Posting this discussion on LinkedIn returned some really interesting contributions. Please see the comments for the full transcriptions. I have included my own response, I hope to further the discussion.
International students aren’t just sources of income
Dr Liana Giorgi Ph.D., a former Vice-Director at The Interdisciplinary Centre for Comparative Research in the Social Sciences, says it is wrong to see international students only as a source of income:
Those who claim a relationship between ratio of international students and university reputation (as measured by various established indices like publications, research funding, number of professors to students, etc.) treat this as a proxy for openness as opposed to insularity. There are a number of other policies that go with internationalization, like a more active student life, more emphasis on team work, recognition of importance of subjects like language learning etc.
I understand Dr Giorgi’s reasoning here. However, having studied at a university with a very international student body whilst completing my Bachelor’s degree I fear that in practice this does not happen.
Again I speak only for myself and my personal experiences, but I found that nationalities became cliques on campus. British students had British student friends, Indian students has Indian student friends, Chinese students as Chinese student friends, etc,.
Even between English speaking ‘Western’ countries, such as, UK, USA, Canada and Australia I felt students were still a little segregated. I suppose there is a large difference in culture between these countries that I sometimes discount until actually conversing with these students and realizing our view-points are entirely disjointed.
On a side note, interestingly European students, in particular German, Spanish and French had no problems befriending fellow Europeans from outside their home countries. Perhaps there is a genuine intrinsic ‘European’ connection (I’ve never felt it as an English citizen).
Having said all this, I must also say that this self-inflicted segregation only really applied to undergraduates. Postgraduate students seemed to find common ground and learn things from each other in a way I came to be quite envious of in my final year of undergrad.
Reputation merely habit?
Dr Giorgi also responed to my suggestion that a university’s reputation may be a matter of habit in that students may not put the thought or research into choosing the exact right university for their desired education, learning style and motto rather students simply apply to the university they have heard of or the one at the top of the league table.
Dr Giorgi makes the point that ‘habit‘ as in routine should not be confounded with ‘habit’ as in tradition or history.
This is a very valid point in my opinion and in a way I think it helps clarify my own.
Doesn’t a habit born out of tradition and in this case a history of good quality education by a particular university at some time become a habit of routine?
A ‘good’ university attracts some of the best students, who having obtained their education and qualifications there must continue its good reputation and, in turn, this attracts new generations of best students.
As such, is it not so that a university’s reputation becomes a self-perpetuating entity?
This is not to detract from that university’s traditionally good standards and in fact consistently attracting good students would enable the university to improve upon those standards.
I simply wish to suggest that perhaps in the case of university applications selecting a university lately does seem to confound routine and tradition.
I singled out international students in my previous post because for the UK university system increasingly they are the subset still able to choose. UK home students have scrambled for places at universities these last couple of years; sometimes strategically applying to universities less well regarded in the hope they will take them with lower grades or jumping at whatever university place they can get in Clearing (the post-results first-to-phone-gets-a-place limited number of partaking universities lottery).
When routine meets tradition
Perhaps the routine element of applying based on traditional good standards and regard is to the detriment of students and institutions. Some less well regarded universities excel in a particular field and maybe some very highly regarded universities as a whole have the odd department that is far less strong than there competition.
Two highly regarded UK universities are LSE and University of Oxford, but I would argue they are entirely different in ethos and student experience.
The very fact that one is an open hub in the heart of London and the other an especially student-orientated secluded and picturesque campus is just one spark of many cultural differences.
I was always somewhat astounded that some students opted upon failing to attain a place at Oxford to try LSE: as if a degree from either is interchangeable.
Maybe in respect for qualification this is true to an extent, but most definitely this is not so in relation to the kind of education students are exposed to.
I think this example highlights the notion that allowing the routine of choosing ‘good’ universities, even if those universities are historically of high quality and the choice is rational in that sense, is bad. Choices should, I believe, be nuanced and tailored to the student.
How does this relate to evaluations on quality?
And this impacts on my original question: are international students an indication of a university’s quality?
If we grant the assumption that international students can choose, and we grant the further assumption that international students would choose, all else being equal, safe traditionally high quality universities, then I think it is reasonable to think part of this process becomes routine and self-perpetuating.
If we admit routine then the number of international students at a university should not be thought of as an indication in itself of the quality of a university.
Yes, it may reflect a history of good quality and a record of success or openness to international communities but it may also be symptomatic of PR, poor understanding of employers of a changing industry or even laziness.
What do you think? Has choosing a university become routine? What’s more important: a good reputation or a good fit? Do you agree with Dr Giorgi that an international student body encourages team work, language learning and activity?