Why ethical internationalisation is no longer a choice

My son’s Canadian orthodontist has a good sense of humour. Once he cracked a joke about his own profession: “My job is to straighten teeth for kids from rich families.”

Growing up in a remote rural area in northern China, my family could not afford orthodontic treatment for me and so I still have crowded teeth on my lower jaw. In this sense, orthodontic medicine is indeed an elitist profession, serving rich families and perpetuating social inequality by giving rich kids better looks and potentially better careers.

The orthodontist’s joke got me thinking about my own profession as an international educator.

Ethical dilemmas in international education

Over 15 years ago, I was teaching in the English department of a Chinese university. For two years, I was seconded to work part-time in the university’s international office.

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A big part of my job was to build international programmes to send Chinese undergraduate students to study in developed Western countries, such as the United States, England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, Germany and France.

There was virtually no financial support from the university, so students and their families had to pay their own way. For this reason, only a small number of Chinese students enrolled at the university could participate in study-abroad opportunities.

Nine years ago, I came to Canada to pursue a postdoc opportunity in a large Canadian public university. Upon completion of my postdoc, I stayed on to work as an administrator in the university’s international office. China is the number one source country of the university’s 15% international undergraduate students who pay about three times as much in tuition fees as domestic students.

I sometimes feel jealous of the Chinese undergraduate students who we are tasked to recruit, educate and support. My dad struggled to put me through my undergraduate study on an education programme in China which was heavily subsidised by the Chinese government.

After hearing the joke of my son’s orthodontist, I wondered whether my job as an international educator who has worked at both ends of the international education transaction wasn’t just about helping rich kids from elite-class families from the developing world to gain top-quality international education in the developed world and thus perpetuate their families’ social and economic advantages.

International students pay higher tuition fees for better quality education in the medium of a desirable language, mostly English, which is not available in their home countries. Isn’t that simply fair trade? There is nothing ethically wrong with this at the individual student level, is there?

However, by catering mostly to rich kids from rich families in the developing world, we surely have to admit that international education in developed countries serves to reinforce the economic inequality and social stratification in students’ home societies.

In addition, international education has been used both as an export industry and as a platform to attract the best quality immigrants to fill labour shortages in Western host countries. As a result, the international mobility of talent has been going mainly one way, from developing to developed countries.

By choosing to stay and work in Canada, have I contributed to China’s brain drain and Canada’s brain gain? The answer is most definitely yes, at least in a small way, and for this reason I will forever live with a sense of guilt. After all, I have received the best education in China.

And yet, everybody has the right to pursue better living conditions and better work opportunities. There isn’t anything ethically wrong at the individual level, is there?

At a larger structural level, however, we have to ask ourselves whether international education has narrowed or expanded the gap between the world’s haves and have nots.

Brain drain is perhaps the most serious ethical challenge for international education.

Only countries with good economic foundations and employment opportunities, such as China and India, can achieve some level of ‘brain circulation’ and thus benefit somewhat from international education.

Most source countries for international students do not benefit from their students’ outbound mobility as much as the Western destination countries.

A community of common destiny

What is the danger of an increased level of inequality worldwide? Though often ignored as a piece of Chinese Communist propaganda, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Community of Common Destiny” is a fairly good description of the globalised world we live in. A community of common destiny is based on the simple fact that when one place screws up in the world, no matter where it is, the whole world is affected.

Some countries might have emitted more CO2 in their history, and thus contributed more to global warming, but global warming affects us all and we should all work to solve the problem.

Economic crisis, political instability and armed conflicts may be issues for some small developing nations, but desperate people from these countries may show up on the shores of developed Western countries as refugees and thus make these issues a problem for the whole world.

Some individuals and even governments in the West may accuse China of starting the COVID-19 pandemic and bringing down the whole world with it, but no matter where the first outbreak took place, a world pandemic has global consequences, and it should be a wake-up call to address public health issues in every country as a global public health priority.

Finger pointing is no use when it comes to solving global problems. The ultimate question we need to ask ourselves is this: ‘What kind of world do we want to live in?’

I grew up in a small village in China and the concept of the village seems to have been used quite often as a metaphor to refer to the globalised world we live in today.

Suppose I am the wealthiest person in my village, and all the other people are very poor. I have two choices.

I can build high walls around my house and raise a few big dogs to guard the door so that I can enjoy my wealth inside and keep the poor people out. But I would always be on high alert, as I know there are always people trying to climb in and they may well succeed.

The other choice I have is to share my wealth and try to help all the villagers become better off. I won’t have as much wealth, but I won’t have to spend money building high walls and keeping fierce dogs, as no one would want to rob me. I would feel more relaxed and enjoy what I had.

I think really wise people would make the second choice, for themselves and for their children.

Internationalisation as an ethical practice

As an export industry for major English-speaking countries, international education has become part and parcel of economic globalisation. Economic globalisation tends to concentrate more wealth, knowledge and power in places that already have them.

The adverse effects of economic globalisation seem to have reached a critical tipping point today, as indicated by Brexit, Trumpism, global warming and the current global pandemic.

Higher education internationalisation is at least partially responsible for such consequences. The internationalisation strategies adopted in the Western centres have typically not aimed to reverse the trends of economic globalisation, but to capitalise on them.

The same urgency we have seen in the wake of global warming and the global pandemic is needed to deal with the ethical challenges of global higher education.

We have to acknowledge some of the positive impacts of internationalisation, of course. Higher education internationalisation has served to prepare our post-secondary students with much-needed international competences and skills so they can participate fully in the globalised world and succeed in the global job market.

But globalisation is not a neutral force that delivers benefits evenly to all parts of the world. Internationalisation has been increasingly motivated by economic profit rather than by a sense of the common good. It has been used more as an instrument to obtain resources and to ensure a country’s competitiveness.

In this context, higher education should stop being a mindless follower of economic globalisation.

Higher education should be the only sober and responsible man at a party of drunks. Universities’ internationalisation strategies should aim to be a more mindful, idealistic and transformative force aimed at reversing the adverse effects of economic globalisation and educating our next generation of global citizens who are conscious of the unjust world conditions we live in and are committed to working towards change.

To combat the adverse effects of economic globalisation, all institutions in Western countries should subscribe and contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

With government funding declining, no public university can afford to decrease international recruitment, nor can they afford to charge less for international tuition fees. But that international tuition income should be channelled toward training more international graduate students who are poor but smart and who have the potential to solve the world’s problems.

More international tuition income should also be channelled towards supporting international research that addresses the developmental challenges of developing countries.

Curriculum internationalisation and global education programming should be strengthened to raise awareness of global injustice for both domestic and international students. More students from the West should be funded to study in poor countries to strengthen their commitment to building a more equitable and just world.

All in all, higher education internationalisation should become a mindful and ethical practice. It should no longer be a choice but an obligation.

A common destiny

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the international flow of higher education students. But it has provided a good opportunity for me to pause and reflect on my work as an international educator.

There is an inherent moral dilemma in international education due to the neoliberal approach to higher education internationalisation. Such an approach is unsustainable and the world has reached a tipping point due to the increasingly adverse effects of unbalanced development.

The globalised world we live in has become a community of common destiny and we, in international education, have an ethical obligation to reverse the adverse effects of economic globalisation and make the world a more equitable place for all.

There is an urgent moral obligation and necessity for institutions in Western countries to engage in ethical internationalisation in order to reduce global inequality.

Dr Wei Liu works at the University of Alberta International, managing the Global Academic Leadership Development Program, a professional development programme for university administrators from an international comparative perspective. His major research interests lie in the area of foreign language education and international higher education. His recent publications have appeared in journals such as the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Journal of Studies in International Education, Higher Education Research and Development and Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.