perraton image

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.