Interview with Parvati Raghuram

We talk migration, being an academic outsider and Brexit with the RGS award winner

June 9, 2016
Parvati Raghuram, Open University

Parvati Raghuram is professor of geography and migration at the Open University. Her research focuses on how people experience and negotiate globalisation, particularly female migrant workers. She has authored three books and a series of papers that led to her receiving, in May, the Royal Geographical Society's Murchison Award for publications judged to contribute most to the understanding of the geography of gender, migration and care, and to the wider field of post-colonial geography.

Where and when were you born and how has this shaped you?
I was born in Shillong, India, and moved around the country. I primarily grew up in Delhi. I went to the School of Economics at the University of Delhi where I did a BA and an MA in geography. I came to the UK in 1987 as a spouse and went to Newcastle University to see if there were any PhD opportunities. I wanted to do urban studies, which is what I did in India, but no one was willing to supervise a pregnant Indian girl “fresh off the boat”. Eventually, I was channelled into development studies – a topic I did not know existed. In India, we did economic geography and regional development; we did not have the distant view that development studies takes of the global South.

I was lucky enough to get the [Committee of] Vice-Chancellors and Principals overseas research award and began my PhD in 1988. I completed in 1991, at which time I had two children under the age of five. I got the first job that I applied for but after one year both immigration regulations and the desire to spend more time with my children meant that I decided to give up my job. I got a part-time appointment at Nottingham Trent University and continued in fractional posts until 2001 when I returned to full-time work.

I have provided this detail because both the politics of location – of what it means to become a "development category" as you travel from South to North or become subject to the distancing gaze of the global North – and the politics of affirming those who have had less than straightforward careers due to migration became central both to the content of my work and to how I have inhabited the academy.

When you set out on a research project, what are your intentions?
Because of the history of working on development and migration – where the problems and issues are so huge – I recognise that individuals can hardly make a difference. As a result, I have primarily pitched to change how academics can think about these issues – going beyond binary thinking. I have tried to write this for public audiences – thinktanks and non-governmental organisations – but when you work on migration you have to be humble enough to know that policy decisions are made to address a much wider public.

How do you react to the media rhetoric around migration and immigration?
The way that migration is reported in the news is very disappointing. It pitches pro-migration talk against the anti-migration groups in very simplistic ways. It makes for combative and unhelpful discussions about migration, which do not adequately recognise that migration is ultimately embedded in a world of mobilities. The mobility of goods and ideas, on which so much of the UK economy depends, also involves the circulation of people.

What effect would Brexit have on migration patterns within the European Union?
The question of Brexit is not a simple one but I will focus on three aspects of the migration story that have been picked up in the campaigning and that demand that the insights of existing research be applied. The examples are primarily of errors by the Leave campaign, largely because they are the group who have mobilised migration as part of their agenda.

First, I have worked extensively on gender and skilled migration, particularly in medicine – where there are severe labour shortages. They can’t be fixed without mobility. Hence, when an argument is made about saving the NHS through Brexit, it is worth remembering that it is actually an international health service. More than a quarter of those working as doctors in the NHS are overseas trained...The NHS could not, and cannot, run without this migration.

Second, the EU blue card [work permit] is a version of the Australian points-based system and so it would be incorrect to say that a points-based system requires Brexit. Germany, in particular, is using this system as a central part of its migration strategy.

Third, the UK is one of the few countries in Europe not facing a demographic deficit in the coming decades; this is because of migration. A demographic deficit can seriously impede economic growth and so a long-term view on what a country requires is necessary.

It is astonishing that public debates on migration fail to pick up on these issues.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
Higher education has become much more anxiety-driven and functionalist. Teaching is done to help students get jobs; research to have an impact, usually on the economy and so on. This drive to narrower aims that can be calibrated within a very short time frame does not help to foster a wider sense of the importance of knowledge and the need for creativity – which all takes time and effort. This is not to say that these outcomes are not important, it is just that we should not have allowed this to drive our education system so closely.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing is the ability to open people’s minds to new ways of thinking. I used to tell undergraduate students that my aim is: when you talk to someone in a pub 10 years from now on some global issue, the minds of those people will be changed because of what I have told you today. You should carry with you a way of thinking that influences those around you. It is a privilege to be able to say that to students.

The worst part of my job is the increasing managerialism that is creeping in. Sometimes I feel that we spend more time talking about our institutions and our workplace than about what matters – students, research and so on.


Xiangqian Jiang has been appointed to the Royal Academy of Engineering/Renishaw chair in precision metrology. Professor Jiang, who holds a similar professorship at the University of Huddersfield, will use the chair to support the future of manufacturing. She will focus specifically on metrology – the precise measurement and verification of items passing through the production process. “I am very honoured to be appointed to such a prestigious chair and delighted to be able to work closely with Renishaw, a world-leading engineering and scientific technology company, and the Royal Academy of Engineering to challenge formidable barriers in today’s measurement technologies,” Professor Jiang said. “Under this research sponsorship, the next generation of embedded metrology technologies will be explored, generated and then integrated into manufacturing systems and platforms.”

Sarah Prescott has been appointed principal of University College Dublin’s College of Arts and Humanities. Professor Prescott is currently director of the Institute of Literature, Languages and Creative Arts and professor of English literature at Aberystwyth University. She takes up her new role in September. Her main teaching and research focuses are 18th-century studies, including Welsh writing in English, and women’s writing from Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The University of Law has appointed Jason O’Malley as director of apprenticeships and new business.

Ehud Hrushovski, professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has been appointed professor of mathematical logic at the University of Oxford with effect from 1 October. He will be a fellow of Merton College.

Michael Ignatieff has been elected the fifth president and rector of the Central European University.


Print headline: HE & me

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