Treatment of International Students Is a Hot Topic at European Conference

September 13, 2012

As economic troubles continue to plague Europe, universities here are ramping up their efforts to recruit tuition-paying students overseas. At the same time, more European academics are asking whether these students are being treated well, challenging institutions to think less about the bottom line and more about how to create truly international campuses.

That was the central message at this year's meeting of the European Association for International Education, where widespread interest in all things international was evident among the 4,000 or so participants.

Indeed, timed to the start of the conference, Ireland's most prestigious university, Trinity College Dublin, announced plans to spend three million euros to expand its global programs, including an effort to double its number of students from outside the European Union to 2,000.

"We are in the eye of a perfect storm that is being shaped by two global trends," said Jane Ohlmeyer, Trinity's vice provost for global relations, a newly created position, in a written statement. "The first is the demise of universities in the West; there is hardly an educational institution in the Western world that is not facing some sort of crisis. The second global trend is the rise of Asia and the demand there is, especially in India, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia, for world-class education."

She said the situation creates "unprecedented opportunities for countries like Ireland to become an educational hub."

During the conference, how to improve overseas recruitment was a hot topic. Sessions on using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to attract foreign students, for example, were some of the most popular.

Yet as Trinity and other institutions seek to recruit more foreign students, in part to generate more income during uncertain financial times, some educators said more needs to be done to improve the conditions faced by academic visitors to Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.

Students' Rights

On Friday the European Association for International Education will issue a "student mobility charter." While the movement of students across borders serves the social and economic interest of many countries, it says that "at the same time, there is a need to secure the international students' rights and welfare," according to a draft version of the charter.

It lays out 11 principles that governments and colleges should follow. They include:

  • Considering the effect—both positive and negative—that the global movement of students has on the countries they come from and the countries where the study;
  • Making sure students are integrated into the academic institution and the wider community; and
  • Establishing an independent authority, like the student ombudsmen in Australia and parts of Europe, "to ensure quality in the provision of services for international students and to protest their rights."

Gudrun Paulsdottir, president of the association, said that no single incident spurred the creation of the charter, but that it was a culmination of several years in which problems, including abrupt changes by some governments to visa and international-scholarship programs, have hurt students.

When you recruit students or send students abroad "you have to do it responsibly," said Ms. Paulsdottir. "There are basic rules that need to be respected."

She said the charter dovetails with a statement made last year by the International Association of Universities, which called on universities to weigh the unintended consequences, especially the effects on developing countries, of overseas recruitment as well as other international efforts.

Francisco Marmolejo, executive director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration, said the two statements should be "wake-up calls" for universities in the United States and elsewhere. Mr. Marmolejo, who is also a Chronicle blogger, said he hoped they would not simply "sit on the wall" at universities but lead to changes in practices.

To that end, the European association said it would ask other education organizations, including its American counterparts, to review the principles and accreditors to consider them when they examine overseas programs.

Ms. Paulsdottir admitted that changes may not come quickly, but said the issues should be raised within higher education. "We need to start a discussion," she said.

The Static Majority

As the association raised concerns about how internationalization is affecting foreign students, others at the conference called for a greater focus on domestic students.

During a session on the research of university internationalization, Elspeth Jones, professor emerita at Leeds Metropolitan University, said there had been a lack of study on whether students who don't go abroad benefit—or not—from campus internationalization, including the enrolling of foreign students and changes in the curriculum.

With 98 percent of European students not traveling outside their home country for study, a figure similar in the United States, new ideas are needed on how best to expose these students to international and cross-cultural perspectives.

"How can we have internationalization if we don't involve the static majority?" she asked.

Hans de Wit, director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Italy's Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, echoed her comments. He said too often universities measure whether they are succeeding at internationalization by "outputs"—what percentage of the student body are from outside the country, how many students study abroad, and for those in continental Europe, how many classes are taught in English. Yet those measures don't answer whether the graduates universities are producing are really prepared to live and work in international settings.

Ultimately, he called for more critical thinking about universities' international work.

"Do we really know what we're talking about when we're talking about internationalization?" he asked.