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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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.


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Reflecting on a second virtual conference…and looking ahead

by Camille Kandiko Howson

I had the honour of being asked to give some closing remarks at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s Annual Conference this year, alongside Prof Chris Millward and the SRHE team. ‘Mobilities in Higher Education’ was the theme of the Society’s second virtual conference. First some reflections.

Mobilities in higher education refer to the movement of students, faculty, and staff within and across national borders for the purpose of pursuing education and research opportunities. This phenomenon has increased significantly in recent years, driven by factors such as globalization, advances in technology, and the growing demand for a highly skilled workforce.

The impact of mobilities on higher education institutions (HEIs) is complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, mobilities can bring benefits such as diversity and internationalization, enhanced research and teaching capabilities, and increased funding and partnerships. On the other hand, mobilities can also pose challenges such as language and cultural barriers, issues with accreditation and recognition of qualifications, and unequal access and participation.

To address these challenges and maximize the benefits of mobilities, HEIs need to develop strategies and policies that support the mobility of students, faculty, and staff. This includes providing adequate support services, facilitating credit transfer and recognition of qualifications, and promoting intercultural competence and global citizenship.

In conclusion, mobilities in higher education are a crucial aspect of the contemporary global education landscape. HEIs need to carefully consider the opportunities and challenges posed by mobilities and develop strategies to support and enhance this phenomenon.

I’ll pause here, because I did not write the previous four paragraphs. I put the title into the ChatGPT open AI chatbot and it spit out the abstract above instantly. This tool launched during the conference week, exciting many delegates and kicking off worries about the future of assessment and feedback in higher education. The possibilities also reminded me why we like to meet up as a community -virtually and physically – to share what is happening and how we can actively shape the future. The conference theme was widely adopted across presentations, showing our desire to come together to learn, teach and research higher education. Now on to my (human) thoughts.

Last year in summarising the conference I highlighted the following:

  • the focus on belonging
  • the increased internationalisation of the programme
  • lack of research on policy in HE in England

The second and third of these themes seemed strong again, and in addition I would note the dominance of the conference theme of ‘Mobilities’ (irony not lost for an on-line conference!). The pandemic has not stopped academics collaborating across institutions. I also noticed powerful research and focus on researchers in conflict-afflicted regions. There was also increased interest in international students – across UG, PGT and PRG levels. Topics included notions of quality and murmurings of geopolitical influences for international students.

Some other themes of note were researchers drawing on contemporary theories (eg the ‘Ideal Student’ research by Billy Wong and Tiffany Chui), moving beyond a Bordieusian dominance. In this vein, I was pleased to see the strength of research involving liaising with target student groups, as partners, in steering groups and in evaluating research.

In credit to the SRHE team, there were great links between papers in sessions, with many feeling more like symposia than separate research papers. It was also amazing to see so many outputs from SRHE-funded research projects being presented.

Reflecting on some of the specific sessions I was able to attend, in Session 2d I was intrigued by the term ‘studiability’: the ability to complete courses on time and with appropriate workload. This is not addressed much in the UK and it would be interesting to see more on this. Another paper explored the recursive relationship between public policy degrees and the jobs graduates go on to do. There were different histories and trajectories across countries – always fascinating insights from comparative research.

A theme across a number of sessions came out in 3b exploring racialised impostor phenomenon, and the importance of role models for students. Similarly, in 11f the impostor phenomenon and explorations of race and gender arose, alongside the importance of students (and others) in self-identifying themselves versus being categorised in identity research. Session 12a had a focus on care leavers, care experienced students and those with caring responsibilities and the challenges working across institutions and social services. This topic was explored in a number of sessions – which is really important in an under-researched area.

These sessions really highlighted the passion researchers have and the change people want to see from their research. And to mention what I did not see much of, there was a lack of research on climate change and cost of living – maybe these current issues have not caught up with the pace of research, or maybe they do not fit well with current research paradigms.

I also did a word cloud analysis of the programme. Interestingly, ‘Students’ trumps ‘Research’ but ‘Academics’ beat ‘Learning’. Make of that what you will. Closing on the theme of mobilities, the top three cities listed in the programme were London, Manchester and Birmingham, and the second most common country in the programme was Australia.

As was mentioned throughout the conference, many of us missed getting together in person. We hope to manage that in some form next year, continuing to build our connections (physical and virtual). And to finish, I asked the ChatGPT bot for the theme for next conference and it suggested: “Innovation, equity and the future of higher education.” Another one to go in the mix, and further (human) ideas welcome.

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London. Follow Camille on Twitter @cbkandiko