On diversity as a resource for learning

Is it exploitative to view international students as a learning resource for home students?

There is in my view a problematic tension inherent in the concept of diversity as a good thing. On the one liberal multicultural hand, diversity (linguistic, cultural, experiential, social) is a sign of an inclusive egalitarianism.  But in resisting racism and other forms of discrimination, there is a particular discourse that talks about the benefits of diversity. And whilst I don’t doubt that those are real, I think they have some nasty hidden effects. Here’s my argument.

International students are a sign that universities are internationally prestigious, open and welcoming, and culturally diverse. Those are all things that universities need to be in order to create their “brand”. So firstly, universities need international students to create this image. But the place where I start to have a real problem is the concept of students as a resource of pedagogical diversity. More diversity in the classroom means that students from different countries will bring to bear different knowledge, interpretations, ways of thinking and analyses. Therefore, British students can learn to be globalized international cosmopolitans in their own back garden, by interacting in the classroom with these global ambassadors for different ways of thinking. So, just like with gender roles, this creates a script that UK institutions expect international students to follow: they are to contribute their ‘different’ experiences and knowledge, and educate their peers, and sometimes their teachers. Research has already documented that UK students can feel burdened by imposed intercultural group work and this discourse of the educational benefits to the institution and home students brought by international students runs the risk of creating the same dynamic.

Only this is not why they have come to the UK – they have come to learn, not to teach. I think at some stage a conflation has happened between showing respect and interest in their knowledge and actually expecting a substantive contribution. Now this is perhaps only unfair if British students are treated differently, which I don’t have any personal experience of and I’m sure that most lecturers tread this line very carefully.

But the rhetoric is problematic. It assumes that a Chinese student, for instance, will have knowledge of ‘Chinese business practices’ (assuming there is such a thing in such a huge country), will think ‘like a Chinese person’ (ignoring the impact that globalization has had particularly on younger generations, and the possibility for individuality), and yet will be willing, in a rather Western idea of the modern classroom, to share their knowledge and experience. Isn’t it possible that some students might feel under pressure to perform in an area that they are not confident about and might be worried about exposing a lack of knowledge or not giving ‘the right answer’? If we’re talking about mature students on an MBA course, for instance, this is different. There we know that all students do have some experience and it will all be different and as professionals they are likely to be a bit more confident about expressing their views and knowledge. And I’m sure that most lecturers don’t pressure shy undergraduates unnecessarily.

On an institutional and a national level the rhetoric of considering cultural and international diversity a classroom resource that benefits UK students essentialises the difference between international students and home students. It sets them apart – for apparently good reasons. The counter to this, I know, is that only by having a frank and open dialogue about difference can we overcome them and communicate across them. Isn’t it possible though by constantly discussing difference, even when we do it positively, that we reinforce it?

Then there’s the problem of how this sits with a vision of students as consumers. If students are paying for education as a service, what are their responsibilities and how can these be  imposed / encouraged? How can you have a student as consumer and a citizen participant?


Theoretical promiscuity

I was recently challenged at a job interview for having used two different theoretical frameworks in two publications, Bourdieu in one on nation branding, and Foucault for my main thesis research on policy discourses on international students. The panel member asked me whether this suggested that I was ‘intellectually promiscuous’, to which my gut response was ‘yeah, so?’. 

I think I put it better, but I still stand by it. I argued that I used the framework which was appropriate to the subject – looking at nation branding in higher education, what stood out was the reference to different forms of capital, which we called ‘promised capitals’. Foucault doesn’t have a lot to say about that, nor does he have a lot to say to a marketing campaign which is primarily visual. Foucault, in my reading, is very focused on words, the written text and the conceptual dimensions. (If I’m wrong, I’d love to be corrected). Bourdieu’s concept of capitals, however, is flexible enough to be applied to visual as well as written. 

I think that you have to consider the relevance of the theory to your topic. What sense does it make to apply a Foucauldian analysis of discourse to waste management systems, for example? Unless you’re talking about the way that people conceptualise and talk about waste management, it’s not going to be particularly illuminating. If you actually want to know which systems work best, Foucault isn’t your man. Which is fine, because there are (I assume) people who have developed conceptual frameworks for evaluating systems. This is more about theoretical pragmatism, than promiscuity.

But this idea of using the right theory for the right topic is really only a part of my intellectual promiscuity. The next step, which I find far more interesting, is the synthesis of relevant theories in a particular area. 

For instance, I think that in international education, you could usefully synthesise both Bourdieu’s capitals and Foucault’s discourse. This would allow you to examine how the concept of capitals is used and talked about in, for example, international HE marketing or policy, how cultural capital develops as a discursive object and as a selling point. And yes, I’m aware that Foucault was gearing up to a critique of Bourdieu, but that doesn’t mean that their concepts can’t be used in tandem. In this sense, I would go with the pretentious term bricolage, rather than promiscuity. 

I think the phrasing of the original question is interesting too – ‘promiscuity’. It implies that the academic norm is to be ‘wedded’, presumably monogamously, to a single theorist or their theory. And I see that many academics do at least establish their careers through exploration of a single concept in a particular domain, but do they really stick to it for their entire research trajectory? Isn’t that pretty dull, for a start? I know that we have to be specialists, but I thought that meant expertise in a particular area, like international higher education, rather than that in combination with a particular theorist. 

I think that working with different theorists, from different intellectual traditions with different focuses, encourages an intellectual flexibility. I think a degree of eclecticism broadens the mind and allows you to mine your area from different perspectives. 

My concern is that this could be perceived as dabbling, never gaining a detailed theoretical foundation in a particular area. Is theoretical promiscuity / bricolage / eclecticism a career advantage or a minefield? 

Incidentally, I got the job, so they must have liked my answer!

Why UK policy doesn’t impact international student mobility

The UK has a strong reputation and tradition for recruiting significant numbers of international students into higher education, and has sustained a position as the second destination of choice after the USA. But it is only since 1999 that coherent policy positions have been developed on international student mobility. Prior to this date, decisions (such as the imposition of full-cost fees from 1979) were made on an ad hoc basis (Walker, 2014). Therefore, this study takes 1999 as its starting point to investigate the key question: does policy influence international student mobility? 
This presentation is a spin-off from my thesis research which conducted a critical document analysis, using discourse analysis with a focus on how international students are represented in policy, drawing on both education policy and migration policy. Staying within the UK policy discourse, I focus on non-EU students only. I use open-access online data from the UK Higher Education Statistics Authority and UNESCO and world bank data to examine changes in patterns of inward mobility to the UK during the different policy periods, looking at particular indicators. I’m going to start by explaining briefly what the policy has been, and how it has represented students. 

The key educational policies since 1999 can be divided into three periods, further complicated by the change of immigration policy under the Coalition Government. From 1999-2004, the Prime Minister’s Initiative to recruit more international students ran. This policy focused bluntly on increasing student numbers, setting recruitment numbers for a period of 5 years. It also introduced a national brand for the first time, Education UK. The brand sought to develop an identity for the UK based on “a dynamic tradition; the new world class; being the best I (international students) can be” and is “responsive; welcoming; alive with possibilities” (BC, 1999, p.1). This was accompanied by a programme of visa changes, facilitating applications, introducing a right to work part-time for all students (FE as well as HE), and facilitating post-study work. This was consistent with the Blair government’s wider immigration policy, encouraging immigration and diversity with a view to the economic benefits. During this period, international students were represented very positively, as assets to the UK making cultural and social contributions to communities and universities, and as economic assets. Their role as a ambassadors for soft power and developing Britain’s influence, building relationships through student mobility. 

In 2006, this was re-focused and launched as the PMI2, the Initiative for International Education. Recruitment targets were still a key element, with increased numbers. However, it also introduced a new target: to double the number of countries sending over 10,000 students by 2011. There were concerns that the market was too reliant on a few key source countries. The extent to which the policy implemented this target, however, is questionable, as it also established ‘priority countries’ which received significant proportions of recruitment and marketing activity and budgets, several of which were already major source countries. A second innovation was the centralised focus on the improvement of student experience. The PMI2 had identified that students were often disappointed by the reality of education and life in the UK, and this initiative, by injecting small funding into institutional projects, aimed to ‘manage student expectations’ and improve experience. This often related to encouraging social integration. Finally, the PMI2 stressed the importance of other forms of engagement in international education through developing institutional partnerships and transnational higher education (where students are located wholly overseas but undertake programmes either run or certified by UK institutions). The PMI2 stressed the quality of education rationale, and represented students often as educational assets, contributors to an intercultural teaching environment. The PMI2 ran until 2011, but in 2010 Labour lost the general election and a Coalition government was established between the majority Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats. 

One of the key tenets of the Conservative manifesto during the election was the impetus to reduce net migration “to the tens of thousands”. Claiming impacts on social services, housing and transport as a result of mass immigration, leading to widespread “public concern”, these targets were introduced, in the face of opposition from Liberal Democrats. These impacted international students who are categorised as immigrants under UK definitions, in line with UN definitions. In particular, the debate on student migration was shaped by the bogus college scandal in 2009-10, where a number of students were found to be enrolled in FE and language colleges which were providing inadequate teaching, support and monitoring. Effectively these students were argued to be exploiting the student visa route as a means of entering the UK labour market illegally. This led to procedures being tightened for students, with the English language level required for entry raised, restrictions on part-time work introduced and the Highly-Trusted sponsor status introduced as a requirement to recruit international students. A further burden of monitoring and compliance was placed on institutions. In addition, the post-study work route was closed and border interviews were introduced. The tenor of this debate has focused on reducing abuse of the system and minimizing illegal immigration, but there has been little recognition that the HE sector has very limited instances of such abuse. The emphasis has been placed on recruiting “genuine international students” who are argued to be those who study, ‘contribute’ economically, culturally, socially and financially. While representations of students as economic and educational assets are still present in policy, the opposition of the ‘genuine’ student and the ‘bogus’ student as aspiring immigrants is quite dominant in policy discourses (although contested by opposition parliamentarians and the sector). 

In 2013, the Coalition government published the International Education Strategy. This policy covers direct recruitment of international students, but emphasises transnational higher education, education technology, commercial relationships, and large-scale investment in global partner countries. In other words, it privileges “education exports” which do not require the long-term physical presence of students as immigrants. However, it does emphasise a warm welcome for international students, whose numbers are not limited or capped. A new branding strategy is Known as Britain is GREAT, this incorporated the Education UK brand under the ‘Knowledge is GREAT Britain’ pillar. It is essentially a visual campaign, drawing heavily on historical symbols. In contrast to the more intentionally modern iconography of the original Education UK brand, this evokes a more traditional image. 2013 also saw the introduction of two key immigration policy changes: the health surcharge, and the requirement for landlords and employers to check the immigration status of tenants and employees. This introduces further barriers for international students to live, work and study in the UK. This year, the Home Office further restricted the ease of application for extending student visas, forcing students to leave the country to apply. This makes it more difficult for students to, for example, study at undergraduate and then apply to a postgraduate degree, as they would have to return home in between periods of study. 

So how has this impacted student numbers? During this period, HESA data shows significant growth in student numbers. The PMI, naturally, claimed this as a success of their policy as the targets for both periods had been achieved and indeed exceeded. While there is a clear slowdown in growth after 2010, coinciding with the introduction of net migration targets, increases are still apparent under the most recent policy period covered by the International Education Strategy. This seems to suggest that the policies do shape mobility. However, if policies were stimulating demand, we would expect to see consistent increases in rates of growth, which is not the case.

When the PMI first launched, growth rates had been on the increase for the previous decade. It capitalised on existing growth during the 1990s, which peaked during the PMI. but this was led primarily by the sector, rather than state policy. While the first PMI was still in effect (with the same branding, marketing and policies), growth fell significantly. While growth recovered somewhat, after about 2010 we can see a steady decline in rates of growth, coinciding with the introduction of Coalition migration policy. The introduction of the International Education Strategy coincides with a slight recovery in growth rates, followed shortly by another decline. This suggests that the overall pattern of student numbers masks changes in rates of growth. However, these changes do not systematically coincide with changes in policy, with the exception of migration policy. 

Changes in migration policy have particularly affected demand from India. Looking at the 2015 top 5 source countries for international students from the UK, there is continuing significant growth from China, small growth from Nigeria, Malaysia and the USA (interestingly both our main competitor and a key source country). Numbers of students from India, however, have declined steadily since the removal of the post-study work route in 2010. Kemp (2016) suggests that the desire to gain work experience after study is a key decision factor for Indian students, who are therefore deterred by this lack of opportunity in the UK. It is notable that this does not appear to have affected demand from China. Also, that the UK is able to attract students from these countries is not necessarily impacted by policy. All 5 of these countries make the world’s top 20 for outward student mobility; they are among the biggest global senders of students. That the UK has large numbers of students from these countries is not therefore a testament to the UK’s pulling power or effective international education policies; it is a function of demand. This data also shows a slight reduction in overall outward mobility from India. 

There are other indicators which can help to evaluate the impact of policy on student migration. I mentioned that one of the targets of PMI2 was to double the number of countries sending over 10,000 students to the UK. HESA numbers clearly indicate that this target was not achieved. Only 1 Hong Kong, was added). This suggests that this particular policy failed to significantly alter patterns of demand in terms of which source country students come from. 

Another key indicator is in the growth of transnational higher education. Since data began to be collected on offshore students in 2007-8, there has clearly been a rapid growth in this body of students. This is in line with the policy priorities of both the PMI2 and the International Education Strategy. While it is unlikely that this indicates students are choosing TNHE instead of global mobility, it does suggest that growth in TNHE is more politically convenient for the UK than growth in international student mobility. 

Placing the UK in the context of the rest of the world helps to explain why the UK experiences overall increasing numbers but declining rates of growth. It is apparent that over this period, overall rates of global student mobility were increasing. Indeed, during the first PMI, market share actually fell by 3% (Bohm et al, 2004) despite achieving the increases in recruitment targets. In other words, the UK has failed to keep pace with the growth in the rest of the market. Instead, students are increasingly travelling to other destinations for international study, and non-traditional destinations are becoming more important.

The demographics of source countries is frequently given as a reason for large scale outward student mobility, and certainly China and India have large populations of 15-24 year olds. However, China’s young adolescent population is no longer growing, and growth in 3 other major source countries is only slight. This suggests that the UK may struggle in the future to maintain even its current rates of international student mobility, let alone to increase its market share. 

Lack of domestic capacity for enrolling in higher education at home is also often given as a push factor for outward mobility (Mazzaroll and Soutar, 2002). However, again looking at the top 5 source countries as an example, gross enrolment ratios have been rising during this period. According to my analysis, GER is positively correlated with outward mobility (coefficient .06, p<0.0001). This suggests that as participation in higher education is normalised, participation in global student mobility becomes an option for differentiation, adding value in the labour market in contrast to domestically educated peers. In other words, higher domestic enrolment may mean increases in student mobility. 

Equally, growth in the middle classes is a commonly cited reason behind outward student mobility. Homi Kharas at the Brookings Institute has argued that the global middle classes are expanding rapidly and the balance of economic power is likely to shift eastwards. However, Kharas uses the definition of a household income (with purchasing power parity controlled for) of over 10 USD a day, which a recent Pew report points out is also borderline poverty levels in highly developed countries (they also suggest that growth is geographically varied). My analysis based on 2011 data from the World Bank and UNESCO found a moderately significant correlation (.287) (P=.02) between adjusted net national income per capita and outward mobility. So there is certainly a relationship. Interestingly, there does not appear to be a strong correlation between GDP and outward mobility, but there is a negative correlation between the Global Inequality Index and outward mobility (based on the percentage of wealth concentrated in the top 20% of the population). In other words, the more equal a society is, the more likely students are to travel for their education – given a high proportion of young people in the population, and a high GER. This does not necessarily indicate a capacity to engage in international education, certainly not where current costs of a UK education are approximately £30,000 a year. Based on current exchange rates, that would mean a family would need approximately 112 USD a day in disposable income to fund a student overseas. 

This may explain why only approximately .1% of the world’s population of 15-24 year olds travel abroad for their higher education. This suggests that there is room for expansion in demand in demographic terms, but perhaps not in economic terms. 

So what I am trying to say is that UK state policy may have the power to put students off from studying in the UK, and definitely has the power to shape the discourse and representations of international students. But it doesn’t have the appear to be creating demand, or changing patterns of growth in direct recruitment. 

The massive growth experienced in the early 2000s is essentially the product of a confluence of circumstances: open policies, high numbers of students, and growing incomes. It is unlikely to be repeated. As economies grow, and inequality (hopefully) reduces, overall numbers of internationally mobile students are likely to continue to increase. UK policies on international students could therefore be said to be meeting existing demand. They are not, however, creating it.

Please reference as: Lomer, S. (2016). International student mobility: policies and flow in the UK, 1999-2015. Presented at: International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion Annual Conference, Prague, 30th June-2nd July. 

NB: There are work routes which graduates are eligible for: Tier 1 graduate entrepreneurs route – need a business plan; Tier 2 – sponsored employment, need a job offer and an eligible business; Tier 5 – temporary worker

Indicative references:

Amit, V. (2010) Student mobility and internationalisation: rationales, rhetoric and ‘institutional isomorphism’. Anthropology in Action, 17(1), pp. 6-18. 

British Council (1999) Building a world class brand for British education: the Brand Report. Manchester: British Council Education Counselling Service.

British Council (2010) Making it happen: The Prime Minister’s Initiative for International Education. London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Böhm, A., Follari, M., Hewett, A., Jones, S., Kemp, N., Meares, D., Pearce, D. and Van Cauter, K. (2004) Vision 2020: forecasting international student mobility, a UK perspective. London: British Council, Universities UK, IDP Education Australia and Education UK. 

DTZ (2011) Prime Minister’s Initiative for International Education Phase 2 (PMI2) London: DTZ.

Department of Business Innovation and Skills. (2013) International education: global growth and prosperity. London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills. 

Geddie, K. (2014) Policy mobilities in the race for talent: competitive state strategies in international student mobility. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40 (2), pp. 235 -248.

Kharas, H. (2010). The emerging middle class in developing countries. OECD Development Centre, Working Paper No. 285. Paris: Organisation for Economic and Cultural Development.  

Papatsiba, V. (2005) Political and Individual Rationales of Student Mobility: a case-study of ERASMUS and a French regional scheme for studies abroad. European Journal of Education, 40(2), pp. 173-188.

Raghuram, P. (2008) ‘Governing the mobility of skills’, in Gabrielle, C. and Pellerin, H. (eds). Governing international labour migration: current issues, challenges and dilemmas. London: Routledge, pp. 81-94. 

Rizvi, F. (2011) Theorizing student mobility in an era of globalization. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 17(6), pp. 693-701.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Institute for Statistics. (2015) International student mobility in tertiary education. Available at: http://www.uis.unesco.org/DataCentre/Pages/BrowseEducation.aspx (Accessed: 16 July 2015). 

Xiang, B. and Shen, W. (2009) International student migration and social stratification in China. International Journal of Educational Development, 29(5), pp. 513-522.

World Bank (2015) Databank. Available from: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.TER.ENRR (Accessed 15 November 2015). 
This is the text of a presentation that I delivered today, in a symposium organised very kindly by Christof van Mol, Parvati Raghuram and Yvonne Raino at the IMISCOE. It was a very interesting pair of symposia with perspectives from Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. What stood out for me was the similarities in discourses and policies between these countries, suggesting a real shared global policy space. clearly these are navigated and negotiated differences in national contexts, but the continuities are notable.
Here’s a link to the accompanying PPT https://www.dropbox.com/s/8k099qgoz7wzfsr/International%20student%20mobility.pptx?dl=0&nbsp;

Who counts as ‘international’?

The construction of ‘international’ as a social category means that certain people are included and excluded. It creates a binary opposition between the default/ normal (not international) and the Other (international). How do you get counted as ‘international’? Two ways: either you need a visa to reside or study in the UK, so you are not a British citizen and not an EU citizen (referendum pending). Or you haven’t been resident in the UK for the last 3 years in which case you are still ‘British’ but are categorized by the university as ‘international’ for fee-paying purposes.  So being considered ‘international’ has a number of consequences. You pay more. You may be subjected to immigration controls of varying degrees (biometric scans, costly visa applications, health checks, police registration, surveillance of accommodation and finances). You may have access to specialist support at the university through language courses and advisors. You might get offered different accommodation with other international students (because you need year round accommodation, but the consequence is often de facto segregation). You get invited to additional induction or freshers week activities. And in classrooms you may be expected to act as an educational resource, or suspected of having inadequate language levels.

I’m a bit personally involved with this categorisation, please forgive the navel-gazing or consider it ‘reflexivity’, but I think my experience on the margins of this categorisation is enlightening. I was categorised as an ‘international student’ because I completed high school and undergrad in the USA. Before that, my family spent most of my childhood in Indonesia and Benin. I grew up all over the place, and came back to England to do my MA, when I got slammed with international fees. Well, fair enough – it wasn’t really the money I objected to. I objected to having been defined by my Britishness by others for my entire life. This was particularly apparent in the US (‘oh my gawd, I love your accent, say something’), whereas in Indonesia and Benin, we were primarily defined as white expats, and whether you were American, Australian, British, Japanese (they counted too), or the occasional rare Canadian, basically didn’t matter. So I went with that categorisation, watched Blackadder, kept my accent, went back to England as often as I could and stayed English (apart from occasional forays into my French side). And then I came back and got told that I wasn’t ‘really’ English. The university told me I was international and put me through international induction (where I met lovely people and actually had a great time). My friends told me I had missed out on too much pop culture in the last decade, so I wasn’t really English. And I wasn’t. But I sound and look like it. Now I know enough Big Brother and celeb gossip and appropriate small talk and pub etiquette to pass for ‘really English’.

How many marginal cases are there like me? I taught a student whose parents were of Nigerian origin, so her name didn’t sound English, who had completed high school in Saudi Arabia, and therefore was categorised as international, despite being about as British as they come in her behaviour, beliefs, knowledge and so on. I had another who held a British passport as a Hong Kong resident who had chosen to be categorised as international rather than British because of his previous education. And on my MA course, one of my friends was a child of Zimbabwean refugee white settlers who had lived in the UK for over 5 years but still considered herself African. We are the marginal cases, the liminal internationalists, both foreign and not, choosing and resisting the categorisations imposed.

So we can view what it means to be international differently. And to an extent,  this depends on the purpose behind this categorisation. If the purpose is to impose surveillance and governmental control over a population who constitutes a risk, then definitions based on citizenship alone are clearly too broad-brush. For example, the list of countries who are required to complete police registration corresponds broadly with countries where serious organised crime is considered to be a problem. But citizenship alone doesn’t constitute a risk factor for involvement in organised crime. Similarly, country of origin is used as a proxy measure to indicate the risk of people working illegally, and they are submitted to additional migration controls.

The international education strategy, however, suggests that the reason higher education is supposed to be international is, in part, because of the educational benefits. Having a ‘diverse’ classroom (we’ll come on to the problems with imagining diversity exclusively through a nationalistic lens later) is believed to improve the educational experiences of both home and international students by offering intercultural working, sharing knowledge, and so on. By the way, anyone engaged in the actual practice of teaching in internationally diverse classrooms can list off about half a dozen practical issues with this premise. But let’s grant the premise for a moment that an international classroom is by definition better: why does that mean people of different nationalities and residency?

Here’s a random list of people who could reasonably be said to be international in the sense that they have different cultural experiences, international perspectives and could offer a ‘window on the world’ to ‘traditional’ UK home students in the classroom:

  • Refugees
  • Immigrants with permanent residents
  • Children of the above
  • People who have spent time abroad
  • People with international families.

So we can think quite differently about what it means to be ‘international’. Sheffield University ran a charming campaign a couple of years ago called ‘we are all international’, and while I find the sentiment a bit cloying, they have a point.

In a (post)modern world, who among us doesn’t have an international experience? Even if we haven’t been abroad or spent significant time there (and let’s not extrapolate from elite experiences and assume that everyone takes regular holidays ‘abroad’), we probably know at least one person who has. We are country of immigrants, and I say that with pride. Even if I wasn’t international based on my residence abroad, I would still have a French grandmother, a great-uncle who wrote his dissertation on Lake Chad, a mother who studied Arabic in Tunisia, and extended family from the Caribbean. So how many ‘home’ students also have similar international exposure? Even if I didn’t, I’d still be a valuable member of the classroom because I read and think, and so would they.

So what I’m saying is by all means value the educational contribution of international students – but not by virtue of their citizenship or residency. Value their contribution because they are people with experiences and ideas, some of them all their own.

Establishing binary categories where you are one thing or the other alienates us from each other and allows us to maintain our false, divisive stereotypes, even where they wear the guise of ‘valuing diversity’.

On counting bodies

One of the most frequently reiterated statements in policy on international students is a quantification – X international students in this year, X percentage increase on last year, X percentage market share. Statistical data like this forms part of background information in most documents relating to international education, to education export data, and so on. I think it’s problematic.

Firstly, as with all forms of statistics and census data, counting is reductionist. The accumulation of information is an act of governmental control and  particularly statistical data about the population privileges the state in the construction of social issues. To be able say that there are a given number of international students present in the UK demonstrates the government’s control over their presence. And with visa regimes and strict migration rules, this control is all encompassing, regulating students’ ability to study, work, where they may live and their access to medical care.

But the most frequently cited statistic refers exclusively to the numbers of students currently studying.

 (Creative Commons license, image owned by JISC)

It excludes how many students graduated with 2:1 or higher, how many have gained graduate positions, how satisfied they are with their experience, how happy they currently are, how safe they feel, how much support is offered by their host institution, whether they perceive themselves to be integrated or learning about British culture. Some of this information is available, given the increasing focus on satisfaction as a metric for quality and on employability. Yet these data appear less often than the simple headcount. When it is so frequently reiterated, unwritten conclusions may be drawn about how ‘international’, ‘global’, or ‘cosmopolitan’ higher education is, based purely on the numbers of students rather than illustrative information about their perceptions or experiences.

Also problematic is what this focus on a single statistic implies about understandings of what is working well with international education. A headcount is based on either visas issued or tuition fees paid at registration, depending on your source of information (incidentally, the people excluded and included on this basis make interesting marginal categories). A high number indicates either a ‘successful recruitment strategy’ or a ‘thriving market in higher education’. But the dimensions excluded in this statistic as I mentioned above are also potential indicators of a happy environment. That is to say that success for UKHE and individual institutions may not be success for every international student, and certainly their experience may not be entirely positive. Yet it is rare (in fact, I haven’t seen this data and I don’t even know that HESA collects it) to find data on drop-out rates for international students, or rates of depression (although cultural differences would make this hard to tabulate, I grant). Retention is a key indicator of quality for home students, so why not for international students?

I also think it is problematic because despite the government’s oft-repeated assurance that the red carpet is rolled out for ‘the best and the brightest’ international students, this data does not give any indicator of the ‘quality’ of the students coming in. Again, with home students universities report the entry A-level marks, but with international students, this is not required. While international differences in secondary education would make this a challenge for data collection, international admissions offices have this information and it could be disseminated on a national level, but it is not (assuming that to be the ‘best and brightest’ international students must have a demonstrated track record of academic performance, which I don’t accept, but that’s for another time.). Certainly with English language tests this information can be easily compared as the majority of students take the same tests (owing to market domination by one organisation, but again, I digress). This decision reflects the priorities of national level policy on internationalisation, implying that raw numbers of bodies are of more importance than their previous academic background. This also hides the rampant inequalities that pervade the international higher education marketplace. It rather suggests then that contrary to the government’s stated position of recruiting selectively, the main priority is bums on seats, no matter whose bum, how happy the bum is or whether the bum is qualified.


So to sum up: concentrating on bodies through the door reduces the human experience of international students, promotes a simplistic definition of success in internationalisation and contradicts the government’s stance on recruiting the best. Let’s stop using this meaningless piece of ‘information’ and ask questions instead.

National branding of higher education

Or why aren’t we talking about national branding of higher education? 

Based on recently published article: Constructing a national higher education brand for the UK: positional competition and promised capitals. By Sylvie Lomer, Vassiliki Papatsiba & Rajani Naidoo in Studies in Higher Education. Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03075079.2016.1157859

‘Brand yourself.’ ‘Define your personal brand.’ ‘Develop a clear institutional identity.’ These pieces of advice from marketing experts have become ubiquitous in recent years, used in career advice, entrepreneurial doctrines and, as many academics will recognise, in universities. 

A lot has been written on institutional branding of universities, a consequence of entrenched discourses of marketisation. Equally, there is a body of work on nation branding – the idea that countries can, for the sake of tourism and economic competitiveness, define their key attributes for external (and at times internal) consumption. 

There is, however, another level of branding which has largely been sidelined: sector-level branding of higher education. In the international higher education marketplace, it is not only individual institutions which compete. Students tend to make choices first between countries, and then between institutions. The exception is students targeting elite institutions, in which case attending an elite institution (Ivy League, Oxbridge, Ecoles Superieur, etc) supersedes preferences for particular countries . But for the majority of globally mobile students, the reputation of the country is the starting point for their decision making. 

This has led to major destination countries adopting national branding strategies for their HE sectors. Examples include Study Australia, the recent initiative EduCanada, and Education UK. Our research examines the constructions and implications of the Education UK brand and its housing under the Britain is GREAT umbrella campaign. A recent example of this is the UK’s recent initiative ‘Britain is GREAT’, under the auspices of Visit Britain. The campaign combines icons of entrepreneurship, invention and innovation, design, shopping, heritage and culture to create an umbrella brand under which the UK can be marketed as a destination for tourism, investment and spending. There is a major focus on globally recognised luxury brands, like Burberry and Mulberry, as well as on tradition and heritage attractions.

Marketing campaign run by Visit Britain including range of industries

The brand uses symbols of capitals – cultural, educational and symbolic – to appeal to students seeking international higher education as a resource for social advantage. 

The Education UK brand emphasises individual achievement and social mobility. When it launched in 1999, its tagline was ‘Innovative, individual, inspirational’, and many of its advertisements borrowed the injunction ‘be the best you can be’ from its brand footprint, defined through market research . As Tony Blair declared when launching his Prime Minister’s Initiative (to recruit more international students), British higher education was ‘a first-class ticket for life’. 

This is a direct appeal to the aspirations of globally mobile students. Often from the expanding middle classes of developing BRIC countries, they see a future of increasingly competitive job markets and a perpetual drive for social distinction (often driven by parents). An international degree, with the assumed cultural capital of English fluency and the capacity to interact in cross-cultural professional environments, creates a different kind of educational capital which offers relative advantage in competitive labour markets

Under the Britain is GREAT, the Education UK brand has taken on new forms. The visual symbolism of this campaign deploys the Union Jack flag against immediately recognisable icons of traditional British education – usually Oxford and Cambridge, or laboratories and libraries. Here, the appeal is to an older, more elite form of cultural capital. It says ‘here is the seat of traditional learning and expertise – join our club’. 

Marketing image from Education UK
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The International Education Strategy published in 2013, and surrounding messages about the student visa system as well as the status of higher education as an engine for economic growth have presented a consistent message: the UK welcomes, ‘rolls out the red carpet for’ ‘the brightest and the best’. The ‘brightest and the best’ are defined as students of relatively high economic status (given the financial visa requirements) and of high academic status (according to the policy messages). They are also supposed to be those who ‘contribute the most’ to the UK during their stay, either through financial investment, or academic engagement (they are supposed to provide a ‘window on the world’ for British students). This is all in the context of the drive to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”, a statistic which includes international students, so a pinch of salt is recommended. In return, the implied promise is that a UK education will provide access to influential positions in students’ countries of origin, to high status occupations and higher rates of employability. 

This raises a number of questions. Firstly, does branding affect students’ expectations and experiences? Secondly, could it actually affect their self-representations and identity? Thirdly, does sector-level branding affect institutional level priorities, activities, discourses and branding? Our answer to these is ‘probably yes’. Because significant resources go into this national branding, institutions are likely to be implicated in this project, particularly those without the resources to engage in a wide range of international networks independently. Where students are attracted to a national level brand and relate to it, they are likely to frame their experiences in relation to those representations. To what extent does this actually seep into the classroom or impact pedagogical relationships, it is impossible to say, but the longer the brand operates with its assumptions and representations unchallenged, the more likely it is to do so. 

Academic staff need to be aware of the messages that are going out about UK HE. We need to critically engage in the classroom and the staff room with the expectations and beliefs that may result from them. And we need decide whether we accept the way that our intellectual work and pedagogical relationships are being sold internationally. If we don’t, that’s a message that needs to be passed up to our elected representatives who fund and approve these multi-million pound initiatives. This is the fundamental problem: our work, our emotional labour, our sweat, anxiety, tears, creativity, passion, dedication, intellectual travails, inspirational teaching is being packaged and sold. Have we been consulted? Have we consented?



Welcome to the Internationalisation in Higher Education blog! We are a small group of doctoral students from the University of Sheffield in the School of Education who all have an interest in internationalisation within higher education studies, and have formed a Special Interest Group for mutual support and discussion.

We had our first meeting on Thursday Feb 11th, and presented as a panel at a conference the next day  – Researching Higher Education: the Next Five Years.

We have diverse research interests and emerging projects within this, including:

  • Transnational higher education in Oman
  • Internationalisation of higher education in Malaysia
  • Internationalisation at home
  • Policy on international students in the UK
  • STEM policy in the UK

We hope this blog will be a space to discuss emerging themes of research and put ideas out for consideration.

If you would like to join or be involved in the Special Interest Group, please let us know in the comments below!