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Opinion: Why university ethics should matter to the international student

Here's why you should care where you get your grad cap from. Source: shutterstock.com

There are tons of things to consider when applying for university, but one factor, in particular, is generally overlooked when looking for the right fit – how ethical is the university?

Not many know this but universities can sometimes get up to some pretty shady business behind closed doors. While they are committed to educating the next generation of policy-makers and society-shakers, these institutions are also research centers, and sometimes, businesses.

As a result, ethics is not always their primary concern. Their academic reputation often takes precedence, meaning groundbreaking research or generating profit tend to top their priority list.

You might be asking why you should care at all how universities spend their money outside of your lecture halls. After all, you think, they have massive overhead costs and staff salaries to consider. And then you think, hey, I’m getting the education I paid for… so, what’s the big deal?

Well, firstly, your tuition fees will fund these questionable endeavors. International students often pay up to three times the amount of tuition fees than domestic students, meaning your fees make up a big chunk of university profit.

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If you give these fees to an unethical university, you could be funding dodgy research practices, shifty investments and unfair Vice-Chancellor paychecks unknowingly. 

Many universities are committed to revolutionary research on climate change, health, and technology; research that will improve the world for generations to come. But, by giving money to the wrong institutions, you could be investing in driving the world in the wrong direction.

Universities often create the benchmark for opinions and ethics in a globalised society.

When I was investigating universities fossil fuel investment for The University Paper during my student days, Dalia Gebrial from People & Planet told me:

“Universities often set the tone in society about what is acceptable. They are seen as the benchmark for ethical standards and historically their morals have been the starting point for change.”

As a prospective student, you have spending power as your form of negotiation. Universities are now acting like businesses more than ever before, meaning competition is rife among institutions.

If you show that the ethics of a university are important to you, you help shape the global picture of ethical practices and help reduce exploitation and corruption around the world.

The closest ethical issue to students is what happens in university research centers. If you are applying for a postgraduate degree, or your course includes lab work, you will likely be working alongside researchers and working within the ethical parameters of your university.

Last year, five of the top universities in the United Kingdom – including Oxford, Cambridge, University College London and King’s College London – were using living primates for mental health and neurological disease experiments. A further 50 percent of all animal testing in the UK occurs within universities, according to the Metro.

This sparked student and public backlash against these universities, especially since they were testing on domesticated animals including rabbits, cats and dogs.

Are you happy with your university fees funding this? Source: shutterstock.com

Of course, animal testing for medicine is a matter of opinion. You might think it is ethically acceptable as long as the animals are well-treated, they are not made to suffer unnecessarily, and the research is genuinely necessary to improve human’s lives.

So, what about when the research itself that is ethically questionable?

Just last week, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) were exposed for researching how to make Artificially Intelligent ‘killer robots’. Many leading academics threatened to boycott KAIST until they abandon the project on moral grounds.

If academics who are deeply invested in the field are willing to boycott unethical institutions, perhaps students ought to be following suit? As mentioned before, your fees are what funds this research, research that could potentially have catastrophic global implications.

Speaking of catastrophic global issues, what about universities investing in fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels are, and always have been, a big profit generator for universities. Universities spend hefty sums and returns on their investment help the university grow, with little concern of the growing carbon cloud that is infecting our environment.

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Over the past few years, student-led climate change movements have had huge success convincing institutions to divest from fossil fuels. In fact, almost half of all universities in the UK alone have committed to fossil fuel divestment thanks to these student campaigns.

This demonstrates how much power students have in how universities are run, and if you think about it, that same influence and power are also in the hands of prospective students looking for a place to study.

If students show that a university’s ethical practices are significant enough to hold sway among students, institutions will likely respond to this to remain competitive.

Just look at what happened with the outcry over Vice-Chancellors pay. When it was revealed that some Vice-Chancellors in Australia were earning AU$1.26 million (US$973,700) and the top paycheck in the UK weighed in at GB£442,000 (US$625,800), students were outraged.

It made global headlines, and as a result, universities were forced to review their finances. After all, bad publicity means potentially lower student enrollments and loss of profit.

If you show you care about what universities are doing beyond your lectures, you have the opportunity to shape how they research, invest, support employees and, ultimately, influence the global picture.

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