Skift Take

An unexpected push from the education sector will be welcome news as the Omicron variant continues to dent travel confidence.

Universities are rushing to reboot their travel programs this year following lengthy campus closures and canceled field trips.

Like airline loyalty point schemes, education bodies face a “use-it-or-lose-it” scenario because academics need to take field trips or risk losing funding, experts have warned.

“There is significant pressure to conclude research within grant periods, where the work is travel dependent and cannot be completed remotely,” said Saad Hammad, CEO of Key Travel. “This is driving flight demand even at risk of flight shaming.”

Fortunately, some universities are taking the lead by restarting their travel programs and inspiring others to follow suit, according to Diversity Travel. The UK’s De Montfort University, for example, launched a wide range of international experiences for students this week which will take place between April and August this year. Successful applicants will travel to the U.S., South Korea and Guatemala, among other destinations.

Diversity Travel specializes in humanitarian aid organizations, but bolstered its education division last year following the collapse of student specialist STA Travel. It has launched a new division called Diversity Study Trips and has taken on 15 staff who were previously with STA.

“The academics we’re engaging with now are quite excited that we’ve not gone backwards in terms of travel,” said Sam Whittle, commercial director and president of the agency’s U.S. division. “From next week we expect it to come back quite strongly. You’ve got academics traveling for their research, and a lot of their funding is dependent on the work they do.”

She said one new university client that it was in the process of onboarding asked Diversity to push ahead booking its study trips before waiting for the implementation to be complete. “People have got those trips building up and they’re a lengthy and complicated process,” Whittle added.

Enrollment Concerns

The lack of travel has also hit morale, and universities are wary that dissatisfied students could impact their future.

“An element of the course is often a year abroad or a required trip as part of their learning,” Whittle continued. “Universities are keen to not only use the funding they receive for certain projects, but also to make sure their students have as full a course as they possibly can. A few universities are pushing forward with that, and others are taking their lead from that, especially when you think about admissions in the future. When there’s a full course, it will attract those students to it.”

International students supported 415,996 jobs in the 2019-20 academic year and generated $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy overall alone, according to international education advocacy group NAFSA.

For Australia, a popular destination for international students, the education sector contributed $27.12 billion to the economy in the financial year before the pandemic, falling to $19.26 billion in 2020-21. It sees rebuilding international education as a critical part of its economic recovery, according to reports, and despite its travel restrictions has pledged to keep borders open to students.

However, the return of student travel won’t be equal. One country, China, is keeping restrictions in place, resulting in an online campaign, dubbed  #TakeUsBacktoChina, to advance the reopening its borders.

“My studies have been suspended since March 2020. The hardest part is dealing with the fact that I’ve lost nearly three years of my life because I made the decision to study at SUSTech in mainland China while all of my classmates and peers from back home are progressing with their lives,” one student told Study International.

While Key Travel’s Hammad said nearly every one of its university clients had implemented plans to reopen this year, the return to travel will face new challenges.

“Universities are very sensitive to traveler wellbeing and travel risk, both from a physical point of view, for example with Covid risks, and also from an emotional perspective, including mental stress arising from traveling when we are still living through a pandemic,” he said. “There is keen interest in adding mental health and emotional support to complement physical safety in traveler programs.”

Universities were increasingly sensitive about carbon reduction, and either exploring or launching carbon offsetting plans for necessary travel, Saad added.

Free Daily Newsletter

Sign up for the most popular Skift daily download of news, happening, and headlines in the travel world

Tags: coronavirus, covid-19, education

Photo credit: Students in a class at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland. Dom Fou / Unsplash