International students: humans without rights?

International students: humans without rights?

”International students don’t dare to speak up when they are discriminated against. They choose to remain silent out of fear!” This was how Cameroonian student, Kopgang Paulidor summed up his survey of discrimination against international students in South Africa when speaking at an EAIE Conference session earlier this year. Discrimination is just one issue brought about by international education. This week we will be posting a series of blog posts exploring the topic ‘Ethics in international education’.

During the conference session on student rights, Kopgan Paulidor spoke about how the International Student Mobility Charter, developed by the EAIE and other leading international higher education associations, can help students from developing countries who are at a higher risk of discrimination. Kopgang revealed insights to a number of pitfalls, loopholes and troubles that students should be aware of before leaving for studies abroad, not only in South Africa, but all around the world.


Discrimination is no stranger to South Africa, but the country has made progress of global significance since 1994 when political democracy was introduced and the appalling racist laws of a suppressive apartheid system were abolished. Colour is, depressingly, still an issue among students in South Africa, but no longer along the black and white divide of the days of apartheid. Now, students from Western Africa run the risk of stigma because they are considered ‘too black’. Prejudices persist as Nigerian students are too often associated with trafficking of illegal drugs. Research by American researcher Jenny J. Lee of the University of Arizona shows that this neo-racism occurs towards students from developing countries more frequently than towards students from English speaking countries. Globally, it’s a depressing fact that the ghost of racism won’t lie down.

Housing: international students are an easy prey

International students often have little or no knowledge of the housing markets in the cities and towns where they choose to study. This makes them easy prey for cynical landlords, a well-known fact all around the world, affecting domestic students as well as international students. The difference is that a growing number of international students are left unprotected and with little or no support when travelling to a new country. Hence, they often remain silent about their difficulties as they do not feel able to or interested in protesting or taking action that can remedy unfair treatment or outright discrimination. Instead, they choose to focus all their energy on their education.

Agents: recruit and abandon?

International agents make a thriving business by recruiting students to universities abroad in ways that have facilitated international education and presented students with a range of opportunities they otherwise would have been without. International recruiting efforts have proved themselves highly efficient, not least by bringing fresh revenue to the tight budgets of institutions in a financially challenging situation. This is, however, where international students may face a grave situation, caused by less serious agents and less serious institutions that offer little or no support upon their arrival to their new university or through the initial and critical stages of the student career. It is as if international students are identified and treated primarily as a source of revenue for shrunken coffers.

A global challenge

The issues put forward by Kopgang and the other speakers at the conference session –former EAIE President Tim Birtwistle and Leolyn Jackson of the University of Western Cape – are all familiar to international officers, teachers and leaders in the international education arena. However, their message was that discrimination, on grounds of race, religion and culture, gender, and their associated grave consequences posing threats to the safety, dignity and security of international students, is not limited to ‘some countries’ but may be happening worldwide. This should be recognised as global challenge, and an issue that needs to be addressed by the internationalisation community in its entirety. The values stated in the International Student Mobility Charter should be respected and used to create greater awareness of the serious situation facing international students all over the world.

Bjørn Einar Aas, University of Bergen, Norway

The winter issue of EAIE Forum magazine explores a range of ethical issues in the internationalisation of higher education in greater detail, including neo-racism against international student and the use of agents for international recruitment. EAIE members can download their copy from the EAIE Member Centre. Hard copies will be arriving on your doorsteps in the coming weeks. Non-EAIE members can sign up now for 2015 membership and receive access to all past copies of Forum magazine online, as well as all other publications.