How can practices with international students be made more ethical?

Jenna Mittelmeier, Sylvie Lomer, Miguel Lim, Heather Cockayne, and Josef Ploner


In a recent presentation for the Centre for Global Higher Education, we highlighted ways that practices with international students might be made more ethical across the spectrum of higher education activities. In doing so, we hoped to simultaneously highlight five ways that our current practices with international students are often unethical. These are summarised briefly as:

  • The tendency for universities to use a binary classification of students as ‘home’ or ‘international student’, thereby obscuring the intercultural diversity of students without an international student visa
  • The tendency for staff to homogenise international students as a collective group with similar needs and experiences, without reflecting on the significant cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity within this group
  • The failure of universities to see the intersectionalities of international students’ identities and experiences, including how their experiences might intersect with race, gender, or disability (among others)
  • That deficit narratives too often frame how individuals and institutions think about international students, through assumptions that their intellectual contributions are inferior or that their presence lowers standards
  • The tendency for international student support to focus on assimilation to normative expectations without reflecting on the colonial assumptions that underpin such practices

We believe that such discourses about international students ultimately disrupt and damage higher education’s ‘ethics of welcome’ towards international students. As we move forward into a post-pandemic future, we believe that the sector has opportunities to critically reflect on how support for international students might be made more ethical.

Reflecting on pedagogies with international students

We have previously highlighted four common teaching practices which require further critical reflection in intercultural teaching settings: open ended seminars; ‘typical’ academic essays; intercultural group work; and the referral of language and skills support to central services. Each relies on assumptions about what students bring into classrooms and how they are expected to assimilate to established norms of reading, writing, and participating which are culturally-, nationally-, and disciplinarily-situated. 

It is worth reflecting on the assumptions that frame what ‘good’ student participation and contribution look like in higher education classrooms. There is an implicit coloniality present in such discourses, in part due to international higher education’s colonial history in the UK, but also because Eurocentric perspectives shape standards of critical thinking, academic writing, group work, and classroom participation (among others). Despite the recent attention given to decolonising the curriculum, the coloniality inherent to broader teaching and learning pedagogies are rarely discussed in the UK, meaning any transformation is limited to what we teach, but not how we teach it. Given the British context of colonialism, imperialism, and systemic racism, these practices should be subject to critical interrogation in internationalised learning settings, where students (home and international alike) are expected to assimilate to Eurocentric visions of education.

When challenges appear – such as in a silent seminar room – deficit narratives around international students allow institutions to shift responsibility away from their own structures and practices. In referring students to a centralised service for support with academic writing, for example, academics avoid critically reflecting on how language is used in their own cultural and disciplinary context to shape meaning.

Research with international students highlights the ways that staff assumptions about assimilation negatively impact upon their lived experiences while completing their degrees in the UK. For example, a participant in one study reflected that “most of them [staff] mentioned maybe you should improve your academic English” when referring to the assignment feedback they received. However, this focus on areas of perceived deficit are not necessarily helpful if not situated within subject or content knowledge development, and contributes instead to students’ self-internalisation of deficit narratives. Such experiences can place unnecessary stress on students who may experience feelings that they “can’t compete with some native speakers”, when we argue such competition should not be expected in the first place.  

The neoliberalisation and marketisation of international higher education, which positions international students as cash cows, means that institutions and departments are pressured to make money from them rather than spend money on them (although, we argue that international students can, should, and do contribute so much more than pounds and pennies). However, more ethical alternatives (as we reflect on in more depth in our resource pack for lecturing staff) would mean critically reflecting how and why expected standards are created and where they may be situated in colonial expectations of assimilation. 

This might mean, for example, intentionally designing seminars with structured opportunities for multiple forms of engagement, such as by using tools like Mentimeter to capture non-verbal engagement and recognising silence as a valid form of participation. Another example might be embedding a wider range of alternative assessment options, reflecting on the ways that the ‘traditional’ essay is not inclusive for all groups of students and providing ways for students to choose assessments that play to their perceived strengths. However, at the very least, it should mean making expectations transparent and embedding opportunities to discuss (and more transformatively, negotiate) what is meant by everyday assessment terminology (what is ‘critical’? what does it mean to ‘discuss’ or ‘synthesise’?). 

International students as missing from the narrative – the example of social responsibility

Beyond classroom practices, we argue that international students are often missing or hidden from university practices (although more recent shifts in research on this topic has argued for their increased presence). One example is the pivot towards ‘social responsibility’ as a third institutional contribution, alongside teaching and research (as seen, for example, at our own institution). There is renewed recognition of universities’ importance to their local communities, with universities frequently characterised as anchor institutions. This acknowledges the significant economic benefits universities bring to their cities and regions, as well as their roles as local social actors.

However the role of international students in social responsibility initiatives is largely overlooked, whereby local students are often the imagined primary audience for initiatives such as volunteering drives or local employability schemes. However, a range of more ethical alternatives are possible. These include one-off activities which specifically engage local communities with issues of international and intercultural importance. However, a more sustainable approach would be to match international students with local organisations and businesses, thereby supporting their local contributions or experiences and improving understandings about the value international students bring locally. 

International students should not be made solely responsible for the civic responsibilities of universities. However, by considering their potential and facilitating opportunities, universities could improve how international students contribute and engage when they choose to do so.

International students and academic hospitality in the post-pandemic university

As we move into a post-pandemic society, we have an opportunity to reimagine what support with international students might look like in a more ethical future. This becomes particularly important considering many support systems intended to aid with transitions have been challenging or impossible, such as induction events, travel and immigration advice, and intercultural social engagements on campus. This means that many international students have not only experienced a fair amount of isolation and un-belonging in physical terms, but also through the emerging virtual world of the ‘Zoom university’.

The omnipresence of remoteness, international distance, and online learning poses wider practical and ethical questions about what it means to show international students an ‘ethics of welcome’. Questions are raised about how to share, exchange, and communicate knowledge, particularly for international students whose epistemic and linguistic heritage or learning cultures are frequently perceived to be ‘other’ and often associated with redundant deficit narratives. There is some evidence to suggest that these associations of ‘lacking’ in skills and contributions have amplified in the post-pandemic university.

Writing about ‘academic hospitality’ as an ethical principle in higher education and scholars have debated the multiple forms and modalities of being welcoming long before the virtual university has become an omnipresent reality. They argue that being ‘welcoming’, in academic terms, goes well beyond well-rehearsed rituals, but is constituted by virtuous and ethical acts of extending the self by reciprocal ways of sharing and receiving, particularly when it comes to engage with ‘other’ knowledges, ways of thinking, and cultures of learning. While the advent of the ‘Zoom university’ has opened up a raft of new opportunities in creating ‘welcoming’ virtual learning spaces, many educators still rely on traditional forms, rituals, and approaches that seek to ‘convey’ (rather than ‘share’) knowledge (i.e., in lectures, seminars, tutorials). We are, thus, still grappling to find ways to be truly interculturally inclusive or co-productive, which becomes particularly important in disciplines which emphasise criticality and collaboration as a major ‘learning outcome’.

Thinking through the lens of academic hospitality is a useful way to recognise the opportunities of what it means to be a good ‘host’ or ‘guest’ in an international higher education context, particularly with this history of unethical and colonially-bound practices in mind. While universities continue to learn about new ways of creating a welcoming intercultural learning space, they still struggle to address its many limits. However, we argue that the pathway forward requires a critical interrogation of our problematic pasts and reimagining ways that our work with international students can bring forth a more welcoming future. 


Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: