The Society for Research into Higher Education


Mobilities and the ‘international academic’ in higher education

by Vera Spangler, Lene Møller Madsen, and Hanne Kirstine Adriansen

December marks the month of the International SRHE Research Conference. It was an interesting week full of presentations and discussions around the theme of Mobilities in Higher Education. In the opening plenary talk, Emily Henderson invited us to reflect critically on the different ways in which mobilities of academics and students in higher education are discursively constructed. She debated how discursive constructions of mobility may influence who can access academia/higher education, who can gain recognition, and who can establish a feeling of belonging. Emily’s presentation set an interesting and highly relevant ground for the week to come, opening space for critical thought about  academic mobility and experiences of mobility, subjectivities, and power. Our presentation about who is considered ‘the international academic’ addressed similar ideas and observations, which we would like to share in this blog post in order to open the conversation with a larger audience.

Never has the higher education sector been so mobile, particularly as internationalisation occupies a central position on the global agenda of policymakers. Over the past decade we can observe a significant increase in academic mobility. This is partly due to the fact that the academic profession is becoming exceedingly internationalised and globalised, often involving some sort of travel on the part of the academic throughout their career. In the academic sector, having international staff is often seen as integral to the institution’s reputation and recognition. Likewise, international mobility is perceived as inherently beneficial for the individual and as a valuable asset for academic research careers. Professional stays abroad can function as a mark of distinction or valuable international capital.

Mobility and, notably, internationalisation are often used with many positive connotations, presented as neutral and unconditionally good. Internationalisation is often deemed instrumental in enhancing the quality of research and education. Universities put increasing effort into attracting international academics, seeking their contribution in establishing an international research and teaching environment to promote the status of the faculty and their position internationally. Particularly for universities outside Anglo-America, international scholars constitute an important element in creating a so-called ‘international university’. However we often see a uniform, unidirectional, and unproblematic description of how to attract and retain international academics in higher education strategies and mainstream policy documents. There is a dominant prominence in university strategies of attracting ‘global talent’ and ‘the best and the brightest’, promoting a specific idea of the ‘international academic’. Yet questions remain about how academics of different national and social backgrounds understand the role of being an ‘international academic’ and how their understandings are consonant with those sought, promoted and shaped by higher education institutions.

Our paper for the SRHE conference tried to unpack ‘the international’ in international academic mobility based on interviews with international academics (varying in age, nationality, and academic position) living and working in Denmark. The data stem from the larger research project Geographies of Internationalisation, which explores how internationalisation affects the perception of quality, relevance and learning in higher education and how these perceptions travel with mobile academics. Our conference presentation examined what it means to be an international academic, who the ‘international’ is, and how the academics’ ‘international-ness’ is being used and/or neglected by institutions.

During the interviews, interesting conversations emerged as to when one is considered international – do you have to be recruited as ‘an international’ or can you just be a ‘love migrant’ who then gets employment at a university? Others pondered how long one could live in Denmark and still be considered ‘an international’. Our analysis shows that ‘the international’ is not a neutral concept, but often ‘international-ness’ is associated with those from the centre (the Anglo-American academy), while academics from the (semi-)periphery are viewed as less international, perhaps just ‘foreign’ as one interviewee stated. Language is an important factor in this context. As we have shown elsewhere, English is often conflated with the international, for instance internationalisation may simply mean English Medium Instruction. This may explain why academics from the Anglo-American academy can appear to possess more of that universal character that is international. In this way, we point to the uneven geographies of internationalisation, and how universities in the (semi-)periphery can end up mimicking the Anglo-American academy in their attempt to internationalise.

While internationalisation can bring many social, material and professional benefits concerning, for instance, intercultural competencies and employability, there is a diversity in geographical patterns, constraints, demands, privileges and motivations that are to a large extent silenced in prominent policy documents and discourses. Hidden behind its neutralising and universalising discourse, internationalisation is a multi-dimensional, highly uneven process; a plural landscape of possibilities for some, and disadvantages for others. For some years now, critical scholarship on internationalisation has been growing. There is increasing concern that internationalisation practices and mainstream policies reproduce global inequalities and already uneven relations and geographies. There are a number of different ways to avoid this. Along with other scholars of critical internationalisation studies, we encourage efforts to rethink and critically explore consequences, practices and discourses of internationalisation both in scholarship and in academic conversations to open up questions for a renewed focus and to find ways forward.

Vera Spangler is a PhD student at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England. Her research project is a comparative study between England, Denmark and Germany with focus on knowledge legitimacy and the role of student mobility in the re/production of global hierarchies.

Lene Møller Madsen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen. She is part of the research project Geographies of Internationalisation, responsible for the WP on academic mobility. She holds a PhD in human geography, and have worked with pedagogical training of staff for many years including international academics.  

Hanne Kirstine Adriansen is Associate Professor and academic international coordinator at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark. Originally trained as a human geographer, her research concerns mobility, space, and education. Since 2019 PI of the research project Geographies of Internationalisation with 14 affiliated international scholars and master students.


Making space in higher education research: Reporting back from our higher education geographies conference symposium

by Kate Carruthers Thomas and Holly Henderson

Space and place are too often the background and too rarely the central focus of higher education research. This was the argument of our symposium, which offered four ways of theorising the spatial in higher education. The conversation that began in this symposium extends far beyond the time allowed, and so we are continuing that conversation here, with each of the four symposium contributors summarising their use of the spatial in higher education research.

Kate Carruthers Thomas on Massey’s spatial concepts

I work with the spatial concepts of Doreen Massey to research and theorise higher education (HE).  Massey was a radical geographer, bringing a feminist perspective to discussions of space, place and power and her understanding of space as plural, heterogeneous and fluid energises an analysis of dominant forms of space and power in HE. My SRHE 2019 paper drew on two research examples: Gender(s) at Work (2018) exploring ways gender shapes experiences of the workplace and career in a post-1992 UK university, and Dimensions of Belonging (2016) problematising a sector-wide reductive narrative of ‘student belonging’ in relation to part-time students.

Applying Massey’s spatial propositions to HE frames ‘the university’ as a product of social relations shaped by geographies of powersocially-coded masculine. Universities originate from monasteries: elite, male-dominated spaces of knowledge production. The contemporary university remains shaped by the power geometry of patriarchal disciplinary discourses, traditions and cultures as well as male-defined constructions of work and career success. Massey coins the term ‘power geometry’ to describe how individuals and groups are differently positioned in relation to flows of capital and culture, to different geographies of power in particular contexts. How they are positioned shapes how they experience the spaces they are in. Gender(s) at Work extends the notion of geography of power to gender, examining how gender operates as a geography of power to position individuals and groups in relation to the flows and connections (of prestige, reward, status) within that activity space.

I also use Massey’s device of ‘activity space’ – the spatial network of links and activities, of spatial connections, locations within which agents operate (2005: 55). This multiscalar tool enables a view of individual universities as activity spaces (shaped by their own geographies of power) and as nodes in the wider activity space of a stratified HE sector. Dimensions of Belonging theorises four English universities as sites in relationship with locality, economy and the HE sector, with each university campus a complex territory of power and inequality in which belonging is negotiated.

To capture lived experiences of university spaces, I created a methodology of spatial storytelling; one sensitised to ‘the social as inexorably also spatial’ (Massey 1993:80).  This mobilises the idea of power geometry through combining narrative enquiry and visual mapping, disrupting and revealing spaces between organisational rhetoric/corporate narratives and lived experiences. 

Working with Massey in researching and theorizing HE both energises my analyses of space, place and power and leaves room for complexity and contradiction.  Spatial storytelling reveals ‘spaces between’ leaving ‘openings for something new’ (Massey 2005: 107).

Holly Henderson on de Certeau’s spatial stories

Higher education happens in places. It does not, however, happen in all places equally, and nor does it happen equally in any one place. The complexities of how higher education is understood and accessed in different places, and how places themselves are defined in relation to higher education, are multiple. In a previous project, which looked at students studying for degrees in post-industrial towns without universities, and in a current project, which looks at access to and experiences of higher education on small islands around the UK, I have used concepts from social geographies to try to get to grips with what it means to say that higher education happens (unequally) in places.

I use spatial analysis in three ways. Firstly, using the concept of spatial stories (de Certeau, 1984), I see any place as defined narratively through layers of stories. These stories are the ways that a town or street comes to be known as a ‘kind of’ place. Often, we do not notice that we are telling or hearing them, but they are fundamental to the way we understand our surroundings. Secondly, I extend spatial analysis to the relationship between higher education and place. In the UK, and especially in England, the dominant story is of a particular mobility pattern, in which the 18-year old undergraduate leaves the place of the familial home and moves into university accommodation in a new place. Finally, I ask how individuals narrate their own stories in relation to these first two factors; do they see themselves as belonging to the place they are living in, and has that question of belonging affected their decision to move or stay in place for degree education? Does the place they feel they belong to require that they make a decision between staying without studying higher education, or leaving in order to study? And if the place they are living and studying in does not have the same history of providing higher education as that of a well-known university city or town, does higher education fit straightforwardly with the enduring narratives through which the place is defined? These questions, and others that stem from them, position place at the centre of higher education research.

Fadia Dakka on Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis

Prompted by Ron Barnett’s claim about the ‘ineradicability of rhythm in university time’ (2015), my reflection extends to the nature of time, place and change in contemporary academia. In keeping with the theme of the Symposium, I emphasise how making space in higher education research subsumes both making time and ‘dwelling’ in it. Therefore, rhythm does not simply refer to the pace of activities within the university, but also to its ontological, epistemological and ethical dimensions. Using rhythm as a critical lens and a pedagogical orientation, I have examined the production of time and space in the everyday life of a teaching-intensive university in the West Midlands (2017-18), drawing inspiration from Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis (2004 [1991]) and Critique of Everyday Life (2014 [1947,1961, 1981]). I am particularly interested in the ethical and political implications that can be drawn from rhythmic analyses of ‘felt’ time and space (Wittman, 2017) in contemporary universities. On this basis, I have empirically explored notions of anticipation, dwelling, appropriation and presence within the contemporary university.

The analysis of the participants’ spatio-temporal experiences within the institution has revealed a plurality of academic rhythms that respond to radically different logics. The logic of accumulation, rooted in temporal linearity, exacerbates procedural anticipation, conflating quantification with educational progress. Within this logic, the emphasis on individual productivity and time-management produces an impoverished educational experience centred on constant adaptation and compliance. Spatially, this coincides with the abstract, conceived grid of institutional timetables, schedules and deadlines, the oppressive repetition of which reinforces a ‘pedagogy of domination’ (Middleton, 2014). On the other hand, the poetic logic, that translates Aristotle’s ‘poiesis’ as the human activity of bringing something new into the world, resonates with ideas of transformation, appropriation and dwelling which, in turn, reaffirm the centrality of imagination-relation-anticipation as a necessary condition for meaningful change.

Appropriation, dwelling and (anticipatory) presence have strong implications for how we inhabit the university space. For instance, the participants’ unorthodox production of space documented in the project epitomizes the Lefebvrian act of subversion whereby the perceived and lived spaces produced by the participants effectively disorientate the conceived space of the institution (Lefebvre, 1991 [1974]). The participants’ refusal to inhabit the homogeneous yet fragmented space of the capitalist institution (Stanek, 2011) contrasts with their dwelling in pockets of autonomous, reflective space/time meticulously carved out in their everyday. These forms of spatio-temporal appropriation need to be increasingly performed as collective, liberating acts of quotidian resistance, in order to subvert the capitalist institution from within. 

Sol Gamsu and Michael Donnelly on the relational construction of place

The moment of entry to higher education (HE) sees major patterns of internal migration within the UK. Accessing HE is, as we know, a process that is deeply implicated in the creation and reproduction of inequalities. Binding these basic points together in an analysis of flows of students between home or school and university allows us to show how the geography of education is central to core debates in geography. Like my colleagues, the work of Massey has been central to how I have conceptualized these processes. Place for Massey (2005: 139) forms ‘where the successions of meetings, the accumulation of weavings and encounters build up a history.’ Regional boundaries are formed through the concentration of particular social practices that become symbolically and spatially associated with certain boundaries and reflect and re-create divisions and hierarchies (Cooke, 1985; Paasi, 2011).

These patterns develop over time and are rooted in particular political economies with HE provision largely instigated, or at least largely financed, by the state. The historical and contemporary geographies of local and national state power, the spatial contexts of regional dominance within England, the relative autonomy of the Welsh, Scottish and (Northern) Irish systems of governance in relation to power of the Anglo-British state – HE has been a central field that has been shaped by and in turn reinforced the spatial hierarchies and divisions created through the state. Beyond these structural geographies though, cultural geographies of regional division are also reflected and created by individual mobilities created by daily or termly movements to and from university and home.

Our paper (Gamsu and Donnelly, forthcoming) explores these theoretical issues, using social network analysis (SNA) methods to highlight how recognizable regional and national boundaries are present in students’ mobility patterns. Taking the example of students moving from Northern Ireland to Liverpool we explore how student mobilities reflect historical patterns of migration across the Irish Sea. Using the same SNA approach, we examine the distinctive hierarchies of schools and universities present in school to university movements. We find a cluster of primarily English elite private and state schools and universities. Quantitative SNA methods are complemented by qualitative interviews and mapping techniques to allow us to show how student mobilities at the micro-level create, reflect and reinforce historical spatial boundaries and socio-spatial hierarchies of institutions.

In Conclusion

To draw these distinctive approaches together we briefly revisit the original aims of our symposium, the first of which was to highlight the often unseen ways that space and place structure higher education, and structure it unequally. Inequalities and difference underpin Henderson’s work with spatial stories working to understand ways in which higher education happens (unequally) in places, while Carruthers Thomas frames the university itself as a complex territory of power and inequality. Spatial analyses throw up difference and relationship in Dakka’s uncovering of a plurality of contradictory academic rhythms in the everyday life within a teaching-intensive university and, in analysing flows of students between home/school and university, Gamsu and Donnelly highlight the shaping of HE through local, regional and national differences reflecting historical and contemporary geographies of local and national state power.

The second aim of the symposium was to demonstrate different possibilities for the use of spatial theory in researching higher education, providing new insights into enduring debates. To this end, each of the four papers foreground particular spatial/temporal concepts or processes. By putting place at the centre of her research into island HE Henderson gains new insights into narratives of HE and belonging. Gamsu and Donnelly frame the moment of entry into HE as a pattern of internal migration, using social network analysis to highlight regional and national boundaries in student mobility patterns.  Carruthers Thomas positions gender as a geography of power within the university as means of examining spaces between organisational rhetoric of equality and lived experience. Meanwhile Dakka introduces opposing logics – the logic of accumulation and poetic logic to challenge the privileging of individual productivity over reflective space/time carved out in the everyday.

Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is a Senior Research Fellow and Athena SWAN Project Manager at Birmingham City University, UK. She specialises in interdisciplinary enquiry into contemporary higher education, inequalities and gender; in spatial methods and analyses. Kate also uses poetry and graphics as methods of disseminating her research in these fields. 

Dr Holly Henderson is an Assistant Professor in Education at the University of Nottingham. She has previously held positions at the University of Birmingham and began her career teaching in Further Education in London. Her research and teaching focus broadly on sociological issues of inequality in education. In particular, she is interested in access to and experiences of post-compulsory and higher education. Her research is theoretically informed by social geographies, which enable analysis of the ways in which place, space and mobilities structure educational possibility. She is also interested in narrative and its relationship to subjectivity.


Barnett, R (2015) ‘The time of reason and the ecological university’, in Gibbs, P, Ylijoki, OH, Guzman-Valenzuela, C, Barnett, R (2015) Universities in the Flux of Time London: Routledge pp 121-134
Carruthers Thomas, K (2019) ‘Gender as a Geography of Power’ in Crimmins, G (ed) (2019) Strategies for Resisting Sexism in the Academy London: Palgrave Macmillan

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018) Rethinking Student Belonging in Higher Education: From Bourdieu to Borderlands London: Routledge

Cooke P (1985) ‘Class practices as regional markers: a contribution to labour geography’ in Gregory, D and Urry, J (eds) Social relations and spatial structures London: Macmillan, pp 213-241

De Certeau, M (1984) The practice of everyday life (S Randall trans.) California. University of Berkley Press
Gamsu, S and Donnelly, M (Forthcoming) ‘Social network analysis methods and the geography of education: regional divides and elite circuits in the school to university transition in the UK’ Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie

Lefebvre, H (1991 [1974]) The Production of Space Oxford: Blackwells Publishers Ltd

Lefebvre, H (2004 [1991]) Rhythmanalysis: Space, time and everyday life London: Bloomsbury

Lefebvre, H (2014 [1947,1961,1981]) Critique of Everyday Life London: Verso

Massey, D (1993) ‘Power-Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place’. In Bird, J, Curtis, B, Putnam, T, Robertson, G and Tuckner, L (eds) Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Chance. Abingdon: Routledge pp 59-69

Massey, D (2005) For space, London: Sage

Middleton, S (2014) Henri Lefebvre and Education. Space, History, Theory New York: Routledge

Paasi, A (2011) ‘The region, identity, and power’ Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 14: 9-16

Stanek, L (2011) Henri Lefebvre on Space. Architecture, Urban Research and the Production of Theory Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press

Wittman, M (2017) Felt Time. The science of how we experience time. Cambridge: MIT Press

The Symposium was held at the 2019 SRHE Research Conference at Celtic Manor. I bet you’re sorry you missed it.