Business schools take a tough road on carbon

Before moving from Singapore to Paris this summer to become Essec’s pre-experience programme director, Professor Aarti Ramaswami weighed the pros and cons of all options for moving her family and belongings between continents – even tabulating them in a spreadsheet .

Ultimately, she did fly, but she says she wants her students to pay the same attention: weighing alternatives and carbon footprint before making a travel choice.

Essec has committed to reducing the carbon impact of student travel on programs including its Master of Management (MiM) by 30% over three years.

“Part of the student experience and journey is having an international experience, but student travel and mobility is one of the higher sources of carbon footprint within a school,” Ramaswamy said. “We’re working very consciously to reduce that.”

These efforts include the “Climate Murals” workshop that most students complete at the beginning of the course. Ramaswami also plans to incentivize students to choose more local destinations for field trips, exchanges and internships, providing a larger budget for students who choose locations that require less travel.

But Ramaswamy said what was unlikely to change was the option of studying at another campus — Essec has two campuses in France, one in Morocco and one in Singapore. “That’s why many students choose to come to Essec, so we can’t put them in tights,” she said.

Pressure on business schools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from travel is coming from all directions. There are national climate goals, universities and schools have their own sustainability strategies, and student climate clubs have “bottom-up” activism. Teachers are also checking their flying habits before signing up for academic conferences.

But foreign travel was all but halted during the pandemic, and once restrictions were lifted, it also led to a flood of pent-up demand — so-called “retaliatory travel.”

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This poses a dilemma for all higher education institutions that market their courses as “international” but also need to demonstrate their commitment to carbon neutrality. A survey of 44 UK universities earlier this year found that 53% were not considering changing students’ overseas study and work placement destinations, while 46% said they had or were considering such a change.

Business schools are in a similar situation. Léon Laulusa, dean for academic and international affairs at ESCP, which has six campuses in Europe, said MiM students will continue to have the opportunity to work abroad during the internship phase of the program, as they continue to show a keen interest in international experience. In 2021, 90% of ESCP students are doing internships outside their home countries – up from 81% in 2020, but more importantly, up from pre-pandemic figures.

“We’ve noticed that today’s students are more eager to travel far away,” Laurusa said. “We have never received requests for exchange programs outside of Europe – Asia, the US and South America.”

Some schools tend to increase demand. In Neoma, France, Dean Delphine Manceau said her school would “continue to defend its commitment to international experience”. This year, Neoma has added another 18 academic partners to its network of nearly 400 universities and schools around the world, which MiM students can visit for academic exchanges. It also offers Masters students access to its global network of incubators, which give young entrepreneurs the opportunity to pursue their business ideas abroad for an additional six months. Neoma encourages students to travel by train rather than plane whenever possible, and hosts events to raise awareness of the issue.

“The desire to study abroad remains,” agrees Céline Foss, program director at Grenoble School of Management. “International study travel remains highly attractive for academic and cultural reasons and has significant value in MiM,” she said. However, in Grenoble, study trips must be conducted within the region, and flights are only approved if railways are impractical.

Travel remains an important part of the educational journey, says Anna Cockroft, director of the Esade master’s programme in Barcelona. “For global thinking and skills, students need to explore different cultures and come together on different levels by studying abroad,” she said. “Recruiters continue to value profiles that can easily adapt to different environments, as well as the flexibility to travel and communicate globally.”

She added that international study trips are optional but popular with students who see it as the highlight of the year.

Back in Essec, Ramaswami said she sees matching students’ need for travel with carbon commitments as a valuable exercise rather than a problem. “Every school is grappling with the challenge of balancing instructional goals, cultural experiences and finding sustainable solutions,” she said. “But it’s important to be constantly challenged by our students, alumni, business partners and staff. This will keep us relevant.”

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