International student inequality Problematising international education in the EU and beyond

Academic Article

International student inequality: problematising international education in the EU and beyond

In recent years, European universities and higher education institutions have greatly expanded their activities in order to attract more international students, and in order to operate more actively on an international scale ( British Council 2004; Furlong 2012). Collins (2008) argues this development has been driven by two factors: the shift in policy values attached to education from a public good to a private good; and the increasing importance of English as a driving force behind internationalisation of education. Brooks and Waters (2011a) view these changes as contested, moving education towards a neo-liberalistic paradigm that sees the university operate more like a business. As education enjoys less public funding, students and institutions of higher education become more reliant on parents and the private sphere (Johnstone 2004), which results in higher fees for international students. Additionally, institutions of higher education are forced to deploy their academic capital to survive the increasingly competitive academic environment, which Furlong (2012) terms academic capitalism (115). These developments have moved international education into the free market as a global commodity.

The UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reports that in 2012/2013, 18.17% of students enrolled in UK higher education institutions were international students, of which 70.54% were of non-EEA origin. The number of non-EEA international students has been rising faster than the number of UK and EU students enrolling at UK higher education institutions since 2007/2008, and UNESCO (2014) reports China has the largest share worldwide of international students studying abroad (694,400).

The intake and accommodation of international students is perceived to offer important benefits to these students individually and to society at large (British Council 2004). The UK Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) published a report, titled “Global Horizons for UK Students: A Guide for Universities”, which makes explicit that a period of study abroad benefits both the individual and society at large through the acquisition of a cosmopolitan outlook and the development of intercultural skills (as cited in Brooks and Waters 2009). Certain researchers have taken a similar optimistic, cosmopolitan stance towards international education, such as Collins (2008), who proffers that “international education (…) [as] a fundamentally transnational project (…) disturbs the centrality of the nation-state in educational reproduction” (398).

To contest this overly rosy view of international education, this article attempts to problematise international education, in particular within the European Union. It comments on the experiences and post-study opportunities in Europe of international students both from the European Economic Area (EEA) and elsewhere, to illustrate inequalities and tensions amongst youth in Europe. These inequalities, as well as themes of exclusion, hegemony and Eurocentrism, feed into tensions between international students from the EEA and those from outside the EEA and perpetuate inequalities in (European) international education as well as labour and education markets worldwide.

Collins’ decline of the nation-state resonates with Rizvi’s (2005) claim that nation-states are increasingly less capable of maintaining their cultural borders and Hobsbawm’s vision of nation-states as “contemporary history” (as cited in Byram 2008). However, Anderson (1991: 3) argues that “nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.” Similarly, Hofstede (1986) argues that the educational system is inherently tied to the nation it serves. Zajda (2009: 5) sheds some light on this disagreement by reminding us that “globalisation is not an apolitical phenomenon”. While individual nation-states retain sovereignty over their policies, they are driven by globalised, hegemonic cultural and economic imperatives to which they must respond according to their individual needs (Rizvi & Lingard 2010). As such, globalisation and the internationalisation of education are not globally equal realities.

One symptom of these globally unequal realities can be found in international student flows. Whereas China supplies the most international students worldwide, North America and Western Europe host 57% of all international students worldwide. Within Europe, this may be illustrated by UNESCO’s (2014) analysis of international student mobility that distinguishes between the North America and Western Europe region and the Central and Eastern Europe region, of which the latter hosts 10% of all internationally mobile students worldwide. Brooks and Waters (2010: 272) conclude that there is a pressing need to examine the “uneven and often exclusive geographies of international student mobility.”

The development of these uneven flows of student mobility may in part be attributed to the international promotion of national educational “brands” (Waters, 2006: 1055). Early research into international education, such as Mazzarol’s (1998) Critical Success Factors for International Education Marketing, set the stage for a thoroughly marketing oriented approach to international education that still permeates contemporary research  (Collins 2008; Brooks & Waters 2009; Waters & Brooks 2010) and resonates with Furlong’s assessment of academic capitalism. Brands such as “Education UK” (British Council 2004), “Make it in the Netherlands!” (Nuffic 2015) and the “Study in Germany” campaign (German Ministry of Education 2015) are advertised in other countries despite the availability of potentially more relevant programmes of study closer to home (UNESCO 2014). On a national level, (international) education policy is similarly “sold” by spinning the actual policy text positively (Rizvi & Lingard 2010), thereby dismissing risk. For example, increasingly accessible and globalised national education systems have compromised the exclusive means of social reproduction for middle class families, threatening their social positioning (Brown, Hesketh & Williams 2002: 26). This may contribute to exclusion of international students and tensions with their host community based on their countries of citizenship.

Further inequalities amongst international students and tensions between international students and their country of study may be linked to colonialism. Carnoy (1974) proffers that the coloniser stresses the universalistic nature of its own education and culture, and depreciates all that is native in schools overseas. While his work predates the massive growth of the internationalisation of education (Collins 2008),  the processes Carnoy describes are attested by Kubow (2009), who describes how globalisation’s hegemonic agenda and South Africa’s colonial past shape its contemporary citizenship education (cf. Ward & Newton 2012; Byram & Lai 2012). Similarly, in Ward and Newton’s (2012) assessment of education in South Africa the native is depreciated in favour of the globalised. In particular in terms of languages of instruction, native languages are discredited in favour of English: “[w]e need English, which is a global language; indigenous languages will not get us anywhere” (as cited in Ward & Newton 2012). Within the EEA, themes of hegemony are similarly attested. Weymans (2009) points out that while the promotion of European education as a whole was originally interpreted as increasing competitiveness on the global education market, it has shifted towards competitiveness amongst European universities, promoting already excellent ones at the cost of others.

Resulting from this hegemonic, marketing-oriented internationalisation of education –which within the global context promotes Western-style education over its non-Western counterparts– international students experience post-study prospects differently based on their country of study. Waters (2006b) attests a wide-spread perception that employers in East and Southeast Asian countries prefer employees with overseas credentials (1046). Contrastingly, Brooks and Waters’ (2009) study of UK students having studied overseas reports on very little perceived benefit of having studied abroad for UK students searching for jobs within the UK, of whom a number reported believing they were disadvantaged compared to their domestically educated peers. This further contests the notion that international education is of universal and equal impact, and seems to tie in with Carnoy’s (1974) account of educational imperialism, as Western international students find their overseas credentials appear to hold less value than domestic credentials, while East and Southeast Asian students are validated by extant research to reap the benefits of their overseas qualifications. Indeed, “these students [from countries in East and Southeast Asia] are thought to seek valuable ‘cultural capital’ attached to an English-speaking, Western education (Waters 2006b: 181)”, which resembles net results (Waters 2006a; 2006b). Similarly, the Erasmus programme promotes the acquisition of cultural capital within Europe through its “memo© factors”.

In absence of guaranteed, immediate economic advantage, much of the research assessing international students’ motives for studying abroad has focused on the concept of strategy: their goal of acquiring cultural capital. (Inter)cultural capital ties in with concepts such as intercultural competence and intercultural dialogue (Pöllmann 2013) and builds on the work of Bourdieu (1986). Cultural capital, either as knowledge and incorporation of specific (inter)cultural traits (embodied cultural capital) or as academic qualifications (institutionalised cultural capital) may be converted to economic capital, which is directly converted into money or property rights (Bourdieu, 1986) and as such is portrayed as an important imperative for international students hoping to secure work after their studies. As demonstrated above, cultural capital international students are thought and encouraged to acquire is however highly problematic and contextual, as Brooks and Waters’ (2009) study above demonstrated. Not only does intercultural capital not yield equal results across cultural and geographical boundaries –particularly beyond the hegemonic borders of the Western world– it is also not acquired equally.

Pöllmann (2013) points out that individual students acquire cultural capital differently. Domestic students acquire cultural capital through their upbringing, inherited cultural capital. The same may be said for EEA international students who, through the efforts of the Council of Europe and the development of concepts such as European citizenship and identity, inherit certain traits that allow them to affiliate with other European international students and international students at large. Byram’s (2008) work, a pivotal influence on the Council of Europe’s efforts to establishing European citizenship, has been incorporated in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (n.d.). His position on English as a lingua franca is as follows: “[i]t might seem that English as a lingua franca is a particularly useful ‘tool’ for communication, and one that is not attached to any specific country or culture” (229, emphasis added). This might thus be inferred to be shared amongst European international students that have inherited domestic cultural capital that views the European project favourably.

Non-EEA international students studying in the EEA, having acquired an entirely different set of values, histories, narratives and social realities—of inherited cultural capital—are confronted with an environment that does not value their cultural capital equally. What value do native languages hold within an international context? Similarly, how are academic qualifications (institutionalised cultural capital) translated and valued across cultures? Hofstede (1986) rightfully problematises education across cultures, noting that as education is inherently tied to the nation and its educational needs, international students find it difficult to adjust.

The social position of international students as compared with their peers may result in their inherited cultural capital being subverted by this position, and their modes of expression may be ignored. This coincides with what Freire (1973) terms the right to name the world. To give tangible shape to this phenomenon, we might turn to religion. Experiences of Islam in Europe, South East Asia and the Middle East vary greatly and as such is a source of cultural differences for EEA, non-EEA and domestic students, even if they regard themselves as Muslims. As Asani (2009: 2) rightfully points out, one cannot overstate the importance of questions such as  “[w]hich Islam? Whose Islam? In which context?”. However, as Edward Said (1978) famously claimed in his work Orientalism: “‘Islam’ is often manipulated to mean what a particular source wants it to mean” (Karim 1997: 155). Indeed, a certain individual view of Islam may be depreciated in favour of dominant views of these topics. In Europe, the experiences of students that identify as Muslim are then impacted upon by political issues such as national security and immigration, regardless of their own sentiments.

 Another example where modes of expression are ignored may be found in the work of Kutieleh and Egege (2003), who argue that critical thinking as an academic tool is specifically a Western construct, building on the work of Atkinson (1997) who claims critical thinking is incompatible with Asian students’ cultural attitudes (both as cited in Paton 2005). Additionally, “Asian” instruction methods that are perceived to place more emphasis on rote memorisation and less emphasis on classroom participation are similarly depreciated.

In sum, international students may hold less power to enact their vision of their social reality and cultural capital within a heterogeneous community, and their acquired cultural capital may be devaluated by their socio-cultural position (Pöllmann 2013). This impacts both international students from the EEA and beyond, as it may be linked to their perceived country of origin. Additionally, several researchers have identified a thoroughly Western epistemological approach to research into interculturality, and by extension (inter)cultural capital (Miike 2007; Deardorff 2009). Ways of acquiring knowledge, such as rote memorisation, are deemed inferior to dominant instruction methods. To establish more inclusive European education, educational methods merit “[g]reater reference to non-Eurocentric approaches” (Holmes & O’Neill 2012: 717) and reference to national approaches, in order to ensure international education is relevant to students in Europe as a whole and worldwide.

Phipps (2014) argues that intercultural dialogue—and with it intercultural competence and (inter)cultural capital—fails to engage with the political realities at hand.. An example of these political realities may be found by looking at the views of the international community, coterminous with the West (Chomsky 2002). The community’s views towards a nation-state or group may inhibit the acquisition and exercising of cultural capital in the international students’ country of study and consequently may impact upon their post-study prospects. For Asian students, a fear of increasingly competitive Asian nations, “the big winners from globalization” (Martin & Nakayama 2010: 18), may result in exclusion from the labour market in their country of study.

This exclusion is facilitated by instruments of labelling and stereotyping (Allport 1954, Asher 2001). Asher points out that Asian-Americans may be stereotyped as smart and hard-working and this stereotype is reinforced by “the unrelenting push for academic achievement and the career-driven messages from home” (88). This process serves to “hide the diverse and complex experiences of Asian-Americans (…) creating a ‘monolithic monotone’” (79) which results in individual diversity and modes of expression being ignored, similar to the experiences of Islam investigated above. Furthermore, attitudes within Europe towards certain countries that are the subject of charged debates, such as Greece, may seep into views of international students holding citizenship of those countries, and impact their experiences and post-study opportunities.

While (in particular Western) international education has massively expanded and efforts are being made by higher education institutions and governments to increase accessibility to higher education—although the efficacy of these efforts may be contested (Bourdieu & Passeron 1977)—these changes do not necessarily result in increased accessibility in international students’ post-study prospects. For example, in the UK, the 2008 visa regulations have made it increasingly difficult for international students to secure a post-study opportunity, as obtaining a work visa requires that the position cannot be filled by a British citizen (UK Visa Bureau 2014). The post-study work scheme of 2008 that allowed (international) graduates of UK higher education institutions to stay in the country for two years after their studies was discontinued in 2012.

In conclusion, this article has attempted to problematise international education within Europe and beyond. It is characterised by uneven geographies that favours North America and Western Europe over other areas of the world, as well as certain educational institutions over others in the promotion of excellent European international education. Issues of social position, hegemony and power relations feed into the perpetuation of these discrepancies, and obstruct inclusive, truly European education. In addition, European education as a catalyst for European identity that is not fundamentally inclusive of difference originating from outside the EU, seems to contradict its very goals and may widen the gap between various European countries.

The vision of international education as a fundamentally cooperative, transnational project is still out of reach. The international promotion of education, although inherently tied to the nation state it serves, downplays the risks involved for international students. As such, asymmetrical post-study opportunities and experiences of international education both within Europe and beyond have, to date, received insufficient coverage in policy, media and research alike. It is worth noting that a similar uneven geographical distribution of international education can be found in research, as there is little reference to specifically European investigations of international education and its ramifications in contrast with an abundance of literature on the Asian and Southeast Asian region.

This article has attempted to shed some light on the risks involved in order to facilitate addressing these issues. In particular, it emphasises a need for further research into post-study opportunities for international students within Europe specifically, approached from a contextual, nation-state perspective within the EU at large.


Omar Kemperman is an international student with a MA in Intercultural Education and Internationalisation from Durham University and a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Groningen.



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