalisation. The paper uses the anthropause concept to consider the future environmental sustainability of ISM.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1561-1575
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Issue number7
Early online date31 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 13 Nov 2023


  • Anthropause
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Higher education
  • International student mobility
  • Internationalisation


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