Making the case for a responsible international university

On 23 May 2023, the United Kingdom government announced that international postgraduate students on non-research-focused courses would no longer be able to bring family members to the UK. This decision will have big implications for equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and social responsibility agendas as students with strong family values will not be able to bring their family members for the time they are studying in the UK.

It has already further exacerbated anti-foreigner rhetoric in the UK and came on the same day that the higher education sector relaunched its “We are international” campaign to promote international education.

Without question, more and more universities are actively engaging, promoting and reaping the benefits of the EDI, social responsibility (including environmental, social, economic and human rights) and internationalisation discourses. Is there a way these three separate dimensions might be at odds with each other or can they be brought more closely together?

There have also been student and academic voices raised about the challenges of diversity and inclusivity in the classroom. At such a critical turning point, we need to rethink how international education can overlap with social responsibility and EDI agendas to deliver a more responsible international education.

Definitions of internationalisation

It has long been recognised that internationalisation is beneficial to communities at home and abroad as well as to society in its broadest sense since it brings the global to the local or the local to the global.

A new joint report released earlier this month, from Kaplan International Pathways, Universities UK, the Higher Education Policy Institute and London Economics Ltd, highlights that the economic benefit of international students rose from £31.3 billion (US$38.7 billion) to £41.9 billion between 2018-19 and 2021-22 in the UK alone.

The report highlights that international students put nearly 10 times more into the UK economy than they take out – boosting both local and national economic well-being.

Mark Garratt, chair of CASE Europe Universities’ Marketing Forum and director of marketing, communications and recruitment at Anglia Ruskin University, commented: “Since I joined the higher education sector in 2009, I have strived to promote the moral, ethical and business imperative for effective EDI.

“Leading marketing, communications and student recruitment teams for a number of UK higher education institutions, I’ve always endeavoured to promote the economic, social and cultural benefits of international students in the towns and cities we have operated in.

“The latest data shows that the net economic benefit to the UK of international students is £37 billion but it’s much more than that. The fabric of the campuses and communities in which international students live and work are completely enriched.”

We all know the benefits of internationalisation of universities stretch far beyond international student recruitment and are also a means to create a more equitable society to foster the exchange and collaboration of knowledge and ideas.

The most adopted definition of internationalisation of higher education, proposed by Hans de Wit et al in 2015, is: “The intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-secondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff, and to make a meaningful contribution to society.”

From different perspectives in the Global South, other definitions are also being put forward, such as internationalisation through a post-colonial lens by Savo Heleta and Samia Chasi, who state: “Internationalisation of higher education is a critical and comparative process of the study of the world and its complexities, past and present inequality and injustice, and possibilities for a more equitable and just future for all.

“Through teaching, learning, research and engagement, internationalisation fosters epistemic plurality and integrates critical, anti-racist and anti-hegemonic learning about the world from diverse global perspectives to enhance the quality and relevance of education.”

The first definition places an emphasis on the international, intercultural and global dimensions of education through working with international students, staff and an internationalised curriculum.

It can be argued this viewpoint is more tuned towards more developed Western Anglophonic countries where the main discourse of international education surrounds the recruitment of international students as providers of transnational education, whereas the second one revolves around creating a more equitable society, challenging the status quo and promoting diverse global perspectives.

Both undoubtedly position international education as an intentional but also critical means to remove the barriers imposed by borders and ‘otherness’, fully embracing the principles and values of EDI meaningfully, locally and globally, as well as those of social responsibility. They reject the dominance of power, knowledge and culture.

Living in this ever-globalised and multicultural society, international and local issues always interweave and intertwine with each other. Engagement with EDI and universities’ social and civic responsibilities could and should be easily extended to encompass worldwide global inclusiveness and relevance and a responsibility to contribute to sustainable global communities.

International education, in particular, in the Western Anglophone countries, has often been criticised for its focus on economic gain, and this often partially drives universities to compete rather than collaborate with each other.

Social responsibility

Reflecting on what we believe to be the ‘international university’, both definitions clearly articulate the diverse and inclusive, but also ethical and social elements of a university in a global context. However, research shows that social responsibility is rarely the primary driver for the international activities of universities. Even when it is part of the equation, it is framed in narrow terms.

In practice, how can we really incorporate EDI and social responsibility into international education? I would suggest considering the following aspects:

Teaching and learning and research: We can engage meaningfully in the internationalisation of the curriculum through a participatory and progressive curriculum which ensures that diverse views and knowledge are recognised intentionally. We can proactively and intentionally promote social justice, equality, inclusivity, diversity and ethical and social responsibility into our content and teaching pedagogies. We can engage staff and students from diverse and global backgrounds in co-creating the teaching experience and space.

An equal and ethical higher education global partnership in education and research: This would entail reciprocal financial benefits but also an epistemologically equal footing to facilitate mutual mobility and true collaboration from both sides. It recognises and advocates knowledge and culture plurality, underpinned by a core value of promoting an equitable society and worldwide responsibility.

The international student: We can incorporate ethical, sustainable, fair, respectful and equitable values into the international student recruitment process and support for international students, ensure transparency regarding the cost of international education and provide a comparable educational experience to home students. We should also respect international students’ identities.

A truly responsible international university should be driven by the underpinning values of a university: its commitment to teaching and learning, research and social responsibility, but at a global scale.

International education removes the barriers of the physical and perceived knowledge ‘borders’.

Nearly two centuries ago, John Newman’s idea of a university emphasised liberal education, rather than practical education, differentiating between providing ‘useful’ and ‘valuable’ knowledge. University discourse has, of course, evolved over the last few centuries, but ‘valuable’ can be interpreted in contemporary terms as ‘responsible’ and that is what we seek: a responsible international university.

Cheryl Yu is an international higher education practitioner and researcher.