Educational Equality and International Students: Justice across Borders?, by Stuart Tannock

Fees and fairness are at stake in UK HE’s global search for students, learns Aniko Horvath

August 2, 2018
A map with international students around it
Source: iStock

Can a book’s value be defined by the questions it raises? Stuart Tannock’s informative, thorough and engaging book might best be characterised by just that – the many excellent questions it poses.

We often read non-fiction books – especially academic ones – for the historical context, theoretical frameworks and real-life solutions they offer. Thus, we tend to notice the research questions they contain only to acknowledge that the author did a thorough job in examining the subject from novel and relevant vantage points. However, in Stuart Tannock’s book – rather like an excellent mystery novel – the questions he asks become some of the most important “plot points” of his enquiry. These questions – often searching, polemical, detached and objective, but sometimes loaded and idealistic – move his “story” forward: a thought-provoking study of social justice and educational equality in the historical context of international student mobility to UK universities.

Based on his findings, Tannock argues that “in the internationalized university, the principle of educational equality does not disappear, it is fragmented”. While a “formal shell of educational equality discourse, policy and practice” remains, “the underlying social or public rationale, motivation and context [are] vanquished entirely”. It is in this context, Tannock says, that the market is left to enforce social justice principles, exerting “pressures on the UK state and higher education sector to offer international students a ‘better deal’”.

Unfortunately, the market approach leads to international students being seen as educational imports/exports to be traded in a global educational marketplace, where UK universities tend not to charge full-cost tuition fees, as they claim, but much more – as much as “the market will bear”. Tannock demonstrates how, not long after the introduction of fees for international students, the language of marketisation became part of hegemonic common sense, with universities in the UK becoming “addicted to…the expansion of international student numbers”. Amid this marketised approach, he notes, international students are left to their own devices and their mobility is incorrectly presented as the autonomous choice of individuals, ignoring the fact that the structures that determine such choices are either set by the students’ home countries or created by the UK’s “decades-long construction of an international student industry”.

Nevertheless, Tannock argues, such systems are tilted in favour of international students from wealthy backgrounds and countries judged to be safe and trusted by the UK Home Office: its visa policy asks for high funding levels from student applicants and defines desirable forms of migration in ways that do not threaten the “UK’s majority white, Christian and English speaking cultural patrimony”. Thus, Tannock concludes, given the compliance work done by universities, understanding “who around the world is missing or absent from UK university campuses is just as important as the question of who is present”.

Reading Tannock’s book one cannot but wonder, as he does: how, why and for how long can the UK government get away with stripping international students of their basic rights, and for how much longer can UK universities treat international students as such fat and willing cash cows?

Aniko Horvath is research associate in the Centre for Global Higher Education, UCL.

Educational Equality and International Students: Justice across Borders?
By Stuart Tannock
Palgrave Macmillan, 234pp, £79.00
ISBN 9783319763804
Published 28 May 2018


Print headline: Market thinking distorts mission

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