Fly or die: air travel and the internationalisation of academic careers

Yolande Strengers (@yolandestreng)
Senior Lecturer, RMIT University and recent Visiting Fellow at the DEMAND centre in Lancaster.

Business air travel is on the rise globally, especially in knowledge organisations such as universities (Lassen 2006; Lassen et al. 2006). Academics who study energy consumption, climate change and sustainability find themselves in an especially awkward position. Their job is to develop ideas about how to reduce and address a growing list of environmental and energy problems, but to take these ideas to audiences around the world they ‘need’ to travel.

My short-term position as a Visiting Researcher from Australia in the DEMAND Centre (UK) is a case in point. In responding to a call for international visitors I found myself on a 25+ hour plane trip from one side of the planet to the other. The intention? To work with DEMAND researchers and contribute to the Centre’s ambition of developing new ways to think about reducing energy demand, including that associated with travel.

For academics, it’s easy to justify travelling around the world on a regular basis, particularly if you live in Australia or much of Asia, and especially if you subscribe to the widely held view that cutting edge intellectual activity is always going on somewhere else. In Australia one practical consequence of a pervasive sense of intellectual isolation is a continual ‘need’ to visit Europe and America to advance careers and get ‘on the map’. We know full well the environmental damage of our flying, but for the time being this remains an uncomfortable fact of successful academic life.

Few potential ‘solutions’ really work. ICTs and telecommunications are not the answer to this problem: in many ways they have served to proliferate and enable new forms of meeting and collaboration that depend on flying. Neither do more efficient aeroplanes provide the answer. Instead, they have done a fantastic job of making flying faster, cheaper and more convenient. Carbon offsets are similarly dubious. Kevin Anderson from the UK’s Tyndall Institute recently declared that carbon offsets are ‘without scientific legitimacy, … dangerously misleading, and almost certainly contribute to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth’ (

Some might suggest that the answer lies in changing individual behaviour. However, nothing reveals the inadequacy of ‘behaviour change’ as a response more clearly than flying. Knowing all I know, I still get on a plane, although perhaps not as regularly as I think I should. Why? Not because I am a disinterested environmental citizen or because I have a secret passion for flying, but because my career seemingly depends on me doing so.

My experience underlines the point that what is at stake is not flying itself, but what it enables: the interacting, collaborating, promoting and collegial ‘work’ that I am able to do when meeting face-to-face with others. Flying enables these practices and possibilities (Strengers, 2014). Although other modes of transport, such as ships and trains, could feasibly replace flying, in many instances the time involved in travelling by anything other than air (especially for Australians and Asians visiting the Global North) renders these modes impractical amidst other personal and career-related commitments.

It is tempting to blame flyers and call for greater individual discretion and restraint. But responsibility and change does not (soley) rest with individual flyers; it lies with the expectations reproduced and normalised through flying, some of which are institutionalised through the academic system itself (Ackers 2008).

There is now a global ambition for universities to become more global — something Storme et al. (2013) refer to as ‘the institutionalized internationalization fury’. In the academic world, the value of having international links and connections is not new (monastic scholars travelled widely) and there may be a real if somewhat intangible benefit in the wide circulation and cross-fertilisation of ideas. However, as it becomes easier to realise this ambition (via air travel) so the significance of establishing and maintaining an international reputation increases.

In many institutions, including my own, having ‘international networks’ or collaborating internationally are highly prized scholarly attributes. Promotions are awarded, contracts are signed, prizes are won, and grant money is distributed as a direct result of evidence that someone has wide ranging international connections.

A disproportionate number of awards and funds are allocated to Early Career Researchers (ECRs) for the purpose of building such a network – the implication being that for research to ‘count’ and advance, it must be taken to an international audience and acknowledged internationally. The importance of building such a reputation is underlined during the PhD – an academic’s research training. Students are encouraged to attend international conferences as a means of making contacts, exchanging ideas and encountering new ways of thinking – and there are grants to enable them to do so. This continues throughout an academic’s career: an invitation to give an international keynote address constitutes ‘evidence’ that your work matters, leading some to conclude that the further you travel to present your work the further your impact has reached. Such unspoken assumptions reproduce the need to be global in ways that have become important both to the continuity of employment and to academics’ ability to ‘do work’. The choice — if such it is — appears simple: fly or your career will wither and die.

For these reasons, it doesn’t seem particularly helpful, or healthy, to think about flying as another site of personal responsibility. While the opportunities and connections that come from flying can be intellectually and personally satisfying, frequent travelling often has significant personal costs that are discounted, ignored or simply not discussed for fear of seeming unprofessional or less than fully committed. University health and safety audits focus on the placement of smoke alarms, provision of first aid, and the use of potentially dangerous objects; but ignore the toll on physical and mental health that comes through the academy’s increasing internationalisation. For many academics, flying and the physical and geographical distances it creates between our families and loved ones is a source of ongoing tension, stress and anxiety.

There are significant unaccounted ethical concerns here too, such as the career disadvantages experienced potentially by those who are not as mobile as others, including women with children, families, the unwell or disabled (Jöns 2011). Somewhat paradoxically, the academy promotes ‘equal opportunity’ whilst simultaneously advancing careers and awarding grants on the basis of academics’ ability to participate in highly unequal forms of mobility.

Equally, academics are collectively implicated in reproducing a system that calls for travel. Through continually flying they continue to normalise this activity, and it is possible that if they were to fly less, or not at all, the system would change.  But in many ways the answer does not depend on flying as such: rather, the underlying challenge is to generate and reproduce new forms of value and collaboration in the global academy. This might involve changing the ways in which grant and promotion applications are assessed, thinking again about how colleagues’ contributions to their disciplines are evaluated and judged, and working out what a ‘local’ university might look like. This would involve challenging the production of value in academic institutions — what should be valued and what is valuable — and in the process, questioning the institutionalised significance of ‘international reputations’ that are built on and revealed through frequent long distance travel.

Thanks to colleagues from the DEMAND Centre (Lancaster University, UK) and the Centre for Urban Research (RMIT University, Australia) for inspiring conversations on this topic.

Comment from Elizabeth Shove, Co-Director of DEMAND

The DEMAND centre (Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand) is one of six end use energy demand research centres (see for details of all six centres). DEMAND is distinctive in that it asks basic questions like those raised above: it focuses on what energy and mobility is for and on the changing social and institutional arrangements of which energy demand is a part. Given these aims, it is perhaps ironic that DEMAND has a programme of international visiting fellowships.  From the Centre’s point of view, these are hugely important in bringing people into the centre for short visits, and in making links with individuals and other research groups outside the UK.  DEMAND’s research agenda is definitely not confined to one country, the fellowships provide a means of establishing relevant connections and of learning from others’ experiences. They also ensure that we are confronted and challenged in ways that would not otherwise occur. There is no doubt that we will refer to the number of international visitors we have had in our annual reports, and in our accounts of the Centre’s value and impact. The Centre is part of the same academic system that Yolande describes and this document is one small outcome of that system.  So should we have international visiting fellows?  I’d say ‘yes’.  Should we think about what they bring to the centre, should we wonder about how many we support and how long they stay? Definitely ‘yes’. Should we continue to develop forms of international collaboration that do not depend on frequent flying: again the answer is ‘yes’. Should DEMAND initiate some discussion about this topic — and should it prompt people to think about how and why academic life and flying have become entwined.  For sure: this is our core business.  So thanks, Yolande, for initiating this discussion.


P.S. We are already looking forward to your next visit.


Ackers, L 2008, ‘Internationalisation, Mobility and Metrics: A New Form of Indirect Discrimination?’, Minerva, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 411-35.

Jöns, H 2011, ‘Transnational academic mobility and gender’, Globalisation, Societies and Education, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 183-209.

Lassen, C 2006, ‘Aeromobility and work’, Environment and Planning A, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 301-12.

Lassen, C, Laugen, BT & Næss, P 2006, ‘Virtual mobility and organizational reality – a note on the mobility needs in knowledge organisations’, Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, vol. 11, no. 6, pp. 459-63.

Storme, T, Beaverstock, JV, Derrudder, B, Faulconbridge, JR & Witlox, F 2013, ‘How to cope with mobility expectations in academia: Individual travel strategies of tenured academics at Ghent University, Flanders’, Research in Transportation Business & Management, vol. 9, pp. 12-20.

Strengers, Y 2014, ‘Meeting in the Global Workplace: Air Travel, Telepresence and the Body’, Mobilities.

Kris de Decker, DEMAND visitor February 2016, talks about (not) flying to Hong Kong

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