22 SES 04 A, Internationalisation in Higher Education: Governance and Learning
We present the experience of 10 British low-socio-economic status students who were supported by a charitable scheme to be internationally mobile and who are currently studying at a range of highly selective universities and liberal arts colleges in the NorthEastern United States. Based on semi-structured interviews and the discussion of artefacts symbolizing their experience, findings show that by moving across national contexts, cultural cues of socioeconomic difference such as the vernacular become less recognizable, thus reducing the likelihood for ‘social identity threat’ and feeling of not belonging. The self-concept and habitus of these students is transformed, as they adopt the upper and middle-class dispositions and career pathways associated with elite college culture, thus suggesting the possibility of a wholesale escape of habitus.
Privileged students have better access to family and friend support and financial resources to access international educational opportunities (British Council 2015, 18–19). International mobility thus correlates with privileged social background (Finn and Darmody 2017) and therefore largely reinforces class distinctions and social advantages (Findlay et al. 2012). But what happens when a charitable policy intervention allows low-socio-economic status (SES) students to study abroad for their entire degrees?
Access to international educational opportunities now adds another layer of distinction and qualitative differentiation to the university experience that can reproduce and reinforce class distinctions (Bourdieu 1986; Findlay et al. 2012; Waters 2006; Altbach, Reisberg, and Rumbley 2010). International experiences and prestigious degrees from specific countries have become a prized commodity, often enhancing a student’s standing in the international job market. Privileged students have better access to socially valued study abroad experiences, enhancing their human capital (Gerhards and Hans 2013) or compensating for missing out on domestic elite education places (Waters and Brooks 2011). However, no existing studies extensively explore the experiences of low-SES students studying at elite universities outside of their own national context. Low-SES students usually lack the cultural and financial capital to make the choice to study abroad and feel more geographically constrained in their higher education choices, with preferences for local provision and some accidental attendance of elite universities when they happen to be local (Reay et al. 2001). In the year 2013/14, 22,000 UK domiciled students were internationally mobile (HESA 2015). While 2.6% of those from higher professional and managerial class backgrounds were mobile, only 1.1% of those from working-class backgrounds (routine and semi-routine backgrounds) were mobile (HESA 2015), thus highlighting class differences in accessing international mobility.
Studying the impact of international mobility is possible using a unique scheme developed by a UK-based charity. The charity scheme provides information, a summer school and application support to low-income British students to pursue study at US universities. Scheme participants all received generous financial aid packages to attend their US universities, reaching up to $250,000 in financial aid per student over four years of study.
Do low-SES British students who have the opportunity to study at US elite universities transform their habitus and perform creative adaptations to overcome the social and cultural differences they encounter, akin to the low-SES students in the UK domestic elite institution in Reay et al.’s (2009) study? Or do they become more conscious of their class background when in an elite college environment, causing some feelings of distress and anxiety, or a habitus ‘divided against oneself ’ as some students did in Aries and Seider’s (2005) US study?
All UK participants in the charity mobility scheme currently studying at US universities were invited to participate in the study. Students were either in the first or second year at university and represented the first and second cohorts of charity scheme participants. Ten students volunteered, mirroring the numbers achieved in Reay et al.’s (2009) study of working-class students at an elite university in England. They each subsequently participated in a semi-structured Skype interview in spring 2015. Interviews ranged from 25 to 55 minutes and all interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Interviews examined students’ self-concepts, feelings towards their peers at university, relationship with their home community and outlook on the future. Students’ ‘feelings of belonging’ were thus established both in relation to their university and hometown communities, mapping potential shifts in social, cultural and national fields and habitus. Students were also asked before the interview to bring an object which represented their time at university or in the United States (for example, Woolner et al. 2009). Together with some more open-ended questions, this was an opportunity for respondents to steer the discussion by selecting experiences that were meaningful to them. The 10 students also completed a short survey that asked about their parents’ or guardians’ employment and educational background and their home postcode, with the latter being a relatively standard ways for British universities to gauge socio-economic background. Additional schooling or income information was not collected as this was captured through eligibility for the charity scheme and the US universities’ financial aid assessment. The study had approval from the anonymized charity gatekeeper organization and a university ethics committee. It is key to be mindful of the exceptional characteristics of the study participants – high-attaining, low-SES students who have put themselves forward for an international social mobility scheme. These traits are atypical of the demographic group from which they come and findings cannot easily be generalized to all low-SES students. Moreover, while SES and race intersect, it is noteworthy that 90% of students in this study identify as white British, meaning findings cannot be generalized to internationally mobile ethnic minority students. Finally, future longitudinal research will help to evaluate the longer-term impact of the scheme.
When entering a new field, the cultural capital and habitus an individual possesses will largely inform the feelings of belonging and social fit he or she experiences in a novel environment (Bourdieu 1973). This study demonstrates that when moving across transcontinental fields, socially valued cultural capital and cues of socio-economic difference are less recognizable, complicating Bourdieu’s field theory. This ‘unrecognizable habitus’ means that individuals within that field, in this case the often somewhat more affluent US students, cannot effectively evaluate a low-SES individual’s ‘legitimate position’ within the field. Consequently, socio-economic cues of difference become less prevalent. In turn, a working-class student may no longer feel uncomfortable about cultural cues of socio-economic difference which are identifiable in their own country. At a policy level, the study suggests that cross-cultural exchange might indeed be the step in social mobility initiatives, allowing students to have a college experience where class no longer plays a prevalent a role in their social experiences at university. However, although mobility schemes (like the one discussed in this study) have many beneficial aspects to them, they only benefit the few and, as our further research on the background of participants showed, they might benefit the least disadvantaged of the disadvantaged first. Such schemes also do not challenge the hierarchical structure of higher education systems in the United States and the United Kingdom where it matters not only what students learn in higher education but the prestige of the institution they attend predicts labour market outcomes. As the charity scheme participants progress to graduation and further study or employment, it will also become clearer to what extent support for individual social mobility impacts on the home communities these students leave behind.
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