Let’s get students off the plane and on to the train

Times Higher Education November 14, 2021 

By Connie Hedegaard president of Universities Denmark,  previously the European Commissioner for Climate Action.

Heads of government from around the world have for the past two weeks congregated in Glasgow to turn the tide of climate change. The urgency is real, and – especially among the younger generations – climate change is of great concern.

Despite this, university students around Europe are not travelling in an environmentally friendly way when using the European Union’s student exchange programme Erasmus+. Taking the plane is the standard procedure when students go to study abroad. To limit the carbon footprint of international exchange, we have to give the students a better opportunity to get off the plane and on the train.

Before I continue on this track, let me make one thing clear. International student exchange and studying abroad is a brilliant thing. The Erasmus programme, which enables students across

Europe to study in another European country, is perhaps the best known and most popular of all the EU initiatives. Since 1987, 4.4 million students have crossed European borders and enriched their understanding of themselves and other cultures with the help of an Erasmus grant.

This has contributed to European coherence as students from all over Europe have gained new insights, not only academic but also cultural and linguistic. These new insights benefit the students in their future professional careers as well as in their personal growth and development.

So this is not a proposition to limit international student exchange. On the contrary. But there is a flip side to the coin. The 300,000 Erasmus students crossing Europe every year are leaving a heavy carbon footprint.

But while the environmental case for swapping the pane for the train is indisputable, we all know that planning a train journey across the continent is by no means straightforward. New tickets are in many cases required each time you cross a border. Add to this the much higher average price of train travel, and it is not at all surprising that the majority of students, living on tight budgets, travel by plane, even if they would prefer a more climate-friendly alternative.

We need to address this. We need to enable young Europeans to make the right decisions for the future. Currently, each Erasmus participant receives a grant aimed at covering both travel and accommodation expenses. But the grant is the same amount regardless of whether you travel by train or by plane. This needs to change.

We propose that a larger grant be awarded to Erasmus students who agree to travel by train or other means of transport with lower emissions than planes. And perhaps we could also tackle the hassle of having to purchase multiple train tickets by establishing a single ticket system, not unlike the Interrail pass, which allows Europeans unlimited travel between participating countries for a fixed period of time. Why not introduce an Erasmus Rail Pass, making it easier for students to travel to and from their study destination?

Halting climate change requires immediate, real-world action. Enabling students to make low-emission transport choices despite being on tight budgets is exactly that. All universities in Denmark are united in pursuing political support for this idea. And we urge those in other countries to add their voices to the call.

We also call on politicians to listen and to help students to combat climate change through their own personal choices while still taking part in international student exchange. As another make-or-break climate change conference reaches its conclusion, we must leave no stone unturned in the push for a more climate-friendly future.