Recruiting International Students in Higher Education: Representations and Rationales in British Policy, by Sylvie Lomer

Aniko Horvath on the disconnect between data and policymaking decisions that allows foreign learners to be framed as the ‘other’

October 26, 2017
East Asian students
Source: Alamy

For decades, international students have been central to British political debates and policymaking on the economy, migration and higher education. Most of these debates have centred on issues such as who those students are, why they come, how long they stay, how they pay for access to education, and who benefits from their presence.

Yet the well-being of individual students has rarely been the concern of such policies, argues Sylvie Lomer. Instead, the very category “international student(s)” has always been defined by the powerful to “shape, codify and limit potential imaginaries” that fit the category, as well as to control people’s access to educational goods. Thus, the term’s boundaries have frequently been drawn to discourage those thought to be undesirable from entering the UK, arbitrarily labelling groups that have neither a democratic voice nor the political power to challenge such categorisations.

Although the potential economic and sociocultural benefits of “international students” have been acknowledged, policy representations – especially in migration policy – frame this category of people as the “other”, an aggregate of “physical bodies” that are – often inconveniently – “present within the borders of the nation”. As most of these imaginaries can – and often do – translate into public perceptions and real actions, Lomer argues that scholars miss an opportunity if they do not engage in critical and holistic analyses of the intersecting policy fields that create such discourses. Her book is a good example of one possible comprehensive approach for deconstructing such policy imaginaries.

While Lomer notes that there might be continuity with longer-term trends in policymaking that have shaped international student mobility to the UK, her analysis focuses on the period from 1999 to 2015. She begins with Tony Blair and his “Prime Minister’s Initiative” and ends with the coalition government’s “International Education Strategy”, cross-examining higher education and migration policy. Her primary data are derived from policy documents, but she draws on an impressively broad corpus of academic research to challenge the often misleading assumptions on which policy texts are built.

Lomer’s findings reveal a clear disconnect between the representations created by policymakers and the empirical data that exist on international students. She uses this disconnect to highlight, among other things, how policy discourses often build on post-colonial imaginaries to frame the “other” – the international student(s) – as culturally inferior, dehumanising them and depriving them of space for political action. Furthermore, she claims, as migration policy gives preferential access to well-to-do students, current UK entry requirements perpetuate global inequalities rather than diminish them.

Her multilayered analysis and the wealth of empirical data she marshals to contextualise assumptions on which policy documents are built make the reader wonder what stands in the way of policymakers accessing that same data to get their facts right. And, if it is not an issue of access – which most likely it is not – why are these data disregarded and/or misinterpreted in policymaking? Who benefits, and in what ways, from deploying half-truths, misinterpretations and the silencing of facts? Lomer’s book, because it does not move beyond a text-based analysis, does not address these questions. But it does lay important groundwork on which future scholarship can be built to explore such issues.

Aniko Horvath is research associate in the Centre for Global Higher Education, University College London.

Recruiting International Students in Higher Education: Representations and Rationales in British Policy
By Sylvie Lomer
Palgrave Macmillan, 268pp, £66.99
ISBN 9783319510729 and 10736 (e-book)
Published 24 July 2017

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