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One of the significant challenges in analyzing policies around international student mobility is that there are multiple competing logics at work within the field.  These logics are to some degree in tension with one another but are not usually admitted to be so, even when their existence is acknowledged at all, so disentangling them to promote sensible policy analysis seems like it should be a priority.

Broadly speaking, there are four logics at work when it comes to in-bound student mobility (I shall leave organized study abroad out of the discussion for the moment for the sake of simplicity).  The first logic of internationalization is what I call the “pilgrimage” logic: the tendency of young scholars to assemble in a few spots because that’s just “the thing to do” because only a few places offer particular degrees or experiences.  This logic drove international mobility in the medieval period and into the late nineteenth century (the tendency of American scholars to spend time in Germany in order to obtain newfangled credentials called “doctorates” is an example).  It is mostly obsolete now, but you can still see echoes of it perhaps in South Africa (which in the absence of local competitors “naturally” attracts scholars from the southern half of the continent), an in the way a certain class of Latin American youth “naturally” do at least one degree in a prestigious east coast American university.

The pilgrimage logic – which mostly preceded any government policy in this area - spawned two other logics, however, which were very important throughout the 20th century.  The first was what might be called “soft power” internationalization: the notion that it was good to have students come to your country because of the mutual bonds it would forge.  From the pilgrimage era, this was most obvious in the way students from the British white dominions flocked to Oxford, Cambridge and the Scottish universities, and it continues to this day to some degree for French universities and students from their former African colonies and Russian universities vis-à-vis Central Asia.  In the United States, Fulbright scholarships stem from this same impulse, as do Colombo scholarships in Australia.  

But the biggest expression of this line of internationalization is Europe’s Erasmus program, designed specifically to help generate a pan-European identity (which itself is a form of soft-power, albeit not of the national variety).  Over the past 30 years has helped nearly 4 million students study in another European country, and one recent study suggested that as many as one million babies across the continent have sprung from relationships begun when one or both partners were on an Erasmus term.

  Alongside this mobility logic is another, more nakedly competitive one: the “War for Talent” logic.  Here, the main goal of international student mobility is to act as a talent magnet.  This really got going in the post-war period as scholars from around the world flocked to American research universities which were then genuinely globally preeminent.  To a large extent, university research enterprises ran (and still run) on the sweat of young foreign graduate students, many of whom stayed in the United States and helped the country extend its scientific lead over other countries.  Many other countries – particularly in Europe and the anglosphere – have tried to copy this formula, with varying measures of success and sometimes targeting immigration more broadly and not just top-level doctoral talent.  

Now one thing the Soft Power and War for Talent logics have in common is that they are both “not-for-profit” exercises.  Host countries or universities pay good money to attract students, and while they expect a long-term return on that investment, it doesn’t come in the form of direct payments from the students.  And this is directly contrary to the fourth and currently dominant logic of internationalization, which is what I call “Pecuniary Interest Internationalization”.  Quite simply: under the right circumstances, international students can generate a lot of revenue, and given rising per-student costs and stagnant or declining per-student public expenditure in higher education, the money these students generate are key to maintaining institutional budgets and prestige.

Pecuniary Interest Internationalization really started in the UK in the 1980s, when the Thatcher government permitted cash-strapped universities to start charging international students for their services.  It took a big step forward about 20 years ago in Australia when the Howard government actively encouraged that country’s universities to look abroad if they wanted extra cash.  Gradually, this logic took over in countries like New Zealand, Canada and Malaysia as well.  In the United States, where the pecuniary logic was already applied to out-of-state students at public universities, this policy did not really catch on until universities there realized that the out-of-state market was not going to grow any further and that further gains depended on looking elsewhere, such as students from abroad.

Obviously, these four logics are not mutually exclusive.  All four logics exist in the UK and the US, for instance.  France and Germany only use three (though the former is considering adding the pecuniary motive for at least some international students).  Canada really only uses two; unlike Australia it effectively does not use higher education for non-profit, soft power purposes.  Most countries struggle to even use it for one.  

But even though they are not mutually exclusive, they nevertheless have different policy goals and justifications, and different cases for support.  Yet policies designed for Pecuniary Interest regularly get dressed up in War for Talent or Soft Power clothing, partly for public consumption but also because many universities find it unseemly to talk about money where international students are concerned and prefer to clothe it all in Soft Power terms, or in words like “diversity”. The same goes for so-called “national strategies” on internationalization.  The result is a lamentable lack of policy clarity and policies situated in one logic get justified by rhetoric rooted in another.  This confusion also has complicating effects when it comes to international policy analysis.  Comparing American policies to ones in Germany or Canada makes almost no sense because the number of logics at play and the interplay between them are so different: yet policy makers do that kind of thing all the time because the differing underlying logics are assumed either not to exist or not to matter.

As long as enrolments keep growing, this confusion perhaps does not matter.  But at a time when international applications to US schools is decreasing, understanding the nature of the challenge is key to developing appropriate responses.  If the current drop-off is mainly harmful to Pecuniary Interest logic then that is serious, but represents a very different level of threat to the national economy than if America’s competitiveness in the War for Talent is being harmed.  One hurts specific institutions, the other hurts the whole country.  

Some clarity and focus in this, as in many things, would greatly improve policy development.


Alex Usher is the President of Higher Education Strategy Associates

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