To celebrate Professor Rajani Naidoo’s appearance at the Going Global 2023 conference, throughout November we’re spotlighting the International Centre for Higher Education Management (ICHEM).

Here, DBA in Higher Education Management alumni Professor Nigel Healey, Dr Fiona Hunter and Dr Vicky Lewis grapple with the ethics of university internationalisation from their different perspectives as academics and consultants.

Universities are among the oldest institutions, organised religions apart, on the planet. In Europe, the University of Bologna dates back to 1088, pipping Oxford for the title of Europe’s oldest university by almost a decade. And for most of the millennium since 1088, universities have been international, with scholars and students moving across national borders in the pursuit of new knowledge. Many of the world’s most important scientific advances have been built upon the unfettered global exchange of ideas and talent.

However, as higher education has evolved from the preserve of an intellectually curious elite to a fast track into the global knowledge economy for the masses, the international mission of universities has, in many countries, become increasingly commercial. In the process, international engagement – often unconsciously – has become more and more unethical.

Some of this drift has been common to society at large. As the world embraced affordable air travel, communications technologies and the spread of English as a common second language, cross-border flows of students across the world accelerated – mirroring the global movement of goods, services, labour and investment. Without realising the growing carbon footprint of their activities, UK universities welcomed huge numbers of foreign students onto their campuses, basking in the global prestige and buoyant revenues that followed.

But, like multinationals, there was a less palatable side to this. The students targeted in developing ‘source markets’ were the children of wealthy elites, rather than those destined to make a contribution to their countries after graduation. Host governments colluded in the competition for international enrolments, offering generous post-study visa regimes that encouraged brain drain.

As the world comes to terms with the need to address the climate crisis and remake the global order to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals, UK universities are being forced to face up to the fact that their business model – namely strip mining the world to recruit foreign students to cross-subsidise their domestic operations and fund the research excellence that underpins rankings – may be seen by future generations as environmentally irresponsible and an unacceptable form of neo-colonialism.


Proceeding with purpose

The dominance of the economic rationale for internationalisation has often meant that these activities are detached from wider aspects of institutional life. Viewing them solely as an income-generating exercise isolates them from the development and implementation of institutional policies on ethical conduct. It also places them at the mercy of economic and geopolitical fluctuations that could lead to a sudden decline just as easily as favourable economic and political circumstances have led, until now, to unprecedented growth. To strengthen the case for internationalisation – and ensure that the case made is an ethical one – it is fundamental to embed it in institutional purpose.

This requires universities to formulate approaches explicitly linked to their vision and mission statements, so that internationalisation is not seen only as a benefit for the institution, but also for wider society both locally and globally.

Using this approach, internationalisation contributes to academic quality and to the life of all those who study and work at the university. It is directly linked to academic objectives, to the curriculum, learning and teaching, research and external engagement, rather than solely to quantitative indicators for recruitment and revenue.

Once internationalisation is integrated into both strategic planning and operational delivery of academic objectives across the entire institution, it becomes embedded in all activities. This moves it away from a distinct, additional and often isolated activity, where a gap between rhetoric and reality can emerge, towards one where it is an integral and normal part of university life, playing its part to support a meaningful contribution to society.


Openness to change

So, what would an ethical international strategy look like?

First, it’s not just about content. It’s also about the process used to produce the strategy. Confident universities encourage open debates about the ethics of internationalisation. They reach out to stakeholders with culturally diverse perspectives who challenge their assumptions. Getting the knotty dilemmas out on the table shows there is serious intent to address them.

While all universities have codes for research ethics, fewer have ethical principles for international engagement. Where they do, the driver may be more about safeguarding reputation than ‘making the world a better place’ (despite this being at the heart of many a mission statement). Actively ethical universities consider what it means – at organisational level – to be a good global citizen.

They align their international strategy with other ethically driven agendas: environmental sustainability; decolonisation; equality, diversity and inclusion; contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There may be tensions, but also opportunities for mutual reinforcement – whether at the level of the curriculum, research, knowledge exchange or organisational behaviour.

A central plank of most UK university strategies (and, indeed, institutional finances) is recruitment of international students. An ethical approach recognises the importance of widening international access and participation. If education is about transformational outcomes, a crucial dimension of this is addressing global inequality of opportunity.

Questions should be asked about the way a university operates overseas. Does it perpetuate colonialist (and carbon-heavy) approaches, with UK-based staff swooping into a country to ‘do business’, then returning to UK HQ to direct operations from afar? Are international partnerships equitable, recognising the value of reciprocal learning and fairly distributing responsibilities, funding and costs?

Most universities would benefit from an ethical overhaul to scrutinise how well their international strategies, activities and success measures align with their rhetoric on institutional purpose. This involves leaders asking themselves and their wider community some challenging questions – and being willing to act on the responses.

Posted in: Education, Environment, Equality, Higher Education, ICHEM, Immigration, Leadership, Students, Sustainability

Find out more about ICHEM


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response