Humanising international higher education

Exploitation of international students – in particular those students who struggle to raise funds through family and other loans to enable them to enrol in international study programmes – begins with their recruitment into higher education institutions by charging them a higher tuition fee rate than domestic students.

Institutions rarely differentiate between international students who can afford the high cost of international education and those who cannot afford international education, although they too aspire for the same opportunities.

Institutions continue to divide up the international student dollars into salaries for academic and non-academic employees (including senior leadership teams) and research and development programmes and infrastructure for which federal and provincial ministries of education plead poverty, claiming that they have few dollars to share with higher education institutions.

As noted by Alex Usher: “Fees for international students, which average about four times what domestic students pay, now equal 12% of operating revenue and 35% of all fees collected by institutions, and these proportions continue to climb.”

Higher education marketing and recruitment drives are aimed at the international student dollar. International students are worth only as much as the dollars they bring into the higher education institution.

There is relatively little known about international students who struggle through strife, hardship, prejudice, discrimination and against the odds to arrive on campus with the required sum of tuition funds. Further exploitation is experienced when they join the local workforce, and are underpaid and-or mistreated.

Even if we attempt to apply assimilation, melting pot and other theories, we create various levels of inequities. International student recruitment and media have long identified the international student ‘market’ as ‘cash cows’ – an abhorrent term which attempts to disguise the colonial arrogance towards international students who continue to be viewed as a commodity in the modern world.

The Boston Consulting Group matrix defines ‘cash cows’ as a business concept. A recent student petition for tuition refunds in the light of COVID-19 begged the question that if international student recruitment is a market (and a business), why is there no refund policy?

During the crisis, when international and domestic students gathered public support for tuition freezes and refunds, higher education institutional executive leadership declared poverty and cited the coronavirus pandemic as an unforeseen catastrophe which has diminished their otherwise brimming coffers.

Along with the operational costs covered by international student revenue, as noted by Alex Usher, it is international students who place bread and butter on the table of international higher education employees, pay their rent, buy their houses and cars and continue to pay their retirement pensions.

Pointing the finger

COVID-19 has brought confusion and panic to national leaders and international higher education executive leadership teams. Not only was there fear in executive teams that the money international students provide will dry up, but also, more broadly, there was a growth in stereotyping of and prejudice and discrimination against international students as fear gripped Western governments.

Disheartening reactions were noted from politicians and other leaders as they sought to apportion blame for the onset and spread of the pandemic on certain groups of people, demonising cultures, races, languages and ethnicities.

The questions that emerged were:

• How would ‘first world’ communities – such as the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Italy and the United Kingdom – have reacted if the first epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic was one of them?

• What is the benefit of decades of internationalisation of higher education, curriculum reviews and revitalisation and intercultural communication training and development programmes and workshops when this kind of attitude is so easy to exploit?

• Why is it that today those societies which demonstrate stereotypical, prejudicial and discriminatory behaviours about international student communities are those who embrace the international student dollar with open arms?

• Will COVID-19 fast forward the spread of online learning and is that not extraordinary and unmatched as an event over the last decades?

• Is COVID-19 the factor that will force ‘first world’ communities to rethink, reshape and reframe internationalisation into a glocalisation of learning framework in order to humanise and equalise international higher education?

• Is COVID-19 the death knell of exploitative internationalisation?

Humanising international higher education

What will humanising international higher education mean in a COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 world? Who will be the architects of the new international higher education paradigm and why?

These are the fundamental questions to begin the dialogue of who, how and what will shape the glocalisation of learning (the integration of local and global higher education in respectful mutual exchange of Western and indigenous knowledge) in international higher education in response to the exploitative internationalisation we have come to know.

COVID-19 will redirect international higher education toward the humanising paradigm of the glocalisation of learning which will have as a fundamental basis:

• A respect for humanity;

• Ethical frameworks that will deter institutions from exploitative models;

• A ‘glocal development for sustainable social change’ agenda; and

• A glocalisation of learning partnerships and frameworks from the developing community perspective so that compassion, kindness and empathy will form the basis for shared co-construction of knowledge in a post-COVID-19 world.

International student communities should lead this agenda as advocates for change so that:

• They are partners in an integrated international curriculum that focuses on ‘glocal development for sustainable social change’;

• They are respectfully recognised as co-constructors of glocal knowledge perspectives; and

• Local and global lived experience and indigenous knowledge forms are embedded to inform and challenge colonial perspectives.

In July 2019, I argued why I believed that “exploitative higher education internationalisation is dead”. By July 2020, COVID-19 had killed exploitative higher education internationalisation and placed the international student recruitment dream in quarantine, indefinitely.

In fact, COVID-19 has had a sobering effect on the international higher education fraternity, which is now admitting that overdependency on international student recruitment was a myopic and risky strategy.

In moving forward, glocalisation of learning encourages mutually respectful partnerships to build sustainable futures based on socially just and responsible principles.

Dr Fay Patel has 30 years of teaching, research and educational development experience in international higher education – in Australia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and South Africa. She is an international consultant on higher education: ‘glocalisation’ of learning; quality assurance; online learning design; higher education transformation; and sustainable social change among world communities. Her recent publications include: “Glocal development for sustainable social change” in the Handbook of Communication for Development and Social Change, Springer, Singapore; “Deconstructing internationalization: Advocating glocalization in international higher education” in the Journal of International and Global Studies, Volume 8 Number 2, April 2017; and Online Learning: An educational development perspective (2014).