International students and researchers are people, too

Protest against levying tuition on non-European students in front of the Norwegian parliament (Storting). Photo credit: ISU-Norway. Source: NRK.
Protest against levying tuition on non-European students in front of the Norwegian parliament (Storting). Photo credit: ISU-Norway. Source: NRK.

This year’s Norwegian national budget includes an 80.5 million kroner (12.3 million US dollar) cut to higher education funding. Students and unversity officials are highly dissatisfied with the cuts, and especially with the proposal that institutions make up the deficit by levying tuition on students from outside of the European Economic Area. Many believe that it would be a step back for the university (and the country’s) efforts to internationalize its universities. The rector of the University of Oslo, Ole Petter Ottersen, has written that tuition for non-EEA students would lead to the “Europeanization” of campus and a decline in the pool of skills available for Norwegian industries. He points to the example of Sweden, which introduced tuition fees for non-EEA students in 2011 and has consequently seen a decline in international student numbers. If Norway were to implement this tuition scheme, then it would lose out in the global competition for international students.

This competition is driven by the idea that foreign students bring economic benefits. For example, students bring money into the country to spend on tuition and living expenses. Australia, one of the countries that has best capitalized on international education, counts the economic activity generated by international education as one of its biggest services exports (PDF). Students generate economic output when they do part-time work or internships. They often decide to stay on to work full-time after graduation, or even start new businesses, generating even more economic benefits. More indirectly, they may go back to their home countries with concrete social and professional ties to people in the host country, and these ties might create new transnational economic and political opportunities.

The discourse about skilled labor migration and higher education growth often treats international students (and the international workers they could become) as if they could be reduced to their economic worth alone. But students and workers are people, too. What are the social consequences of introducing foreign people into domestic institutions and the domestic social world? How might this process change the people who are coming in, and how might it change the society that is receiving them?

Sociologists and other social scientists studying immigration have plenty to say about the “assimilation” (US usage) or “integration” (European usage) of asylum seekers, refugees, and less highly educated workers. Some groups have a harder time adapting to their new environment than others. Conversely, some countries and some communities have been more accepting of newcomers than others.

Surprisingly, though, migration researchers have paid less attention to the integration or assimilation of students and skilled workers. The literature generally assumes that they will have fewer problems adapting to life in the new country, and that people in the new country should have few problems with accepting them as neighbors, friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens. However, some recent studies have shown that this process is not as smooth and unproblematic as is generally assumed. For example, Jimenez and Horowitz have found that highly skilled Asian immigrants and their descendants are driving a reconfiguration of the racial hierarchy in one part of Silicon Valley [1]. In Europe, Favell has found that professionals around the region are moving to hub cities like London, Brussels, and Amsterdam, but they may feel disconnected from their place of residence and the native people who live there because of language and other social barriers [2].

My casual observations here in Norway broadly line up with what Favell saw further south. International undergraduate and masters students are concentrated in certain student housing complexes and socialize amongst themselves. Foreign PhD students and postdoctoral scholars are also a major presence. They may have more Norwegians in their social network as a result of their work, but many that I’ve talked to still struggle to adapt to their new social environment [3]. The fact that a Canadian who did a PhD in Norway has made a career for himself giving talks about adapting to Norwegian culture is surely a sign that these integration struggles are a real social phenomenon.

Part of the problem seems to be that incentives and opportunities to become proficient in the Norwegian language are hard to come by. One can reasonably get by in Norway speaking English. English proficiency among Norwegians is extremely high, and academic work is often done primarily in English [4]. The University of Oslo offers a number of masters programs that are taught entirely in English. Undergraduates on exchange can also take courses in English. PhD researchers and postdocs generally work in English, as well, and they may not have the time to take Norwegian courses on top of their full-time job. Only those pursuing full undergraduate degrees are required to become proficient in Norwegian.

In popular discourse about asylum seekers, refugees, and less-skilled labor migrants, being unable to speak the local language is one of the most potent symbols of “failure to integrate.” There is some sense behind the rhetoric: someone who is proficient in the local language can participate more fully in social life. Yet many international students and researchers in Norway cannot speak Norwegian. The same can likely be said about international students and researchers in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and other European countries with overall high levels of English proficiency. Yet there is little to no public alarm about this growing minority of foreigners who cannot speak the local language. It may be because they are “desirable” migrants: highly educated people who bring their skills to the table and fund the welfare state rather than drain it. It may also be because their stays have typically been temporary, with most returning to their home countries or moving on elsewhere. But as these countries try to keep domestically-trained students for the longer term, language proficiency and other integration issues will likely come up.

The internationalization of the university may provide the economic benefits that it is purported to bring. However, bringing in international students and turning them into skilled workers raises old questions about integration, both on the side of the migrants and on the side of the receiving society. As countries develop policy structures to encourage international students to come and facilitate their long-term settlement, they must find a way to resolve some of these issues. This is especially important for countries like the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, where English can serve as a bridge to including foreign workers but also a barrier to broader social inclusion.

[1] Jiménez, Tomás R. and Adam L. Horowitz. 2013. “When White Is Just Alright: How Immigrants Redefine Achievement and Reconfigure the Ethnoracial Hierarchy.” American Sociological Review, 78(5): 849-871.

[2] Favell, Adrian. 2008. Eurostars and Eurocities: Free Movement and Mobility in an Integrating Europe. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

[3] In Norway, as in a handful of other European countries, PhD students are considered employees and are paid and treated accordingly.

[4] Though work may be done in English, not everyone is necessarily comfortable with using English in work-related social situations, creating additional social barriers between colleagues.
Negretti, Raffaella and Miguel Garcia-Yeste. 2014. “’Lunch Keeps People Apart’: The Role of English for Social Interaction in a Multilingual Academic Workplace” Multilingua.


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