Ethics & economics in international education: it's all about the money

Ethics & economics in international education: it's all about the money

The EAIE recently celebrated its 25 years of existence by hosting an event with key figures who have played a direct role in the Association and its core mission over the years. During the event, the ethics and economics of international higher education and their inherent tensions were discussed at length. These are issues which have a significant impact on the future of international higher education enabling us to continue innovating, learning and thriving in the constantly evolving field.

Led by speakers from organisations including the International Association of Universities, NAFSA, The World Bank and OECD, and moderated by Times Higher Education’s Editor at large, Phil Baty, there was much to discuss during the day’s seminars. Here’s a round-up of some of the key points.

The imperfect proxy

Higher education is the best proven mechanism for social mobility of individuals and for societies to experience economic growth and high competitiveness. The value of higher education and international experience is likely to remain or even increase over the next years. We will, however, experience heightened differences in quality of education and consequently concerns over the value of the money spent on education both by individuals and the public. This raises disquiet over the lack of transparency in the global higher education system and the knowledge available for prospective students and governments alike on the value of the education offered at the the myriad of institutions in different countries. Much of the economic discussion at the event focused on the need for the higher education community – with the institutions themselves at the forefront – to develop more transparent tools for measuring the quality of education as well as creating more diverse models of excellence. Today the only broadly available proxies are university rankings which focus on limited aspects of education and a narrow group of research universities and which are often criticised for their lack of transparency.

Without these tools to effectively measure quality, the increasingly market oriented global higher education system will function imperfectly and risks creating an education bubble. The event participants called for the higher education community to recognise this need and collaborate with other stakeholders to combine institutional autonomy with different proxies for the quality of education. It was also recognised that these proxies need to be easily accessible and understandable for students and other stakeholders to be able to utilise them in making more informed decisions.

Leadership and transparency

Rankings were accused of creating mission drift for many higher education institutions where global image takes priority over local needs. Economic reasons at large were seen to dominate international higher education in its different activities such as student recruitment and international partnerships. To allow for ethics to play a greater role in international education – or education at large – true leadership is required. It was recognised that codes of conduct such as the EAIE International Student Mobility Charter are important yet meaningless unless they are implemented and breaches of them sanctioned: something which the education community was blamed at failing to do due to the increased political and economic importance of education.

To allow for ethical values to have a greater role, all parties need to have an awareness of their own values and cultural biases as well as a willingness to create a common space to discuss values and seek to accommodate differences. Yet it was seen as equally important to develop ethical deal breakers in international cooperation – you can’t agree on anything for the sake of financial benefits. For ethics to play a true role, education institutions need to actively seek to do good rather than simply avoid doing harm. In the light of these economic and ethical developments, true leadership and transparency were called for to complement the purely economic rationales.

EAIE Anniversary Event, Amsterdam, April 2014