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I was invited to comment (via the magic of digital media) on Hilary Perraton’s A History of Foreign Students in Britain (Palgrave, 2014), at the launch taking place in London on 29 November 2014. If you are there I’ll hopefully appear on a big screen, but for the rest of the world, here’s what I had to say:

Let me begin by saying that I have very much enjoyed reading this book. I come to you of course, as one who has been a ‘foreign’ student in Britain , and I imagine that many of those in the audience also share this experience.

Foreign students have become a familiar feature on university campuses and in cities across Britain since the 1980s, when institutions, governments, and the public alike began to grapple with economic and domestic policy shifts that drove universities, in Hilary’s words ‘into the marketplace’, forcing them to seek new forms of income and new forms of commercial engagement.

However, too often all parties involved in discussion about the place of foreign students in Britain universities are in danger of thinking of them as a phenomenon of the late 20th century. That’s one of the reasons that this book by Hilary Perraton is so valuable.

In taking the long view on international student mobility, Hilary shows us that the movement of students across borders has been happening since universities were first established in the British Isles in the eleventh century. Indeed, with the growth of ‘studium generale’ across Medieval Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, the idea of student mobility became central to the very definition of a university. The term itself referred to an intellectual culture that was shared throughout western Christendom. ‘Scholars and tutors could travel, study and teach with their qualifications universally recognised’ (20). In fact, the movement of ideas, books and people was a central part of developing and propagating this pan-European culture. Since then, the numbers and direction of the flow of students across borders has waxed and waned, but their connection to the basal idea of the university remains.

Taking this the long view immediately reveals the slipperiness of the definitions we mobilise when we study this subject. What counts as a ‘student’? Should it include secondary school students? Or those who enrolled for a time but never graduated? What makes a ‘student’ foreign? And for that matter, what makes them ‘British’? This is not simply a question of parentage, residence and the difficulty of categorising lives lived across borders, but also a matter of shifting geo-political boundaries. Should the many sites of ‘empire’ – tied so closely to British universities by culture, and by the movement of students and the hiring of academics, and indeed also to British economic interests, that in 1889 the Commissioners appointed to direct the proceeds of the 1851 Exhibition, placed colonial universities alongside British provincial ones when they designed scholarships designed to benefit ‘national science’ – be counted as part of an expansive British academic world? Indeed, which regions were part of the empire and which outside it? The notion of ‘informal empire’ takes us only so far. How do we think about Scotland – with its flourishing universities that sat at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment – in the period before the Act of Union, but also after it – when distinctive institutional culture remained, attracting large numbers of international students to the famous Edinburgh Medical School well into the 19th century. Indeed, institutional particularity is a difficult subject to get at. Perhaps the nation is a poor unit of analysis, when one institution could thrive, and another languish, both at the same time.

Thinking about the difficulty of drawing these conceptual boundaries points to the problems inherent in attempting to ‘nationalise’ ideas. What is ‘British science’ if it is undertaken in part by people who were or who were once, ‘foreign students’, and who bring to their scientific explorations, all the experience of other places and contexts? When knowledge is crucial to the waging of war, or to the building of nations, or indeed to the generation of ‘intellectual property’, this becomes a pressing question.

Although the title does not suggest it, Hilary Perraton’s book also takes the wide view. Students have never travelled along a one-way street, and their movement into Britain must be seen alongside a direction of travel that flows the other way. Hilary suggests this in various places – for example, he tells us that in the 15th century, Britain exported more scholars that it attracted (22) – but I’d often liked to have seen more about outward flows alongside inward ones. What he does do very well is place foreign students in Britain within the broader context of European and global movement, and the chapter on international comparisons, in particular I found illuminating.

By taking both a long and a wide view we see clearly the importance of what we might term ‘the international political economy of higher education’.

Students did not simply come to Britain – they were attracted here by different forces at different times, and the rise and fall in their numbers tracks the political and economic history of both local and international forces. Therefore, in medieval Europe religious orders such as the Dominicans encouraged their members to travel and twelfth century Bologna, Paris and Padua attracted an increasing number of foreign students. Paradoxically, as universities flowered across Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, travel between them decreased as each turned to their regions. Towards the end of the 15th century numbers rose again as the wars of religion abated and religious learning and law became central to the emerging political consensus. Travel once again became more restricted during the Thirty Years’ war (1618-48) and the end of the 17th century was ‘a period in which European university numbers were falling and bans were placed on foreign study by mercantilist monarchs’ (203). By the end of the 18th century, many were in decline, with a number of universities folding completely. But the mid nineteenth century witnessed their return. Empire, industrialisation, and the growth of the middle classes and the professions, led to an increase in universities, university numbers, and foreign students alike. On the cusp of the First World War 15.4% of the students in France, 10.7% of those in Germany, and approximately 10% of those in Britain were from abroad (204, 56). Between the two world wars a host of international agencies and scholarships supported mobility in the aid of ‘international understanding’, but the rise of fascism changed all this, reminding us that flows of students are driven by war and fear, as well as by hope and opportunity. The Cold War saw student mobility shaped by political imperatives, and students recruited into the soft diplomacy objectives of schemes like the Fulbright. As Hilary succinctly puts it ‘scholarship programmes illuminate government policy’ (215).

Crucially – and as these examples suggest – this was a political economy in which local states and later nations played crucial roles. The quote Hilary gives from Clark Kerr sums this up well:

Universities are, by nature of their commitment to advancing universal knowledge, essentially international institutions, but they have been living in a world of nation states that have designs upon them. My basic question is: where does this dual identification position these institutions between a mythical academic Heaven and a sometimes actual earthly hell, and in what ways does it affect how they may act? … Which to serve: the universal truth or the particularised power? (212)

Of course one of Hilary’s points is that apparent ‘universal truth’ and particularised power have often overlapped. The absolute claims of proponents of the Protestant Reformation were, for example, turned to very local ends by the crown in the 16th century.

And this seems to me an important point: the international political economy of higher education has generated overlapping geographies of student mobility. The wars of religion divided Europe into a Catholic and a Protestant zone around which students moved. This division was gradually (although never entirely) replaced by an age of empires, in which students were drawn variously to Britain, France and Spain. Later, during the Cold War, ‘two circles of European student mobility came into existence’, with Africa and Asia the site of battle (217). An ideological divide of east and west, echoed the earlier religious one that divided Europe into Protestant north and Catholic south (209).

Now we have the market. Where the notion of universities as a place of learning seems sometimes to sit ill with the imperative placed upon them to look for revenue in the global market for international students. Although it is couched in the language of choice, student mobility in this era of the market is characterised by vast disparities too.

Because the international political economy of higher education is and always has been marked, not just by politics, but also by geographies of economic and cultural inequality. Many of these played out in the reception of students. From reading Hilary’s book we see that Britain has a long and history of not being particularly welcoming to its student visitors. Race, says Hilary, was never a formal barrier – and by that I think he means that formal exclusion on the grounds of race was never institutionalised in university statutes in Britain. But there were, as he acknowledges, a myriad of other obstacles placed in the way of the aspiring non-conformist, Jewish, African or Indian student. Distance, confession, expense, opportunity all kept students away (48) and racism made them unwelcome after arrival. Some of these informal barriers were so actively encouraged that they might be classed official policy. Gender too shaped travel. Hilary discusses briefly the formal admittance of women. It’s difficult to capture, but the relationship between women’s worlds of learning, and those of men, is something we still don’t understand and it points to a much larger question that this book does not address: when some people moved, on whose immobility was their mobility contingent? These are relationships that it is hard to capture, but if we think increasingly about the international political economy of higher education in our own world, we see how crucial they are.

This book makes us ask: how have travelling students shaped British universities? Travelling students were constitutive of the early medieval idea of a university and there is a desperate sense in which this is equally true today. What would happen to British universities if their large cohorts of international students disappeared? This kind of accounting shows how crucial they have become to the operation of higher education institutions in Britain.

But thinking temporally and spatially about the long history of international student mobility also shows us just how central it remains to idea of the university itself. As Clark Kerr implied, universities still sit between the local and the ‘universal’: they depend on the free movement of ideas and people at the same time as they need to serve local constituencies. Mediating these demands, in the context of the changing international political economy of higher education has – as Hilary Perraton’s book shows – long been their challenge.

I’ve had a piece come out in Australian Studies, Vol 5 (2013) which examines the connections established by Australian universities with Britain in the era of “Victorian” globalisation.

JP Bainbridge (Registrar, University of Melbourne) UMA/I/1986

‘They do not go as strangers’: Academic connections between Australia and Britain, 1880-1939

At the end of July 1925, Alex Hill, the Secretary of the London based Universities’ Bureau of the British Empire, prepared a form letter that explained the organisation’s function:

The Bureau aims […] at doing all that might be done to promote the interests of university teachers who come to England. We are able, for example, to place them in touch with other visitors from overseas and with members of the Home Universities whom they would like to meet, to introduce them as readers in the Library of the British Museum, to secure their admission as temporary members of the Royal Colonial Institute which, with its library of 150,000 volumes and its generous supply of periodicals, offers also the amenities of a first-rate club. Visitors are asked to regard the Bureau as their Headquarters to which letters may be addressed, and at which enquiries may be made regarding travel-routes, hotels, etc.[1]

In advertising the Bureau’s services in this way, Hill was attempting to pursue the mission established for it by the First Congress of the Universities of the British Empire in 1912. This was ‘to collect University information from every part of the Empire and put it in a suitable form for easy distribution’; to act as a ‘clearing house’ for academic appointments and the interchange of staff and students, and to provide a forum for continued discussion of questions common to all universities in the Empire.[2]

Yet the reply Hill received in 1925 from the Registrar of the University of Melbourne, J.P. Bainbridge, suggests the limited extent to which—more than a decade after its inception—universities in Australia valued the Bureau’s services. Although Bainbridge thanked Hill for his ‘kind offer’ and hoped that in the future more members of the University might call into the London offices, he went on to explain that:

This country [Australia] and this University in particular is not yet (and I hope never will be) very rigidly cut off from the Old country.  Most of our Professors come from British Universities and have Home connections so that when they go to England they do not go as strangers in a strange country.[3]

Indeed, following a 1926 request from the Bureau for the University to increase its annual grant, Melbourne had responded by reducing it (to £20).[4] According to Bainbridge, in the mid-1920s the connections between universities in Britain and Australia were so strong that they did not require the mediating services of the Bureau.[5]

It is perhaps not surprising then, that the university histories produced in Australia before the Second World War all emphasise the importance of on-going academic connection with Britain. They saw the Australian universities as institutions founded as part of progressive expansion of the British people and their civilization; designed to cultivate both national and imperial citizens. Robert Dallen’s 1914 account of the University of Sydney provides a good example. It emphasised the University as both a sign and a disseminator of British civilisation in Australia and boasted of its continuing connections to old world academia.[6]

However, in the second half of the century, this portrayal of universities as part of a wider world of British scholarship shifted. University historians began to emphasise the distinctive qualities of colonial universities, to chart their departure from old world models, and to detail the achievements of their members as an important part of the story of the emergence of the independent nation. But, while they celebrated the unique qualities of local universities, many of these studies also exhibited the ‘conceptual confusion’ spoken of by Douglas Cole.[7] Emphasising the national dimension of their histories also entailed distancing these institutions from an earlier iteration of the national story – one that that had been not only Australian, but also British as well.[8] As a consequence, at the same time as they traced the successes of Australian universities and academics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these volumes also tended to portray them as derivative and lamented the dependence of their members on British scholarship.[9] They spoke of the progression of Australian graduates to British universities for further study as evidence of a ‘brain-drain’, and pointed to what they saw as the unidirectional migration of professors from Britain to Australia before the Second World War.[10] Eager to draw the boundaries of the new nation, the histories of the 1960s and 70s no longer described universities in Australia as functioning within a wider British academic system.

Yet this image of an at once dependent and distinctive Australian academic sector seems to stand at odds with the world Bainbridge described in 1925. In the context of the tightened global connections of our own age, and the emphasis universities across the world are placing on various forms of ‘internationalisation’, it is perhaps time to re-evaluate this earlier relationship between the universities of Britain and Australia.[11]

… read the rest of this piece in Australian Studies Vol 5 (2013) online


[1] Alex Hill to Bainbridge, 30 July 1925, Registrar’s Correspondence, UM312/1925/503, University of Melbourne Archives, (hereafter UMA).

[2] George Parkin (Canadian educationalist and Secretary of the Rhodes Trust) in Congress of the Universities of the Empire, 1912: Report of Proceedings, ed. Alex Hill (London, 1912), pp. 311, 323.

[3] Bainbridge to Hill, 9 Oct. 1925, UM312/1925/503, UMA.

[4]Bainbridge to the Bureau’s Treasurer, 29 Oct. 1926, UM312/1926/535, UMA.

[5]Bainbridge to the Registrar of the University of Tasmania, 19 Feb. 1932, UM312/1932/413, UMA. ‘I am afraid that we do not look upon our membership of the Bureau as being of very much practical use’, wrote Bainbridge to the Registrar to the University of Tasmania in 1932.

[6]Robert Ambrose Dallen, The University of Sydney, Its History and Progress (Sydney, 1914).

[7]Douglas Cole, ‘The Problem of ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Imperialism’ in British Settlement Colonies,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 10 (1971), pp. 160-82; Douglas Cole, “‘the Crimson Thread of Kinship”: Ethnic Ideas in Australia, 1870-1914,’ Historical Studies, vol. 14 (1971), pp. 511-25.

[8] See James Curran and Stuart Ward, The Unknown Nation: Australia after Empire (Melbourne,, 2010).

[9]James Johnston Auchmuty, The Idea of the University in Its Australian Setting: A Historical Survey (Melbourne, 1963), p. 147; W.H. Morris-Jones and T.J. Johnson, ‘A Commonwealth of Learning,’ The Round Table, vol. 60, (1970), p. 387; R. J. W. Selleck, The Shop : The University of Melbourne, 1850-1939 (Melbourne,, 2003), p. 26; W. J. Gardner, Colonial Cap and Gown: Studies in the Mid-Victorian Universities of Australasia (Christchurch,, 1979).

[10]Geoffrey Blainey, The University of Melbourne: A Centerary Portrait (Melbourne, 1956), p. 34; Richard Symonds, Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? (London, 1986), pp. 274-76; Donald Fleming, ‘Science in Australia, Canada and the United States: Some Comparative Remarks,’ Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of the History of Science, (Ithaca, 1964), p. x; E.T. Williams, ‘The Rhodes Scholars’ in ed. M.G. Brock and M.C. Curthoys, The History of the University of Oxford: Vol. 7, Part 2, the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 2000), pp. 717-26; Auchmuty, The Idea of the University in Its Australian Setting: A Historical Survey, p. 146; Gardner, Colonial Cap and Gown: Studies in the Mid-Victorian Universities of Australasia, p. 10. Stuart Macintyre, however, points to the high degree of movement, both between Australian universities and between Australia and the United Kingdom, among historians in the first half of the twentieth century. Stuart Macintyre, History, the University and the Nation (London, 1992), p. 8.

[11] Among others Antoinette Burton has called for a re-examination of the concept of the nation altogether and has contested the notion of home and empire as segregated domains. Antoinette Burton, ‘Introduction: On the Inadequacy and the Indispensability of the Nation’ in ed. Antoinette Burton, After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation (Durham, N.C, 2003), pp. 5-6.

RMS Lusitania 1910

In the spring of 2013, the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) commissioned a report to help university leaders think about the future of higher education. In response, Adam Nelson (Professor, Educational Policy Studies and History, University of Wisconsin-Madison) convened a group of historians from around the world (including me!) to consider how universities in the past had responded to major periods of change. Specifically, he asked each of us to write a brief essay identifying a “key moment” in the internationalization of higher education: a moment when universities responded to new historical circumstances by reorienting their relationship with the broader world. My contribution to the commissioned report is below, but you can read the other essays online at InsideHigherEd or download the pdf version at Kris Old’s and Susan Robertson’s GlobalHigherEd.

The 1880s: Global Connections and the British Settler Universities

Tamson Pietsch, Brunel University 

To a visitor from Britain, the original buildings of many of the universities established in the middle of the nineteenth century in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa appear reassuringly familiar. With ivied cloisters and neo-gothic edifices, they seem to stand as tangible signs of the exportation of old world traditions to the new.

But it would be a mistake to see these early settler universities as little more than transported institutions. They were not set up by British officials, as in India and later Africa, but rather by self-confident local elites who saw them as both symbols and disseminators of European civilisation in the colonies. Providing a classical and liberal (and often religious) education, these institutions were designed to cultivate both the morals and the minds of the young men who would lead colonial societies. Presuming the universality and superiority of ‘Western’ culture, they established themselves as the local representatives of ‘universal’ knowledge, proudly proclaiming this position in the neo-gothic buildings they erected and the Latin mottos they adopted. Fashioned by colonial politics and frequently funded by the state, in their early years, these ‘settler’ universities were very much local affairs.

However, in the 1870s the established relationship between culture and power had begun to change. On one hand, imperial expansion and revolutions in transport and communication and science were expanding the content and social function of ‘universal’ culture. On the other, in the context of an expansive franchise, local settler communities were beginning to demand that the universities they were financially supporting should be more than cultural incubators of a narrow elite. Still struggling for student numbers, settler universities could not afford to ignore these demands. To survive, they needed to find new ways to re-assert their position as cultural institutions that straddled the local and the global. They did so in two ways.

First, settler universities reconfigured their relationship with their local communities. They expanded their educational constituencies by widening their curricula and by expanding their franchise to include women and the middle classes – often doing so well in advance of universities in the United Kingdom (UK). From the 1880s students at Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and New Zealand could take degrees in pure and applied science, and by the 1890s schools of law and medicine were flourishing in institutions across Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. At the turn of the century this provision widened further to include engineering, veterinary science, dentistry, agriculture, architecture, education and commerce. Women began to be admitted in the same period, and universities’ active involvement in the extension of public primary and secondary schooling also opened the way to entry for many more members of the middle classes. In these ways, settler universities shored up their local legitimacy.

Second, settler universities renegotiated their relationship to ‘universal’ scholarship. Unlike the largely static classical curriculum, scientific research was a dynamic and rapidly expanding field of study. If they were to sustain their claim to be credentialisers of knowledge, settler universities also had to find new ways to demonstrate their connection and contribution to this new branch of ‘global’ knowledge.

They did so by ‘internationalising’ some of the structures of knowledge in the colonies. First, they improved access to intellectual resources, through expanding library provision and increasing their investment in foreign publications. Second, they sought to improve the mobility of their staff and students by establishing travelling scholarship schemes and leave of absence (sabbatical) programmes that carried them abroad. Third, they developed new practices for the recruitment of staff which relied heavily on the private recommendations of trusted individuals in Britain: Australian universities set up appointment committees in London, and Canadian university presidents wrote to friends across the UK seeking recommendations. Such appointment practices helped to foster close connections between academics in Britain and the colonies, tying settler universities into the informal networks at the heart of the British university system.

Together, these innovations worked to connect previously locally-oriented colonial institutions into a wider world of academic scholarship. They reconfigured the relationship between academic knowledge and location, creating measures of proximity and distance that depended on personal connections as well as territorial location.

However, the academic ‘world’ created by the long-distance connections these changes brought about was nonetheless still a limited one. Despite their intellectual engagement with ‘foreign’ ideas – despite their purchase of European journals and notwithstanding professorial trips to Berlin and Leipzig and sometimes the United States – it was primarily to Britain that scholars and students from settler universities gravitated. The reach of their personal ties and the routes of their repeated migrations thus mapped not a ‘universal’ but rather a ‘British’ academic world that expanded to include Canada and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but for the most part did not extend in the same way to Europe, America, India, and East Asia. Indeed, from the 1880s on, universities in both Britain and the empire began to enshrine this world in statutes that gave preferential standing to each other’s degrees, and to express it in imperial associations and congresses that at once proclaimed and reinforced its existence.

Settler universities responded to the challenges presented by the intensified global connections of the late nineteenth century by reasserting their position as local institutions that credentialised ‘universal’ knowledge. In many ways they were successful – the position of institutions such as McGill, Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, and the University of Cape Town is in no small part due to the innovations of the 1880s. But by creating structures that enabled and encouraged personal connections with British scholars, settler universities also helped establish the uneven lines of global connection and irregular geographies of access that continue to condition these institutions today.

Read the rest of the report at InsideHigherEd or download the pdf version at this link. And if you still want more, check out Empire of scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850-1939.


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