Archives for category: students


Earlier this year, Stonewall, the UK LGBT rights charity, published its latest list of the UK’s 100 most inclusive employers. The list included a record 12 universities. And a recent study revealed that academics are more likely to be LGBT than people in almost all other jobs. But are things really as rosy as all that? The Times Higher Education Magazine this week had a feature on the subject, and I was one of six academics who contributed. I have many great (as well as not so great) stories to tell about my experience of being a lesbian on campus. In my piece (below) I wanted to step away from a progress narrative, and to think about what universities can do to celebrate sexual alongside other forms of diversity as part of their role in helping to create a vibrant society and robust democracy.  You can read the full THE article here.

Much more can be done by universities for LGBT staff and students

During my undergraduate days at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s, I was vaguely aware of a Lesbian and Gay student society on campus. However, I was much more conscious of the fact that, according to whispered hearsay, the “university footbridge”, across which I walked every day, was the site of the 1972 murder of a university lecturer for homosexual activity by a group believed to be police officers.

The sense of the danger and illicitness that characterised my early experience is a far cry from the friendly environments, complete with supportive networks and formally implemented anti-discrimination practices, that greet many LGBT students on campus today. Yet Sheffield Hallam University’s #FreshersToFinals study, published last year, suggests that, although LGBT issues are increasingly visible in institutions’ policies, these often focus on bullying and discrimination – which is only one aspect of the needs of students and staff. And in preparing Australia’s first LGBTI University Guide in 2015, the country’s Human Rights Commission found that many universities were not meeting their anti-discrimination commitments or providing adequate health and welfare support or training.

Student and staff communities continue to be places where LGBT people experience harassment. While anti-discrimination policies are important in providing a procedural framework for protection and redress, they are still in no way sufficient. Policies on transitioning staff and students are underdeveloped in many institutions, with action needed on the provision of both single-sex and gender-neutral bathrooms and sports facilities, as well as administrative processes around name and status designation and documentation, such as the reissuing of degree certificates. The Equality Challenge Unit provides a good guide for the higher education sector, and universities need to recognise that practices designed to support those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are not necessarily going to meet the needs of trans and intersex people.

Policies around parental leave also frequently need revising, particularly as they apply to gay men who can all too easily fall through the net of state and employer provision. The unseen work that openly LGBT lecturers and staff do as role models for students needs to be much better rewarded, with institutions recognising its importance to the university community and the time and cost – both personal and financial – that it entails.

Diversity training, health and welfare services and curriculum change are crucial in shifting campus cultures. According to the Australian LGBTI University Guide, many institutions continue to do poorly in the provision of welfare and health amenities and careers advice. Alerting students to Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers list, or to organisations they can join to meet LGBT people in their chosen employment sector, would be one place to start. Students come to university from a variety of backgrounds, and some families are more accepting than others. Policies need to allow flexibility around finance for those in difficulty, with universities actively supporting student groups in creating social spaces and resources for LGBT people.

Much also needs to be done in the area of content and curriculum. Textbooks need to be systematically re-evaluated to make sure that they do not omit or disparage LGBT perspectives. More broadly, teaching and research from across faculties might be integrated and showcased. University College London’s qUCL site is a great example of how LGBT events, people, courses and research projects can be profiled in a way that provides a focal point for future initiatives and an access point for staff, students and the public.

This latter point is crucial. As public institutions and major employers, universities have a role that extends beyond their walls. They need to engage with wider LGBT organisations in a range of areas that include sexual and mental health, civic space, law reform, diversity, community events and history. As educational institutions, they should work to ensure that campuses are not only places of safety and acceptance for LGBT people, but also communities that celebrate sexual alongside other forms of diversity. They should see this as central to their role in helping to create a vibrant society and robust democracy.

The biggest positive influence for me has been the support offered and the positive example set by the openly LGBT lecturers, administrators and fellow students I met during my graduate studies at the University of Oxford (you know who you are!) In my own career, I have sought to be similarly visible to both my students and my colleagues. My discovery a few years ago that my first-year lectures at Brunel University London were being attended by several students who were not actually enrolled in my course brought home to me that for many students such examples are still in short supply.

Tamson Pietsch is a research fellow in history at the University of Sydney and the author of Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks and the British Academic World, 1850‑1939(2013).

This article was published in ‘How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?’ 5 May 2016 in The Times Higher Education Magazine.

Breeder and Sportsman 1907

The Association of Commonwealth Universities has launched a new blog series to explore the outcomes of international scholarship schemes for higher education, and they asked me to write their first post.  Called “Measuring success?” the question mark in the title the ACU has given to the series well encapsulates both the lack of quantitive research in this field, and the uncertainty about how to measure the effects of such programmes. The international experience generated by overseas study can have profound effects on individual lives, but identifying causation is much more difficult not least because the impacts of such experience may take decades to manifest. Historical methods are therefore essential.

Since 2014 I have been working with Meng-Hsuan Chou (from NTU Singapore) on a longitudinal analysis of the careers of Rhodes Scholars across the 20th century, and this invitation from the ACU gives me an opportunity to introduce some of the results of this research. (You can also find the ACU blog post here.)

Geographical mobility and the Rhodes Scholarships across the 20th century

Founded in 1901, the Rhodes Scholarships scheme is one of the longest running programmes of scholarly exchange still in existence and has served as a model for many schemes that have since emerged. As such it offers an ideal context for examining, as well as raising new questions about, the organisation and overall efficacy of scholarship programmes across the twentieth century.

The Rhodes Trust brought students to Oxford on scholarships, envisioning (although never officially stipulating) that these students would later return to their home countries and take up public leadership positions. How far this has actually been the pattern of Rhodes Scholars’ careers has not, however, yet been systematically examined.

As part of a larger project on the long-term effects of scholarly mobility, Meng-Hsuan Chou (NTU Singapore) and I have been using data published by the Rhodes Trust to measure various outcomes of the Rhodes Scholarships across the twentieth century. Our study is beginning to reveal some striking patterns about the geographic mobility of awardees.

Tracking post-scholarship careers data

Tracking the post-scholarship careers of Rhodes Scholars across all regional constituencies at intervals of ten years between 1913 and 1983, we generated a dataset of 487 scholars with full information on 483. Using the recorded locations of their employment and post-programme study as proxies for geographical mobility, we developed three indicators to make sense of their movements:

a) Those who made their careers at home (jobs were based in the countries of election);
b) Those who made their careers both at home and abroad;
c) Those who principally made their careers outside their country of election.

It was immediately obvious to us that the majority of scholars in the years analysed established their careers in their countries of election, with more than 75% of all cohorts for all coded years making their careers at home, or both at home and abroad. Scholars who established their careers outside of their countries of election, were generally in the minority (around 20-25% of each cohort). However, since 1913 it is evident that the percentage of scholars in this category has been steadily increasing. We believe it is likely that more recent cohorts, especially those from the late 1990s onwards, may have greater geographical mobility patterns than earlier cohorts. This is borne out by the biographic profiles of living scholars recently collated by the Rhodes Trust.

One of the difficulties with this aggregated data is that it collapses the particular local and cultural contexts that shape patterns in different countries. To provide more fine-grained differentiation, we have disaggregated the geographical mobility patterns of Rhodes Scholars who have been elected from the US (a dominant cohort, constituting 35-50% of scholars in any one year) in comparison to those who were from other regions. These initially included the ‘settler colonies’ of Southern Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, Jamaica and Germany; but after the Second World War they were widened to include India and Pakistan, and a few other countries in Africa and South East Asia, and for a time also Europe. (In the last year the Rhodes Trust has expanded the constituencies of award further to include China, but this is outside the range of our data.)

Patterns in the data

Our analysis has revealed some striking patterns.

First, across all decades Rhodes scholars from the USA have been more likely (about twice as likely) to establish their careers principally at home than their counterparts from other regions. More than 80% of American scholars in all periods returned to the USA after their time at Oxford and never again lived or studied abroad.

Second, and by contrast, overseas experience was highly significant to the careers of non-US Rhodes scholars. For example, while 80% of scholars elected from the US in 1923 built their careers exclusively at home, 70% of scholars from non-US constituencies made time outside their country of origin a part of their post-Oxford career, with nearly 40% basing themselves permanently abroad. For the 1913 cohort the percentage who spent some time abroad after Oxford was approximately 45%, in 1933, 1953 and 1963 it was just over 50% (in 1943 only one student was elected), dropping to about 35% in 1973, before returning to just over 50% in 1983.

Third, the relatively high mobility (compared to other decades) of Non-US scholars elected in 1923 points to the danger of telling a linear story of increasing mobility across the twentieth century. Scholars who made their careers before and after the Second World War were much more likely to have overseas experience than those later in the century.

Our initial findings clearly show that awardees from different constituencies have used the Rhodes experience differently in the establishment and consolidation of their professional careers. While US Scholars have utilised it as a platform to pursue a variety of careers principally at home, non-US Scholars have employed the Rhodes programme as a spring-board to careers outside their home countries. Even our relatively crude disaggregation of US and non-US scholars points to the need to undertake granulated analyses that attend to regional and national context and to patterns of change over time.

We would caution, however, against making assumptions between these patterns and the notion of ‘brain drain’. As several recent studies in other contexts have shown, this concept is likely to oversimplify the relationship Rhodes scholars have with their countries. I have demonstrated elsewhere that Rhodes scholars who were academics maintained strong ties with their home countries, supervising the next generation of leaders and scholars from their countries of origin by hosting their stay abroad (see Pietsch, 2013). These types of impact are only beginning to be discussed in the literature on scholarly mobility. The importance of such intergenerational networks might also be considered in other professional contexts, notably medicine or management consulting. In these instances, rather than acting as the source of ‘brain drain’, Rhodes Scholars who have made their careers outside their countries of origin have nonetheless still contributed to knowledge mobility and ‘brain circulation’ – factors that are usually considered to sit at the heart of national innovation.

Tamson Pietsch is an ARC DECRA Fellow at the University of Sydney and the author of Empire of Scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850-1939 (Manchester, 2013). Part of her research with Meng-Hsuan Chou on the Rhodes scholarships will appear in Giles Scott Smith and Ludovic Tournès ed., Global Exchanges: Scholarship and Transnational Circulations in the Contemporary World, (Berghahn, 2016).

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.

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