International Student Mobility, World Rankings, and Transnational Imaginaries

Drawing on the Bright Futures data, project PI Yasemin Soysal elaborated the role of university rankings as a driving factor in international student mobility through both organizational and individual level analysis and findings as the keynote speaker at the International Conference on Education and Mobilities hosted by Beijing Normal University and University College London in Beijing in May 2017. She also presented this paper at the 20 Anniversary Conference of the Institute for the Study of Global Issues at Hitotsubashi University in June 2017. The abstract of her talk is available below.

International Student Mobility, World Rankings, and Transnational Imaginaries

Abstract: In recent decades, internationalization has become an important dimension of higher education reform. It is widely adopted as a goal and explicitly strategized by governments, tertiary education sectors and institutions alike across the world. A highly visible aspect of universities’ internationalizing mission is student mobility.

The broader literature, inspired by human capital theory, sees internationalization of higher education, and particularly of student body, as a significant investment strategy at both country and individual levels. At the country level, facing the challenge of globalized markets and knowledge economy, increasing human capital potential of the country, thus taking part in the “global race for talent and skills,” becomes an imperative, driving the internationalization of higher education (Gerhards and Hans 2013; Parey and Waldinger 2011). At the individual level, international education is expected to pay off in increasingly competitive job markets (and even marriage markets) by boosting CVs and cultural capital; thus it is often discussed in the context of middle class family strategies as a rational investment. At the organizational level, internationalization is often seen as a survival strategy in the face of increasingly de-regulated and under-funded HE sector in a neo-liberal climate (Neave and van Vught 1991; Oliver 1991; Christensen 2011). From a more critical view, internationalization is regarded as an instrumentalist mean, an aspect of HE’s commercialization, and a source of revenue—international students bringing much needed money to financially deprived HE sectors.

Such perspectives, while highlighting the increasingly competitive field that HE has become, nevertheless do not capture the underlying dynamics completely. A very significant aspect of this race is the growing expectation of systematic, scientific evaluation of (academic) performance, and relatedly the proliferation and diffusion of rankings of all sorts, which partly drive and sustain the global race. The potency of rankings has been highlighted, in general, in the recently surging sociology of evaluation (accounting for excellence is now a common practice in every organizational field, public or private; Espeland 1998, 2001; Fourcade 2011, Lamont 2012), and in particular, in the case of academic rankings (Ramirez 2013; Ramirez and Christensen 2013; Ramirez and Tiplic 2014; Sauder and Lancaster 2009, Espeland and Sauder 2012, 2016). Rankings not only facilitate a global imaginary of higher education, through standardization of international benchmarks of excellence. They also facilitate standardized conceptions of higher education student–who can easily move and learn across national borders and able to carry their degrees with them wherever they may go (notwithstanding much of the restrictively imposed visa and immigration regulations) (Soysal, Baltaru, Cebolla 2017). In that sense, world rankings normalize international mobility of students, and create individual aspirations (Cebolla and Soysal 2017).