'Being international is always a good thing': A multicentre interview study on ethics in international medical education

Emmaline Brouwer*, Janneke Frambach, Klara Somodi, Vishna Devi Nadarajah, Erik Driessen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Context Internationalisation in medical education raises ethical concerns over, for instance, its for-profit orientation, the potential erosion of cultural diversity and the possibility that standardised education may not meet the needs of patients everywhere. These concerns fit into a broader debate on social responsibility in higher education. This study aims to explore how academic staff in international medical education experience and act upon the ethical concerns that pertain to their programmes. By adding their perspectives to the debate, this study helps us understand how theory-based ethical concerns are reflected in practice.

Methods We conducted a multicentre instrumental case study across three international medical programmes, all of which were characterised by an international student intake, an internationalised curriculum and international partnerships, and all of which used English as the medium of instruction. We conducted 24 semi-structured interviews with purposively sampled curriculum directors and teaching staff. Participants shared their personal experiences and responded to ethical concerns expressed in the literature. Our multidisciplinary team performed a template analysis of the data based on theoretical frameworks of ethics and social responsibility.

Results Participants primarily experienced the internationalisation of their institutions and programmes as having a positive impact on students, the university and the future global society. However, they did face several ethical dilemmas. The first of these involved the possibility that marketisation through international recruitment and the application of substantial tuition fees might widen access to medical education, but might allow weaker students to enter medical schools. The second concern referred to the homogenisation of education methods and content, which offers opportunities to expose students to best practices, but may also pose a risk to education quality. The third issue referred to the experience that although student diversity helped to promote intercultural learning, it also jeopardised student well-being.

Conclusions In the eyes of teaching staff in international medical education, internationalisation can benefit education quality and society, but poses ethical dilemmas through the forces of marketisation, homogenisation and diversification. The findings reflect a tension between the views of scholars and those of practitioners. The critical perspective found in academic debates is largely missing in practice, and theoretical frameworks on ethics possibly overlook the benefits of international education. To facilitate ethical decision making, we propose that scholars and practitioners globally try to learn from each other.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)427-435
Number of pages9
JournalMedical Education
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2020




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