Stack of books
Category: Society & Culture

Title: Advocating for an Ethical Shift in International Higher Education

Author: Wei Liu
Date Published: April 11, 2023

International higher education in major Western countries has been pursued both as an export industry to obtain economic profit and as an immigrant recruitment platform to obtain top talents. This is a highly unsustainable approach to international higher education, as it serves to worsen inequality worldwide. There must be a shift in international higher education toward a focus on developing global citizenship and global leadership among all students, both domestic and international, so that higher education institutions can better contribute to the solution of common challenges we face today.


A globalized environment has expanded higher education’s scope and volume in international activities in the twenty-first century. In a highly neoliberal environment, the higher education internationalization efforts in the Global North have focused overwhelmingly on generating revenue through international recruitment, with an insufficient consideration of universities’ role in contributing to world equality and sustainability. International students can indeed enrich the cultural diversity of university campuses, which is often the declared goal of internationalization in Western universities. However, international student recruitment has simultaneously been used to increase institutional revenue through international tuitions. An overemphasis on economic gain in international higher education poses a serious moral dilemma for universities in the Global North.

International student populations generally move from the Global South to the Global North, with 83 percent studying in G20 countries and 77 percent in OECD countries. With this unidirectional flow of international students, international higher education has become a key export industry for the West, generating a large trade surplus for the host countries. Although only around 1 percent of Chinese students study overseas, they represent 27 percent of the total Chinese expenditure on higher education. Similarly, the 0.36 percent of Indian students who study overseas compose over 62 percent of the total Indian expenditure on higher education. Evidently, not all students in the Global South can afford to study abroad. By educating students from elite families in poor countries, international education in the West serves to widen the gap between the rich and the poor in their home countries as well.

The moral dilemma of today’s international higher education system raises concerns over the “capitalist approach” to international higher education. Critical internationalization scholars perceive international higher education as part and parcel of economic globalization (i.e., the pursuit of economic profit beyond national borders). While globalization has brought benefits to the world, this unchecked process is not a neutral force that delivers benefits evenly to all parts of the world, having increased the gap between the world’s rich and poor. By obtaining resources and talents from the Global South, international higher education in the Global North has significantly contributed to this inequality.

The challenge of global warming and the global COVID-19 pandemic are both indicators that the adverse effects of economic globalization have hit a tipping point. During the pandemic, many universities in the West began to reflect on their past actions, resolving to reorient their future approach to help the world become a more equitable and sustainable place. More institutions began to adopt the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of their international work. There was discussion on how to strengthen the social service mission of the university to focus on an internationalization agenda. “Knowledge diplomacy” has been on a sharp rise as “a new approach to understanding the role of international higher education in strengthening relations among countries and addressing common global challenges.” There was also discussion among scholars on how international mobility programs could help slow global warming.

However, with the pandemic winding down, international higher education has reverted to old habits, aiming to refill the gap of enrollment caused by the pandemic and doubling down on international recruitment efforts. Ethical internationalization is once again pushed to the side. In the context of reduced government funding, universities in the Global North may not be able to halt international recruitment or stop charging international tuition, but a balance needs to be pursued between economic gain and social responsibility. International higher education should function as a sober observer and vigilant safeguard of the healthy development of society, not as a neoliberal player of the market. Western universities must have a sustained commitment to serving the public good, helping solve global problems, and contributing to world peace by increasing intercultural understanding between countries.

It must be stressed here that an ethical shift in international higher education is not only necessary; it is also the only remaining option. Such a statement may sound too pessimistic and sensational. Yet, global crises, such as unequal and unsustainable development, will not be resolved if the status quo of international education activities remains unchanged. An ethical shift requires a shift of priorities. Higher education internationalization is capable of serving many different goals. At the individual level, it can prepare students with intercultural competences to function in the global workplace. At the national level, it can be used as a means to help countries compete in the world knowledge economy. At the global level, international education can be adopted as a way to achieve social transformation and equitable development. However, in history, the individual career goal and the national competitive goal have been prioritized, trumping the global transformative goal.

An ethical shift in international higher education is a shift toward the global transformative goal. A key element to the success of this transition is to help students in higher education, both domestic and international, “become responsible and active global citizens” and “assume active roles to face and resolve global challenges and to become proactive contributors to a more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure world.” All students need to be acutely aware of the global issues countries collectively face and should be encouraged to dedicate themselves to finding solutions. All students must develop an open and respectful attitude towards all countries and cultures and uphold the ethics of altruistic care for all people. This is the most fundamental task for international higher education that has been downplayed in the past, and how well this fundamental task is achieved in the future will determine the kind of world we live in for generations to come.

International students from the Global South should stop being treated as newly recruited citizens of the Global North, but as global citizens and global leaders who can effect change to the current world order. Instead of only pushing assimilation efforts, it is more important to help them engage in rich comparative learning between their home and host societies, gain comparative insights on how to improve their home system, and engage in efforts for the betterment of the world at large. While we must respect their freedom to choose where they will live and work after they graduate, we should have the same expectation out of them, no matter where they are (i.e., to help tackle common global challenges and make our planet a safer, better, and more just place to live). If they return to their home country, they should lead positive social and economic changes there. If they stay, they should serve as strong connections between the two countries and always seek ways to circulate their knowledge back to help their home societies.

To achieve the ethical shift in international higher education, faculty members must internationalize their curriculum to recognize diverse epistemological perspectives, to raise students’ awareness of global problems, to strengthen their intercultural competences, and to push them to become responsible and active global citizens and leaders. International student recruitment will not stop, but more revenue from international student tuitions should fund scholarships for graduate students from the Global South who are working on cutting-edge research. More revenue should also be channeled toward hiring more global education specialists and funding more global education programs on campuses. Students from Western institutions should be encouraged to study in developing regions to strengthen their awareness of the inequality of global development, and more funding is needed to support them too.

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Wei Liu, PhD, works at the University of Alberta International, Canada, managing the Global Academic Leadership Development (GALD) program. His research interests include foreign language education and international higher education.

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