MSc student Abi Whitefield refused to go on her University field trip, despite it being a compulsory part of her course
The University field trip has long been established as a model of learning: a chance to gain real-life, real-world experience, undertake research outside of the academic bubble, and interact with local communities. In recent years, the locations offered have moved further afield: New York, Mexico, China. It seems that the field trip is a central component in selling a course, as institutions entice potential students by offering study in ever more exotic locations.
Of course, these trips come with a huge carbon footprint, especially if the trip involves a flight – and more often than not, it does. But more than the direct carbon emissions, such trips play a large part in normalising flying as a form of transport. The student years are among the most formative of a person’s life. If air travel is an integral part of that, a compulsory part no less, it seems normal, even expected, to take part without question.
It takes a lot of conviction and guts to start bucking that trend. But that’s what Abi Whitefield did, a student on the MSc in Environmental Protection and Management at the University of Edinburgh, who decided that she wouldn’t attend her class field trip, despite it being a compulsory part of the course.
“The field trip was to Morocco, and according to the WWF, the return flight would produce 2.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide – equivalent to the annual emissions of the average person in India. I try to do a lot of things to be more environmentally friendly, but that flight alone would have bumped up my carbon footprint for the year by a quarter.
“I told my course director before I had even applied that I would not be attending the field trip because it would involve flying. I was anxious about telling them as it was marketed as a compulsory degree component, and I was scared they would say that I had to go. To be honest, if that had been the case, I wouldn’t have applied for the course, even though I really wanted to! But they were completely supportive and began planning alternative activities for me. They even looked into overland travel to Morocco but in the end it was decided I would undertake an individual study here in the UK.”
The study, which focussed on environmental behaviours, included a public survey on behaviour change. Many of the people questioned said that they tried to reduce the amount they fly in order to limit their impact upon the environment.
But if universities continue to entice students with trips to far-off locations, flying will continue to be the social norm. Abi only told three close friends that she would not be flying to Morocco, as she feared judgment from the rest of the class, or worried that she might create difficulties for the course director if others also decided they didn’t want to go.
“It’s somewhat ironic that a university school that focuses on climate change and the impacts of excessive carbon release causes a large carbon footprint through compulsory field trips,” says Abi. “I think my refusal has made both the course director and School of GeoSciences more aware that they need to offer less carbon-intensive options for students.”
Did Abi feel that she had missed out by not going to Morocco? Not really. “The results of my survey were fascinating and were worth course credits, so it was great. And it turned out that in Morocco, the drone work that my class were supposed to be doing was not permitted! So they missed out on that experience and learning.”
There’s no denying that the Atlas Mountains are a fascinating destination. During the field trip, students studied water quality, biodiversity, local agriculture, sustainable tourism, soils and land use, and air quality monitoring. But all of this could be done in the UK.
“Universities need to stop relying on exotic trips and highlight whatever else they believe they do well to gain students. For example, the Geography courses at St Andrews, where I was an undergraduate, do not rely on multiple trips abroad to attract students, yet they are marked the best for student experience for Geography in the UK and are always getting enough applicants.
“For many field trips, UK alternatives may provide better opportunities. It’s important to be aware of the merits of your own country and what you can explore and learn here.”
Rethinking field trips
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Sought after by students, highly regarded by academics and promoted by universities, field trips and field work are lauded as good practice in higher education. But there is a flip side – unequal opportunity, unsustainable environment costs and colonial legacies. Branwen Spector takes a closer look
Fieldwork and field trips are often thought of as integral and exciting parts of academic training – a luxury afforded to us in exchange for the hours of reading, writing, exams or admin. However, while academics have begun to interrogate the necessity of travel for conferences and meetings, the issue of field trips and fieldwork must too be placed under the same scrutiny. I spoke to a range of scholars and students about the idea that fieldwork and field trips may be a superfluous practice in relation to their environmental and social cost. These trips are increasingly incorporated into both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes of study, and fieldwork continues to be expected of numerous scholars, yet the environmental cost and the potential of being seen, at best, as a superficial means of interpreting a foreign culture or place; and at worst, as a form of poverty tourism render them controversial in the face of the current global struggles to decolonise universities and fight climate change – movements very much taking place within the academic sphere.
Importance of field trips and fieldwork
While fieldwork tends to be longer-term research projects carried out by students or researchers, field trips are short excursions and study trips for students. In recent years, universities have begun integrating field trips into their undergraduate and Master’s programmes and courses at a curricular level with it becoming compulsory on a number of programmes. Several development, anthropology, geography, sociology, international relations and management departments t require students to undertake overseas field trips and expeditions as a compulsory part of their programmes and courses.
These trips are also used as a recruitment tool to attract students to universities. In geography programmes in the UK, where field trips are a requirement, Thomas Smith, a geographer at the LSE, notes that there is an “arms race in geography departments to provide the most ‘exotic destinations’ for field trips,” with students shopping around for the best option. The LSE Masters in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies programme has an optional trip to Geneva for all its participants to meet with staff from UNHCR; Queen Mary’s Geography Department offers a 10-day trip to Las Vegas and Los Angeles for second- and third-year undergraduates; the Urban and Regional Planning programme of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane offers trips to Malaysia, Korea, and Turkey; and the Nanyang Technical University of Singapore’s Asian School of the Environment offers trips to Bali, Sri Lanka and California. A student on the Masters in Management programme at the LSE explained how he and his cohort expected an international field trip in exchange for the high and increasing cost of a Master’s programme in the UK, and the destinations offered informed their choice of programme.
Fieldwork, however, is a sensitive issue: it is something on which academics come to market themselves, especially within disciplines based on long-term fieldwork such as anthropology or development. In these fields, researchers face immense pressure to go to increasingly ‘distant’ and ‘exotic’ locales, and conversations around the environmental impact and necessity of these trips are rare. But at a higher level, when fieldwork trips occur for shorter time periods due to personal constraints, how can we justify these trips?
Like many other professions, academics are beginning to wake up to the cost of their work-related travel and to think about alternatives. While some students are attracted to the promise and opportunity of subsidised international travel, there is also a new generation of climate-conscious students who question the necessity of these trips. Exeter University’s Geography Department, for example, offers its students a choice between local or international field trips, with intentions to eventually phase out all long-haul trips.
However, the alternatives to long-haul travel are more complex than they seem. Some staff pointed out that the prohibitive costs of accommodation for students in the UK make international trips cheaper. Others argue that for those students studying development-related fields, they need to be in developing countries to fully understand the issues they study. David Elliot, a geographer at Leeds devised an equation that measured carbon emissions versus the learning outcomes of a trip to determine their worth and how to offset their emissions, but this equation assumes that the learning outcomes for each student are the same, as Thomas Smith pointed out.
Smith argued that students with the lowest carbon footprint are likely to gain the greatest benefit from university-subsidised travel, as they are likely to come from lower-income backgrounds and have travelled less in their lives. University-subsidised travel, he says, provides them with new experiences of travel that they would otherwise be unable to afford, and thus makes field trips an important issue of inclusion in higher education.