The drive for universities to internationalise is often not based on morality or ethics, but on good economic sense. The financial contribution made to universities – and the host country – by international students is immense. However, at many, if not all, higher education institutions, the focus is on growing international recruitment at the lowest possible cost. This is understandable and sensible on many levels: in a world dominated by market economics, those not efficient and profitable simply cease to exist. But is it socially responsible?
Focusing solely on the recruitment of international students at least cost is narrow-minded. On an individual level, this sits uneasily with many of us – particularly when we reflect on the discourse that institutions use around recruitment. How often have you not heard the words ‘least cost’ and ‘using’, rather than ‘supporting’ or ‘working with’ in the area of recruitment? In the end, how our sector behaves in certain countries leads to a situation where the relationship between international students and universities appears one-sided, selfish, uncaring and narrow. Students are reduced to a commodity that is bought and sold – at least cost. And that is rather unedifying.
As international educators, or proponents of education, we exist to help empower and improve the lives of those we seek to educate. In so doing, and through fact rather than ill-founded beliefs, we can have a profound impact on tackling ignorance and intolerance. The work we do helps to build bridges between individuals and nations – and we should be proud of that!
Yet many international students feel poorly treated, particularly in the context of the United Kingdom, where post-study work visa restrictions have created a situation of ‘pay-study-leave’. This makes many in the sector feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. It makes some of us want to change what we do, how we think, and how we truly engage with international students. As a sector, we need to think more carefully about how we interact with the communities we recruit from, and how we ensure to give back in ways that transcend the awarding of a qualification. In today’s world, that is simply not enough.
International students make a significant contribution to the universities and countries in which they study and they deserve better. Their very presence enlightens and brightens our worlds. They make teaching a pleasure. Their passion and drive make up for the lack of enthusiasm exhibited by home students who at times appear to take their place at university for granted. Moreover, if you really want to get ‘economic’ about it, international students help to make several specialist courses – and even universities – financially viable.
As universities become more internationally focused, they have to manage interactions with a greater range of stakeholders – and international students are subjected to negative experiences primarily due to poor stakeholder interaction. Institutions are often unable to alter how they think in light of government policy changes. In the UK – and some institutions more so than others – we seem to be getting our stakeholder engagement badly wrong and failing to respond to the new world in which we live.
Universities are no longer simply educational institutions; they have become large corporations. This transformation, set against a backdrop of shifting government policies, student expectations, and the growing costs of study, requires us to change how we think. We need to adopt new frameworks and learn far more from our colleagues overseas. We need to think carefully about how we view expenditure and what we perceive to be of value. We need to engage far more in the global communities from which we recruit – and not just think about our impact on the local community. We need to move beyond outdated ideas of ‘town’ versus ‘gown’.
It’s imperative that we value and support student mobility much more than we do. This holds the key to improving how universities interact with the global communities in which they seek to operate. Student mobility not only makes our students more globally aware, it makes them far more willing to connect with international students upon return. Yet, in all too many UK institutions, student mobility is poorly invested in – both by institutions themselves and government. The UK is beginning to lag behind countries like Australia, which are not only investing significantly in their universities but also value enhanced levels of mobility and see it as a central part of their education strategies.
A new framework
But how can we change what we do in the sector? How can we view and respond to the needs of key stakeholders – namely, international students – better? How can we highlight the benefits of what other countries and universities are doing in the area of student mobility more effectively? This is where Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) comes in, reminding universities of their mission and changing how costs and benefits are viewed. To learn more about this framework and dig deeper into this important issue, be sure to join our Marketing and Recruitment Feature session, Corporate social responsibility, a framework for better international engagement, at EAIE Liverpool 2016.
James is Associate Dean International at School of Life and Medical Sciences at University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom and Linda is Manager of Mobility at James Cook University, Australia.