Internationalisation should be ethical and for all

The selection of Donald Trump as Republican candidate for the presidency in the United States and the Brexit result in the European Union referendum have highlighted a trend already developing in other countries over the past years: the dramatic strengthening of populist parties in Austria, Hungary, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece and elsewhere.

Analysts and the media write about divisions in the population, between highly skilled and low skilled, young and old, urban and rural, and between ‘global’ and ‘local’.

In the first category, people see themselves as citizens of the world, strongly committed to global and regional cooperation, diversity, the environment and other Sustainable Development Goals. In contrast, the other group appears narrow-minded and fiercely opposed to immigration, free trade and Europe.

One can question if the divide is as clear as the media suggest. After all, many older US citizens do not support Donald Trump and many highly skilled British people have voted for Brexit. This divide is not real and, if presented as such, it is dangerous and irresponsible.

The higher education division

In higher education, there also seems to be a trend towards a division between world-class universities – with global research, students and scholars; competing and collaborating across the world; located in vibrant cosmopolitan urban environments; and benefiting from ample (inter)national and private resources – and others struggling with shrinking budgets, less-skilled students and scholars and located in rural areas.

Internationalisation is seen as a privileged activity for the first group, leading to increased quality and opportunities. Its students and scholars have access to international grants and scholarships, travel around the world and become professionals with great global career perspectives: its graduates are seen as future leaders of the world.

For the other group, internationalisation represents an unrealistic aspiration to climb higher in the rankings, to find scarce sources for grants and scholarships and to stay in touch with the rest of the world.

Such institutions invest in agents, pathway programmes and recruitment of international students and scholars and they shift to teaching in the language of the cosmopolitan elite, English (instead of keeping to the mother language their staff and students are fluent in), all in a desperate attempt to become part of the world-class, well-ranked elite.

These universities see their numbers of local students shrinking and pay high bonuses to agents and other commercial providers to bring in rich Chinese, Indians and Koreans, ignoring the increasing number of cases of incompetence, fraud and corruption that go with that trade.

Even public universities and high schools – the new international market – are falling for this temptation as a result of shrinking public funding and numbers of local students.

The dangers of recruitment agents

This development is not new and nor are warnings about its risks and dangers.

But as shown in my recent contribution to ‘The World View’ for Inside Higher Education, in studies by NAFSA on the use of commercial agents and pathway programmes, and in recent coverage in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Inside Higher Education and other US media about fraud and corruption in international student recruitment, it is clear that these developments – and the dangers that go with them – are accelerating.

In June 2016, NAFSA published a Bridge/StudentMarketing survey indicating that 37% of US institutions are now using recruitment agents, a significant increase compared to findings in previous studies that showed the use of agents in the 20% to 30% range.

These are remarkable, if not shocking, figures. Interestingly, while the use of agents is rapidly increasing, more than 70% of institutions in the survey expressed concern about possible fraud when working with commission-based intermediaries.

The top three reasons identified in the survey for not using agents are: a lack of trust in agents; the reputational risk posed by working with third-party agents; and financial reasons. Lack of accountability, integrity and transparency are all seen as major concerns.

The trend towards reliance on intermediaries is also evident in another NAFSA report, The Landscape of Pathway Partnerships in the United States. More than half (56%) of the 45 universities analysed in this report are not ranked by The US News & World Report.

Ironically, the survey indicates that 12% of the institutions that do not work directly with agents are working with third-party, English-as-a-second-language and other pathway providers, who in turn contract agents to recruit students on their behalf.

This implies that there is a direct relation between the increase in pathway programmes and the use of agents by universities, particularly those that are not highly ranked – in other words, those that are most likely to be challenged by increased demographic and economic pressures resulting from dwindling local markets, and to make up for shortfalls by pursuing international enrolment.

The New York Times recently illustrated the risks of using commercial agents and pathway programmes by highlighting the case of Western Kentucky University, which has used an agency in India to recruit students there, clearly without adequate quality control.

As a result, 25 out of 60 graduate students recruited through that channel had to be sent home as they did not meet the programme requirements.

Another example of how easily agents exploit the current situation for financial gain was demonstrated when the US Department of Homeland Security announced recently that it had created a fake university in 2013 to tackle visa fraud and uncover a network of individuals using supposed university enrolment as a means for the 'students' to live and work in the US.

As a result of the sting, 21 people – recruiters and consultants – were arrested, with 1,076 international students involved.

Corruption risk

What do these reports and incidents tell us?

The competition for international students is becoming more intense, more commercial and more frequently outsourced, with an increased risk of corruption.

Universities and students are both actors and victims of this development, in particular institutions that are not highly ranked, and less competitive and sophisticated international students.

What is the solution?

It would be in the interests of governments, universities and students if the participation of commercial recruiters, for-profit pathway providers and other intermediate businesses was stopped.

This is not likely to happen.

An increasing number of commercial enterprises, international students and universities at the lower end of the higher education hierarchy are using loopholes and the current lack of oversight of those engaging in varying degrees of fraud is contributing to a mismatch between students and institutions and – ultimately – to decreased quality of education at the institutions involved.

Internationalisation for all

These examples from the United States are not unique. Ethics in higher education is under threat everywhere in the competitive, global university environment.

The division between world-class universities listed at the top of national and international rankings and others is not narrowing but increasing. As a result, institutions in the second group go down desperate, expensive commercial paths to try to turn their circumstances around.

In response to this development, some call for an ethical internationalisation. Others have been calling for internationalisation for all.

Focusing attention on an ‘elitist’ internationalisation, affordable only for a small group of global universities and privileged students and scholars, is dangerous because it contributes to increasing the gap between them and more disadvantaged institutions.

The current political and economic climate needs measures which enhance mutual understanding and cooperation, not further divisions. More than ever, internationalisation needs to be for all, and for local institutions and their students and staff – and it must be ethical.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email:

NOTE: University World News is running a month of articles on ethical leadership in our Transformative Leadership series in September.