International students in France and the UK: a socio-historical analysis of policy and changing representations

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter in a published conference proceeding


Purpose of this paper: The announcement of a plan to cap the numbers of international students in the UK, made in the wake of the Brexit referendum, sent shockwaves through British universities. University representatives spoke of the incongruity of framing international students as part of an ‘immigration problem’ which needed regulating. Yet such discourses and representations rarely come from nowhere. The paper uses a comparative socio-historical perspective to understand the construction of the international student in France and the UK in order to shed light on the current debate.

The main method is a socio-historical analysis of primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include parliamentary debates, press articles and reports from a range of sources in France and in the UK from the 1940s onwards. France is used as a contrasting case study for it presents a number of differences with the UK situation: a longer tradition of incoming student mobility to sustain cultural influence; a relatively late-coming to a more strategic approach to internationalisation; and a continued resistance to an explicit commercial approach to incoming mobility. The evolution of immigration policy and debates in both countries is, at least on the surface, comparable, as well as the location of this specific debate at the crossroads between various policy spheres. These differences and similarities allow for an in-depth exploration of the variations that come into play in the definition, perception and social construction of the international student over time.

The policy of international student recruitment is at the intersection of several other policy fields at national level: immigration control, recruitment of skilled labour, soft or cultural power, diplomacy, internationalisation of higher education, and as such is revealing of the interactions and power struggles between these different spheres.
In both countries similarities are found in terms of the evolution of immigration policy; how it affected international students at different points in time; and how control of numbers shifted from universities to governments. A shift occurred in both countries over the 70s, under the effect of immigration restriction and the rise of foreign students as political agents within and outside broader student movements.
As objects of political discourse, international students have been framed in turn as guests, threats and economic subjects. In spite of being managed differently today in the two countries, a similar evolution in terms of the legitimation of student mobility is observable, with a discernible shift towards the application of the principles of selective immigration and their ambiguous integration to the knowledge economy discourse. University values and the ‘national interest’ are not reconciled seamlessly but require elastic, ambiguous discourses, as international students continue being framed as both students and foreigners. A historical analysis of policy and political discourse over time shows how these different constructions and principles of legitimation have alternated and become imbricated, which helps understand the ambiguities of the present.

Research limitations/implications:
The study is part of a larger projected entitled ‘Internationalisation of higher education as a public good: a comparative study in four national systems’, which examines the tensions between student mobility and other policy areas in France, the UK, Japan and China. This project entails in-depth interviews with government, university representatives, staff and students in the four countries.
The interview process will begin in June but the study will not be complete by August; therefore the proposed paper is based principally on documentary research, corresponding to the preliminary phase of the research project.

Practical implications:
The paper aims to inform our understanding of the present situation as well as the current debates on cross-border student mobility.

Social Implications:
As above

What is original/value of paper:
There are historical studies of international student mobility in each of the two countries (Borgogno and Streiff-Fenart 1996-97; Karady 2002; Perraton 2014); this paper brings a comparative, socio-historical approach to the topic.

Keywords: International students; UK-France comparison; socio-history


Borgogno, Victor and Jocelyne Streiff-Fenart. 1996-97. “L’accueil des étudiants étrangers en France: evolution des politiques et des representations.” N.T.S. 2-3: 73-88.

Karady, V. (2002) La migration internationale d’étudiants en Europe, 1890- 1940. Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 145, pp. 47-60.

Perraton, Hilary. 2014. A History of Foreign Students in Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication30th CHER Conference
Subtitle of host publicationOnline proceedings
Publication statusPublished - 28 Aug 2017
EventCHER 30TH Annual Conference 2017 - Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyvaskyla, Jyvaskyla, Finland
Duration: 28 Aug 201730 Aug 2017


ConferenceCHER 30TH Annual Conference 2017
Abbreviated titleCHER 2017
Internet address


Dive into the research topics of 'International students in France and the UK: a socio-historical analysis of policy and changing representations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this