Members News - New Zealand Herald: International Study has Changed - For Good by Prof. Dawn Freshwater, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland
November 30, 2021

By Dawn Freshwater

Original post on New Zealand Herald

Students flying in and out of New Zealand during holiday breaks will be less common in the future, due to Covid and the climate crisis. Photo / Alex Burton, File


As New Zealand prepares to reopen its border, the University of Auckland is preparing for the return of international students to our campuses.

It will be an exciting day when students from the United States, China, Malaysia, India and around the globe join with our domestic students in lecture rooms and laboratories.

But the return of international students will not mean a return to pre-pandemic settings.

Covid-19 has challenged and changed our universities. The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow has brought into stark relief the importance of sustainability. And the recent Apec CEO summit has highlighted the importance of trusted leadership and scientific literacy.

When our borders closed last year, and the country went into lockdown, universities were forced to pivot from in-person to online teaching. International students, who were locked out by what remains a closed border to non-citizens and non-residents, joined our domestic students in online learning.

We were surprised, but pleased, that so many international students chose to continue or start their studies with us online. That they remain enrolled with us speaks to the excellence of our online teaching and the other support we provide for our offshore students.

Alongside virtual micro-internships with New Zealand companies we have established online learning centres in four Chinese cities and a study hub in Vietnam.

Our enrolments for 2022 are down only slightly, despite the fact that many popular study destinations have open borders for international students.

As our Government moves into the new traffic light system and begins to welcome international students back next year, we expect our international student numbers to increase.

The University’s experience with its international students during the two pandemic years is instructive, particularly in the context of sustainability and our responsibility to be climate-conscious in all of our actions.

We have learned that our international students are willing to study with us online, for at least part of their degree. When the country’s borders re-open, we expect many of our international students will continue to blend offshore and online learning with their on-campus, Auckland experience.

They will still want to travel to New Zealand, embed themselves in our culture and learn in a new environment, but their travel will be purposeful and considered.

Students around the world are climate aware. Those who decide to travel to the University of Auckland for their full course are likely to restrict their travel home during course breaks.

The domestic tourism sector may well profit from our students’ decision not to travel home so frequently.

Climate aware students expect to study in countries and institutions that offer a climate-conscious experience.

We all saw the thousands of young people who filled the streets of Glasgow during the COP26 summit. We heard from Global Leaders during the Apec CEO Summit about the importance of urgent action in this space, and its alignment with trust. As Richard Edelman made clear “silence is not an option”.

CEOs must step up, and speak out on societal challenges, leading from the front.

Universities and their leaders are no different. Within universities our students — domestic and international — are demanding change.

Dawn Freshwater. Photo / Supplied

We must be able to explain to them the sustainable steps we are taking to reduce carbon emissions.

As the world heats up and governments try to set common goals, universities have an important role to play in climate research, in educating our students on sustainability, and in modelling best practice.

Science literacy has now overtaken other forms of trusted communication according to the recent Edelman trust barometer.

We cannot shy away from the environmental cost of international student travel.

Universities must work with peers around the world on frameworks to measure international student travel emissions.

We need to work out how to weigh up the carbon associated with long-distance air travel against the benefits students accrue from extended periods of time studying offshore in new cultures, and the benefits societies enjoy from having the students in their midst.

International students are again travelling around the world. The United Kingdom, the United States and Canada are opening their borders and welcoming students back on campus.

New Zealand needs to remain a viable and attractive option for these students. We have to stay globally connected but we also have to be sustainable. Our students’ future literally depends on it.

  • Professor Dawn Freshwater is Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland.