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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Reframing business models and processes

ReframingBack in September 2022, I started a three-part series of blogs on the topic of ethical international strategies. Part 1 (Insights and quandaries) and Part 2 (Harnessing diverse perspectives and shared agendas) appeared, but I didn’t get around to writing up Part 3 (Reframing business models and processes) until now.

While it’s still broadly based on the presentation I gave at Universities UK International’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Forum in July 2022, I’ve added in a few ideas that have struck me as I’ve been working with UK universities and engaging with discussions on ethical internationalisation over the intervening period.

This much-delayed final blog in the series shares some thoughts on how business models, processes and operations might be reframed in order to support ethical strategies for international engagement. What are the repercussions for institutional operating frameworks of taking an ethical approach?

‘Reinventing international higher education for a socially just, sustainable world’ (N. Healey)

I had been playing around with how to structure this blog when I came across Professor Nigel Healey’s recent presentation to the APAIE conference. He proposes three reasons why the current business model for international higher education needs to change:

  • Environmental cost
  • Negative impact on source countries
  • Neo-colonialism

He then goes on to look at how these negative impacts can be addressed:

  • Maximise the return on the unavoidable carbon footprint
  • Make access a global, not a national objective
  • Seek parity of esteem / benefit in global partnerships

Finally, he highlights some approaches being adopted in each area by his own institution, the University of Limerick in Ireland.

In the rest of this blog, I use two of Nigel’s ‘reasons to change’ (I’ve left environmental cost aside for the time being) as a prompt to explore what this might mean in practice for ethical international engagement in key activity areas.  

Reviewing business models: international student recruitment

As Wei Liu observes in his recent article on Advocating for an Ethical Shift in International Higher Education: ‘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.’

In particular, as Nigel Healey observes, we need to minimise any potential negative impact on source countries, including both excessive brain drain and the perpetuation (even exacerbation) of the gulf between rich and poor in those countries.

When I have worked with universities in higher education systems where fee income is not a primary driver of international student recruitment (e.g. Germany), the conversations have been refreshingly different from those that take place in the UK. The focus is often on widening access, broadening opportunities and making a positive social impact over the long term.

While UK universities cannot escape their national funding and operating context, they can review their business models. For example, they could reinvest a proportion of the income from what, for many institutions, has been a recent boom in international student enrolments into initiatives that address global inequalities.

We know that, in the UK, international student fees already cross-subsidise research activity. Could an explicit link be made with the funding of research projects that address (in a collaborative manner) challenges that affect the home countries of some of those students?

The idea of investing in widening access to domestic students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds – and introducing measures which optimise retention and successful outcomes for these students – is now well embedded within UK HEIs. In recent years, the work done by institutions to welcome and support refugees and asylum-seekers, with many becoming Universities of Sanctuary, has also accelerated.

A natural extension of the widening access principle is to fund scholarships for those international students for whom an international education would be most transformative – both on an individual level and in terms of the impact that their education as a new leader in a particular field could have on their home country.

Why not go further and invest in employability support that extends to those international students returning home to build their careers?

Reviewing principles and processes: international partnerships

International partnerships are high on the agenda for most UK universities. The motivations behind partnerships are varied, with some more transactional and others more transformational. In both cases, we need to be aware of neo-colonialist approaches which perpetuate structural inequality and force Northern models and values onto Southern countries and institutions.

While most UK universities have well-established policies and approval processes for international partnerships, not all of these include full consideration of the ethical dimension. There tends to be more emphasis on not having a negative impact (‘do no harm’) and less on actively having a positive impact (‘make the world a better place’, which is a well-worn ambition in many a university vision statement).

Table 1 proposes a framework for considering the ethical principles underpinning international partnerships from different perspectives. 

Table 1: Ethical international partnership principles framework

Ethical international partnerships

…on our own reputation and standing

…on partner institutions, countries, or the environment

‘Do no harm’:

Not having a negative impact…

Don’t work with anyone whose values or behaviours raise concerns

Don’t exploit others or the environment

‘Make the world a better place’:

Actively having a positive impact…

Work on projects that matter to key stakeholders

Engage for the long term with institutions in partner countries, building capacity, learning from one another, and sharing responsibilities and rewards fairly

© Vicky Lewis Consulting

At a basic level, operating ethically is about safeguarding institutional reputation by not working with organisations that have exploitative labour practices, damaging environmental practices, derive income from controversial sources or where the relationship risks compromising your academic freedom or EDI commitments.

On a more mature and socially responsible level, it’s about ensuring equitable approaches to partnership, which recognise the value of reciprocity in relationships, learning from one another, and fairly distributed responsibilities and funding (in Nigel Healey’s words: ‘parity of esteem and benefit’).

There are plenty of instances of UK universities acting as ‘good global citizens’ in their partnership work. Recent examples of this can be seen in the UK-Ukraine Twinning Initiative. The University of Glasgow’s academic partnership with the University of the West Indies came about as part of Glasgow’s programme of reparative justice, following research into how the University benefited from slavery-related wealth.    

Universities that seek to be ‘actively ethical’ could review their guiding principles for international partnerships using the above framework. Having done this, it’s important to ensure that the agreed principles are reflected in relevant policies; that they are applied in partnership approval processes; and that appropriate context, training and tools are provided to equip all staff to act with these principles in mind.

Reviewing international operations

An institution’s infrastructure and operating models for international recruitment and business development also merit being reviewed through an ethical lens. To what extent are they perpetuating colonialist (and carbon-heavy) approaches, with UK-based staff swooping into a country to ‘do business’ then returning to UK HQ and directing operations from afar? How effectively is local, in-country expertise recognised? How proactively are colleagues and contacts from the Global South invited to challenge Northern operating models which we might (potentially unwittingly) be imposing?

Over recent years, UK universities have entered into many more third-party partnerships with private sector organisations (particularly when it comes to international student recruitment). Are we confident in their own ethical standards? What are our expectations of them, their supply chain and the ways they plough profits back into supporting international communities?


This blog covers just a few practical aspects of ethical internationalisation (with a particular focus on changes that can be made in the UK HE context):

  • Consider ways to invest some of the income from international student fees to help address global inequalities.
  • Review principles, policies and processes for international partnerships.
  • Question your assumptions about your own infrastructure for international operations.

Other suggested changes in approach can be found in many of the thought-provoking articles which appear in University World News. This 2022 piece, Global higher education finds itself at a crossroads, by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, concludes with a helpful twelve-point list of recommendations for ethical internationalisation.

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Mike Winter

19 April 2023 at 14:14 (Comment 1 of 2)

Thanks, Vicky. I enjoyed your session at Wilton Park last year and it's good to see the ideas developed further. What strikes me is the extent to which this whole debate is played out in the context of inward recruitment, where the issues of environment, brain-drain and neo-colonialism really stand out. For sure, the suggested mitigating actions for these make sense. But I would want to point out that a completely different model already largely deals with the issues: transnational partnerships, where our degrees are taken to where the students are and embedded in the local context. The recent British Council report illustrates this well: https://www.britishcouncil.org/education/he-science/knowledge-centre/transnational-education/value-transnational-education

It's true of course that institutions that rely on inward recruitment can't replace this with TNE where business models and rates of return are so different. But as a sector we should reflect longer and harder about a better balance in this regard.


Ivan G. Somlai

18 April 2023 at 21:25 (Comment 2 of 2)

This certainly is an interesting and overdue discussion. Risking being repetitive because of related comments I made elsewhere, I am compelled to emphasize that some of your points and certainly the last 3 points above, as well as issues surrounding decolonisation, can be mitigated to a certain extent by not only looking at students, but as well at how faculty could likewise be practically engaged.
One way is to enhance opportunities by developing or sourcing projects globally and engaging interested and qualified faculty for various lengths of time. Upon return to one's Campus, faculty so involved would have a better personal understanding of particular global issues, of specific countries, and of issues in cross-cultural communications. Thus, returning faculty could infuse their classes with increased credibility, append real-life situations from abroad and be more sensitive to diversity and the benefits of increasing understanding and collaboration. This may/should lead to sensitiveness to colonial issues and empathy combined with new knowledge and skills in approaching and handling this subject.
I do realise from experience that the proactive implementation of having faculty involved in a systematic international experience is fraught with particular difficulties in different jurisdictions; but that is secondary. If there be a common understanding of the value of the above suggestion, then the effort to operationalise it should be initiated.



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