Where personal principles meet profit

October 8, 1999

As universities strive to snare paying overseas students, academics can get caught in an ethical trap. Harriet Swain reports.

You have been seconded from your university to teach at a private overseas institution as part of a franchise arrangement. The students in your classes assume that they will qualify automatically because they have paid. The institutions, both of which are benefitting financially from the arrangement, encourage you to adjust the marking accordingly. What do you do?

Maybe you have remained in the United Kingdom. Your head of department wants you to teach members of the internal security forces of a country with a poor human rights record. You are told that the course, for which the foreign students are paying handsomely, will include teaching on human rights. But the country is hitting the headlines with tales of brutal oppression of its people. Do you say yes?

It is becoming harder and harder for British academics to avoid such ethical dilemmas. Confining research and teaching to an ivory or redbrick tower is no longer possible as globalisation forces universities to respond to ideas from all over the world.

But it is cash that makes things really tricky. Increasingly, institutions are looking further afield in their efforts to recruit students - especially ones who pay.

The UK benefits financially from overseas students, not only from fees but also from money spent on goods and services, according to a report by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

The report also found that overseas students educated here were likely to recommend the UK to friends and family and to continue buying British-made goods when they returned home.

In the face of fierce competition with countries such as Australia and the United States, ethical questions involved in recruiting and keeping money-spinning students can be forgotten.

Recent guidance from the Development Education Association and Association of University Teachers attempts to address ethical dilemmas.

Warning of "intellectual isolation" if ethical issues are ignored, it states:

"The marketisation of the UK higher education system, with its attendant pressures of exporting courses and intellectual products to other parts of the world, of winning overseas students from competitor universities, and of securing lucrative research contracts from foreign governments and the commercial world, makes academics' roles and responsibilities ever more complex It is better to anticipate and prepare for ethical dilemmas than to respond in a piecemeal way when the storm clouds break."

Different relationships, it says, demand a different kind of ethical response. While internet fora need relatively little scrutiny, more complicated educational collaborations must have clear monitoring and revision, especially if they have grown from smaller schemes.

North-South collaborations, in which northern countries often have more power and resources, need particular care, as do education links brokered by local agents.

Educational agencies are commercial ventures, the guidance warns. Although agents have specialist knowledge of the local higher education scene, they can use this knowledge to the disadvantage of British institutions and their own financial advantage.

Sensitivity to local circumstances can also bring dangers. How far should UK universities become involved in the institutions of countries that have a poor human rights record or exercise censorship?

Neil Durkin, spokesman for Amnesty International, says the priority is compliance with overarching laws of human rights. "It has never been our policy to refrain from having dialogue overseas and transfers between students and institutions will, broadly speaking, be welcome," he says. "But we will almost certainly be calling for them to involve human rights."

The new guidance also stresses the importance of bringing a general awareness of human rights and other international issues to research and teaching.

Douglas Bourn, director of the Development Education Association, says it is vital for the whole of higher education to realise that if it fails to take global interdependence into account it will fail to give people a full understanding of their subject or skill. "There is still a sense of seeing the wider world purely in terms of an economic relationship - that you can get something from students because of the income they bring," he says. "People are not seeing it as a relationship of mutual benefits."

He says that universities should have a clear ethical stance on academic issues in the international arena and that they ought to refer to it constantly.

This does not just involve academics working abroad. "One of the areas of concern is how overseas students are treated here," he says. "Some have felt very marginalised."

UKcosa, the Council for International Education, will consider this autumn whether to introduce a code of ethics for international student advisers. A working party will look at, for example, whether the first loyalty of advisers should be to the student rather than to the institution.

Clive Saville, chief executive of UKcosa, says that this would complement codes of practice for advisers dealing with home students but that it may need to be more sensitive.

"Here we are dealing with students who may be more vulnerable, with greater need for advice, who are paying fees and feeling homesick," he says.

The Home Office, through the Immigration and Asylum Bill, is about to introduce regulations for those who provide immigration advice. Universities will have to ensure that they meet these standards, too.

If universities are more sensitive, it will also enrich the learning experience of international students, argues Kevin Steele, director of People & Planet, which aims to raise awareness of international ethical issues among UK students.

Students appear to be more attuned to these issues than many of their predecessors. There has been strong student support for recent campaigns to cancel Third World debt and promote ethical investment, while the youth and student wing of Amnesty International now has about 10,000 members and about 70 active student groups in Britain.

With more interest on campuses in issues rather than in party-based politics, and a more international student body, understanding of the problems raised by university involvement in the wider world is likely to grow.

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