The UK plc roadshow

Shadowing the speed-dating expats who recruit for British universities, Caroline Knowles finds that their hypermobile lives parallel those of the students they pursue

July 8, 2010

We live in a world on the move. In 2009 there were an estimated 3 million mobile tertiary education students worldwide, a 57 per cent increase since 1999. These young temporary migrants target specific destinations: 90 per cent of all international students go to countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with just three - the US, the UK and Australia - attracting 45 per cent of the total. There are more than 350,000 international students in UK higher education, according to the OECD, the greatest number globally after the US. There is strong competition between countries for this lucrative market. Today's student migrants are tomorrow's skilled worker-migrants and a global elite in training. Countries that host their university education often get first call on these young workers if they decide not to return home.

International student-migrants make a huge financial contribution to UK higher education. Some 13 per cent of all UK university income (£2.9 billion) comes from overseas students. This is significant when public spending is being cut. It is a transfer of income from the elite in emerging economies and in the global south into UK universities. Without it, university life would be even more difficult.

What lies behind this transfer of student-migrants and resources is a well-organised global industry that demands the mobility of UK academics and administrators as well as students. I got first-hand experience of how it works, and the (mobile) lives it shapes, when I was drafted temporarily into this "industry" in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia and Mexico to support two universities' international student recruitment efforts.

Although UK universities can recruit directly, the British Council - the cultural arm of the diplomatic mission - runs a professional operation when it comes to promoting UK plc. All over the world, in sync with university recruitment timetables, the British Council organises fairs at which it "sells" places to UK universities and runs local publicity to attract potential students.

Fairs are run on every continent, focusing on key student-sending countries. Here is a roster of who is in a position to contemplate British education: Kabul won't have a fair; Tokyo and Shanghai will be jammed. The location of the fairs is also the outcome of decisions made in UK universities about where to target international recruitment budgets.

These decisions depend on university management's timescales and are usually short term. If a fair does not lead to a swift increase in applicants, universities may pull out of one country and focus resources on another. Elite institutions rarely bother to turn up: they are, after all, elite and do not need to tout for students. Post-92 universities are there in spades, as they depend heavily on overseas recruitment. Informally, fairs have a university hierarchy that matches the formal hierarchies of league tables and reputations. I have represented a Russell Group institution (Southampton) and "Britain's leading creative university" (Goldsmiths, University of London).

The fair is usually held in a smart four-star hotel or exhibition or conference centre. The British Council will run a briefing session for exhibitors before the country tour kicks off, providing market information about popular subjects and universities' success rates. Each university is given a "stall". Boxes of prospectuses and other literature arrive by mail or courier. Exhibitors will have carried other publicity material with them. The British Council takes care of exhibitors, sorting out any practical problems. Most exhibitors stay in the same four-star hotel or one near the exhibition centre, unless their university is on a tight budget.

The British Council organises talks and sideshows on living in Britain and crash courses on British university study culture. It often leans on academic exhibitors for lectures on these topics. Its staff run the desks on bursaries (slim pickings) and fees (£10,000-£20,000 a year, depending on course and university), hand out goody bags and sustain exhibitors with tea and snacks. This is the British Council in its "post" (9/11, colonial) role. Many of its public-access libraries and information centres around the world are now closed owing to the potential security threat. Operations now employ more local staff and are regionally consolidated: Indonesia, for example, is now grouped with Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia. Only people at the top of the organisation circulate between these places. The "post" British Council is simultaneously more global and local.

The fair is often opened by a VIP, such as the British ambassador. This can be a tricky moment for exhibitors. The ambassador will have done his or her homework and is likely to quiz you on how many Mexican, Taiwanese or Indonesian students are already at your university. How do they compare with other groups? If you are lucky, you will get an invitation to the embassy for drinks, but only if there is something else you can do to promote British interests.

These fairs are large and noisy and crowded with eager potential students and their chequebook-bearing parents. Some youngsters are led around by their parents, who are ambitious on their behalf, and others come more enthusiastically in big groups of well-heeled friends. This is a moment of possibilities where the prospects of new lives come into view in half-formed impressions and hopes.

Being a university exhibitor is exhausting, overwhelming and an exercise in daily life in dislocation. It means seven or eight hours on the stall in artificial light in cavernous ballrooms/exhibition halls. Goldsmiths' potential student enquiries are as niche as our courses. With only arts, humanities and social sciences on offer, we are sidestepped by those in search of intellectual capital leading directly to lucrative careers in accounting, medicine and engineering. Nevertheless, our alumni are A-listers in the creative industries and include Damien Hirst, Vivienne Westwood and a few famous bands spawned by the art department - so it's cool. Economists call this obliquity.

Sometimes exhibitors are given a local assistant. In Taipei, I worked with "Danny", who had chosen a name he thought I would be able to pronounce. While I was taking a break, he memorised the course information material and got the "cool" pitch perfectly; when I got back, he was dispensing guidance to small crowds of students in English and Chinese. Assistants are also really useful as after-hours tour advisers. Although there is little downtime, these fairs do not usually get going until midday and end by 7pm so there are early-morning sightseeing possibilities and nightlife to explore if you have the stamina. The exhibitors who get the most out of their tour are those with local recruitment agents who manage things between fairs, wine and dine them, and make sure they have a good time as a way of securing further business. With no agent, I was free to explore after hours on my own.

The fair is a travelling circus and moves at a pace. It may be on for one to three days in one city before moving along to the next. Taiwan was Taipei, Hsinchu and Taichung. Indonesia was Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya. Mexico was Mexico City, Monterrey and Aguascalientes. Another day, another hotel, another exhibition: out with the banners, then pack them away and move on. The fair is not for the faint-hearted. If distances are great, as in Mexico and Indonesia, travel is by plane. Otherwise you climb on to the bus with a dinner-box when the fair closes and arrive at the next place in the early hours of the morning. But fairs are also regionally orchestrated, making it possible, for example, for exhibitors to cover Taiwan in the same tour as Singapore, Shanghai and Manila. So tours are also part of a bigger matrix covering, say, the Asia-Pacific region or South America. This keeps exhibitors in wider circuits of circulation.

Exhibitors come in two varieties. First are the international officers who are based in university administration, usually student recruitment offices, in their twenties, thirties and (less commonly) forties with a slight gender bias towards women. The second are fiftysomething academics, often professors with a noticeable gender bias towards men. The mobile (UK) labour force of international student recruitment is young women and older men - frocks and beards. Not fitting neatly into either camp, I was able to move between the different social scenes in which each group operated and get to know them a bit. While on the surface there is much camaraderie between them, closer examination reveals a firm division between these two groups in their outlook and patterns of sociality on tour.

International officers think academics are a liability - check out the way some of them dress for a start - and ageing professors think international officers lack intellectual credibility as the unskilled face of university sales. The two groups often travel in tandem. An international officer will refer to "her professor", who is dusted down and wheeled out when needed for specific course or assessment information. These professors have to be kept on a short leash, encouraged to turn up on time and dress appropriately - suit and tie rather than off-duty polo shirt, slacks, socks and sandals - and not get too buried in their own subject to give advice about the university as a whole. They have to be coached to speak in plain terms, too. The two groups mostly operate their own social scenes. Although there is some mixing and joking, I was left with the distinct impression that this is instigated by the fiftysomething professors flirtatiously seeking young female company.

And yet members of this bifurcated labour force have much in common. They live particular kinds of lives - always in motion. They often specialise in regions such as Southeast Asia, South America, Asia and so on. This means that they get to visit the same places over and over, running into each other as they go arranging to meet in one place or the next. Female international officers have formidable networking skills. Each group forms its own loose network of temporary long-distance association. They rarely meet in the UK unless they happen to live near each other. They are most likely to meet in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta in February after a stint in Hong Kong or Taipei. They may do a five-country tour with three stops in each country.

Jen, an international officer in her mid-twenties, spends 12 weeks a year on the road. Any more than this, she judges, interferes with the rest of her life: intimate relationships and local friendship networks are hard to maintain above a certain level of mobility. John, a professor who no longer teaches, is more or less permanently in global circulation. Travelling from early October, when I catch him passing through Jakarta, he will keep on moving until he goes home briefly for Christmas, only to set off again on a new trajectory in the New Year.

Such hypermobile exhibitors have often given up on relationships and are not uncommonly on a third or fourth divorce. Like the British Council, they are "post" (divorce and childcare) and life on the global highways and byways is a rational choice for them.

This involves living in a particular way. They carry easily movable luggage organised in ritualised ways. Equally important for a life on the move is a Skype account for keeping in touch with friends and family without incurring large phone bills, a credit card that allows free withdrawals overseas, and a system for filing receipts - for this is a life claimed back on expenses.

This hits at a bigger point about these lives lived on the move. They are lived beyond the strictures of university salaries, which could not sustain frequent travel by aircraft and taxi. They are lived in four-star hotels - the Jakarta InterContinental or the Camino Real in Mexico City - where a telephone call brings anything you need to your room. They are lived in expensive (international) restaurants, in meeting first at the hotel for drinks, moving on by taxi to dinner, then back to the hotel for coffee. For the "post" exhibitors especially, it is perfectly rational to offshore domestic life, contracting out duties such as laundry to hotel services. International officers, too, get short bursts of life lived on a different scale from their salaries, away from the daily grind. It is a perfect arrangement.

Talk between exhibitors is about routes and airlines. Which is the best way to Mexico City or Jakarta? In how few stops can a given journey be done? What are the best transit times in hub airports? How many Air Miles can be accumulated and who has the most? Upgrade stories are exchanged. So too are stopover stories where a particular card gets someone into an executive lounge unexpectedly. John circumnavigates the globe on a gold card from his preferred airline. His Air Miles are legendary. We listen in hushed respect as he tells of points levered into airline and hotel upgrades.

These hypermobile lives sustaining the international student recruitment industry for UK plc resemble those of "skilled", "elite", often referred to as expat migrants, medium to well-off people who migrate from the global north. The only difference is the expats stay a bit longer in the same cities - Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Jakarta, Mexico City and Taipei. International officers and academics are expats on speed-dating assignments. Like expats, they live mobile lives in luxury facilities interacting mainly with each other and frequenting the same international hotels, restaurants and British (or Irish) theme pubs, only they do so more intensely and for shorter periods. They sit shoulder to shoulder, telling their own stories of life lived on the move.

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