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Higher education's everyday nationalism

Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell
A new legislative proposal from California captured my attention. If implemented, the plan would cap International student numbers at the University of California’s most popular campus. It frames international students as crowding out students from California. This probably isn’t true. I think the proposal offers a false choice, which I get to in the second half of this issue. First, I deal with some of the background thinking that lead to my reaction the the California proposal. So, let’s get into the nationalism.

US higher education is a nationalist sector
I want to talk about nationalism. Not the xenophobic, American First, “build the wall” kind of nationalism you might be thinking. For sure, these pernicious norms of nationalism are in higher education. Jenny Lee has written, for example, about what she calls neo-nationalism in higher ed, which includes racist treatment of international students and faculty. But I’m talking about an “everyday nationalism” that permeates the sector. It’s probably a little provocative to call higher education a nationalist section, but let me explain what I mean by offering a few ways to think about it.
Methodological nationalism
My colleague Riyad Shahjahan and Adriana Kezar described the problem in a paper on methodological nationalism. Methodological nationalism tends to assume the nation-state as the default, natural, and correct unit of analysis for understanding higher education. It also means that the experiences in some nation-states are general and applicable to other contexts, whereas others are distinct.
The United States is one of those countries seen as general. That assumption works its way into the way we study higher education as an academic subject. Take, for example, an open-access study recently published in Higher Education (the journal I co-edit) by Marek Kwiek. He finds that US dominance in higher education studies is declining but is maintained in US-edited journals. While leading journals (as defined by Scopus citations) are pluralizing in terms of the countries where authors work and the countries addressed in research, international integration is happening mainly in the journals edited fully or partially outside the US. The US-edited journals mostly publish papers about the US, by US-located authors. That national focus differs from other journals in the field (see below).
Another recent study compares the national diversity of editorial boards, authors, and study locations in higher education journals. Comparing Scopus Q1 (top quartile in education) journals to Scopus Q4 (bottom quartile) journals. If finds that Q1 journals represent Anglophone countries more than Q4 whereas Q4 journals have better representation outside of the “Anglosphere” Of note, the study also finds that journals edited int he US have much less national and regional diversity than their counterparts.
Marek Kwiek
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So, what should we do about this? Here’s what Shahjahan and Kezar say:
One way to move beyond [methodological nationalism] is to not conceive higher education as exclusively associated with the nation-state or internally driven, but as constructed through the complex workings and interplays of complex social processes that are multidimensional and also geopolitical.
Their approach is music to my ears. It’s how I try to understand higher education. Notice, I say try. That’s because I don’t always succeed. I slip into methodological nationalism sometimes.
Although countries or sub-national states mainly provide public higher education, the sector is closer to a global or international institution. Because the nation-state doesn’t contain all of the activity of a nationally located, funded, and regulated college or university, we can’t fully understand colleges or universities when we automatically and unquestioningly take the nation-state as the unit of analysis.
Avoiding methodological nationalism doesn’t mean countries (nation-states) are never suitable units of analysis or that we should ignore them. Shahjahan and Kezar are clear that countries are legitimate objects of study. I’d go further and say that they are indispensable because higher education is located, funded, regulated in particular national contexts. Just because something is necessary, however, doesn’t mean it’s sufficient.
Territorially defined welfare
Another reason we might understand higher education as a national sector is because of territorially defined welfare. Brendan, what the hell does that mean? Ok, here goes, and let’s hope I’m not spinning too much BS. Territorially defined welfare means that the provision of a social benefit occurs within a territorial jurisdiction. A national health service, that’s one example. A state university, for a higher education example, ought to benefit the people of that state. Pretty straightforward and nearly incontestable. Of course, a state university ought to help the state and the people there. I agree. Germany’s national health system cannot feasibly serve everyone in the world; there have to be practical limits.
But things get a bit sticker when we get to identifying what we mean by benefiting the state. Colleges and universities don’t generally limit participation to those who reside in or somehow belong to a specific territory. That’s because access to higher education is not an absolute right anywhere, at least not anywhere I know about. Higher education is not like primary education, which is an entitlement (and obligation) in most countries. Nor is it like health care, which is a right in some countries (but not enough). Even when provision occurs within a territory - the state of Michigan, for example - people cross borders (they even come from Ohio!) to participate. In fact, higher education has just about always involved crossing political jurisdictions to participate, back to the Medieval period.
One way to get around limiting higher education to people from a specific jurisdiction is to charge differential tuition. A student from California at the University of Arizona is charged a higher tuition price (at least before individual discounts) than an Arizona resident. Most examples of publicly provided (what that means is a whole other matter) that I know of do some use some kind territorially defined rule to specify how much of a subsidy you get. For example, in in most of Canada’s provinces, prices don’t vary by province residency (Alex Usher shared that that a big exception is Quebec, which changes low tuition prices to in-province students and much higher prices to Canadian students from other provinces). A student from Alberta is charged the same fees in British Columbia as a BC student. But international students at Canadian universities are charged much more.
The European Union re-defined the welfare territory of higher education by setting fees, including no fees, the same for all EU students. While public universities in the US tend to define the welfare territory as the sub-national state, at least concerning tuition fees, in Canada and Australia, the jurisdiction is mostly set at the (federal) nation. But in these countries, international students have a more straightforward pathway to be included in broader welfare regimes because schemes make it easier for international students to immigrate eventually.
There are some examples where there is less territorial bounding. Finland didn’t charge tuition for any degree programs (until fairly recently when a limited set of programs offered in Egnlish adopted tuition fees) for any student no matter where the student resides in the world. But supply is pretty constrained in Finland, where there is also reasonably limited demand for university spots by non-Finnish students compared to, say, the US, UK, France, China, and other larger countries.
The extent to which jurisdictions can capture the benefits of higher education by defining the welfare territory is debatable. But they sure try. The HOPE scholarship in the state of Georgia, for example, is partly justified on the basis of seeing human capital (good students) in Georgia for the benefit of the state. 
As an aside, jurisdictional control of the benefits of research seems even more complex, given that knowledge is tough to pin down. Once it’s out in the world, it is hard to prevent others from using it. Even so, countries want to capture the knowledge produced in their universities. Norway is one example where they are considering regulating knowledge export. Nroway’s plan focuses specifically on military related research, which isn’t that odd. Lots of countries have limits on the expert of sensitive technology. But the plan seems pretty extensive and is consistent with a general trend of trying to gate knowledge, which is hard to do.
Back to the main conversation … It’s not always clear that we can assess students’ movement through the tidy jurisdictional ledger that is often assumed. People circulate across state and national borders over time. They form networks, transfer resources, and so on. Migration isn’t some final, irreversible state where a person is in one place and cut off forever from the other place. A famous book on students/immigrants in Silicon Valley shows how this dynamic plays out.
A turn to California
I’ve thought about the question of nationalism and higher education for a while. News prompted me to write about it this week. A plan in May proposed to limit the number of out of district students at the University of California to 10% of total enrollments. The UC already has a cap on such enrollments. Lowering the cap will be the most consequential for the most in-demand University of California campuses: Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego. While the proposed policy applies to all nonresident students, system wide, there are more international that out-of-state domestic students. 
About the May proposal, the LA Times notes:
The state Senate has unveiled a proposal to reduce the proportion of nonresident incoming freshmen to 10% from the current systemwide average of 19% over the next decade beginning in 2022 and compensate UC for the lost income from higher out-of-state tuition.
This would ultimately allow nearly 4,600 more California students to secure freshmen seats each year, with the biggest gains expected at UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. The share of nonresidents at those campuses surpasses the systemwide average, amounting to a quarter of incoming freshmen. UC, however is pushing back, saying the plan would limit its financial flexibility to raise needed revenue and weaken the benefits of a geographically broad student body.
“It’s not about ending out-of-state students — they really add to the mix and the educational experience,” said Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), whose Senate budget subcommittee on education discussed the plan this month. “We just have to make sure there’s enough spaces for in-state students.”
An updated plan has limits the further restrictions to UCLA, Berkeley, and San Diego, and allows the campuses 5 years to achieve the gaol of reducing out of district students. It’s less aggressive but will like have similar effects. Karin Fischer has more details here.
Let’s pause to acknowledge why the plan is attractive many. Access to higher education is stratified. Too many students cannot get into the institution of their choice, including public universities, even when they are prepared for the work. Low-income students and students who hold marginalized racial identities are too often excluded from of the most sought after institutions.
Public universities recruit out-of-district students for all kinds of reasons. Universities, especially selective ones, prefer a diverse student body, including students from different places, because they believe (probably correctly) that it enriches the educational experience. But they also recruit out-of-district students for prestige. Selecting students with high grades and test scores can boost ratings and enhance the perception that the institution is “a good school” (whatever that means).
A big reason - the big reason? - campuses recruit out-of-district students is for the money. Money seeking can be a problem because it suppresses access and diverts from the public, and state-serving, mission.
Research by Crystal Han, Ozan Jaquette, Katrina Salazar shows that public universities exhibit a troubling tendency to recruit from affluent, primarily white, out-of-state high schools. A study by economists found that public universities turn to international students to fill revenue gaps when state funding goes down. My own research identified an association between new international student enrollment and increased tuition revenue at public doctoral universities.
Seems pretty clear to me that international students are a source of revenue. In other English-speaking countries, they call recruiting International students “export education,” which makes clear the commercial elements to the whole thing. No wonder people find it a little bit icky.
But one thing about the rationale for the CA cap in international students stood out to me. Proponents framed the as allowing 4,600 more Californian students to access UC campuses. That means that the operating assumption is that international students displace domestic students. One problem with that assumption, it’s probably not true:
A nifty new paper by economist Mingyu Chen not only finds that international students do not crowd out local students and might help to increase the supply of seats for in-state students.
According to Chen’s findings:
On average, for every additional international freshman enrolled, the in-state freshman enrollment increases by 2.2 at US public universities.
What gives? As Chen explains, public universities are probably not space-constrained, but they are cash-constrained. The additional revenue from international students allows universities to subside lower-pay in-state students and enroll more. Public universities respond to declining state funding by recruiting more international students. That response also expands opportunities for in-state students relative to the supply offered absent the new international students. 
If you wanted to take a moral position, a framing more consistent with the evidence would be that international students are exploited to pay for local students. I’m partly sympathetic to that line of thinking but return the issue of the national health service as my example. Most students get a subsidy no matter how much tuition they pay. That means tuition doesn’t cover all that it costs to provide the education; therefore, it is neither politically nor financially plausible to fully decouple the benefits of higher education, including the subsidy rate from a jurisdiction. From my perspective, if we are going to recruit students at least in part to fund our universities, we ought to treat them well and not with suspicion.
That brings me to another concern with the CA framing of limiting international students to make space for domestic students. It’s a short trip to some racist tropes. The framing suggests international students are unwanted invaders who are taking spaces from local students. Troubling, especially when the evidence suggests this isn’t true. Qualitative studies by higher educator researchers Christina Yao and Jenny Lee show that international students experience racism on and off-campus. Given that students from China, Korea, and other East Asian contras make up a large share of the international student population in the US, this concern is especially relevant. In recent months, anti-Asian violence is rising as racists wrongly blame Asian appearing people for the pandemic.
A false choice
I should be clear. So far as I know, the CA proposal is about the percentage of out of district students, including international, not the total number of students. That means that UC could increase the number of international and California students, so long as California students increased proportionally more so that International students were at or below 10% of total enrollments. 
But the framing is about a choice. It goes like this: The UC can enroll international students. Or it can enroll students from California. That, in my view, is a false choice.
I’ve already explained why I think it’s a false choice. Public universities can finance more in-state students by enrolling International ones. Ok, I’m repeating myself.
It’s also a false choice because it assumes a fixed number of students. This assumption is based on the desire for some campuses - say the ones in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego, to maintain selective admissions to keep their rankings and prestige up. We don’t need to have a scarcity mindset. Expand. Be open. Grow … Goodness, now I sound like I’m getting energy from crystals, probably because I’ve been thinking about California.
It’s also a false choice because the state of California could choose to fund the UC sufficiently. Including fully supporting ALL UC campuses, not just the most prestigious (thanks to Thomas Dickson for sharing this article). Broke, a new book by sociologists Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen, examine the consequences of inadequate funding at the University of California’s newest campuses, Riverside and Merced. Both enroll a higher share of low-income, Black, and Latinx students when compared to the UC overall. Both are also starved for resources. Given the financial precocity of these universities, Hamilton and Nielsen explain that students are exposed to negative consequences of austerity in ways that students at other UC campuses are not. This is the result of a decision to stop adequately funding higher education. As Hamilton put it:
Our country made a choice in the last decades of the twentieth century to withdraw funding for public higher education, just as waves of racially marginalized youth gained greater access. This was likely not coincidental.
Framing the problem as partially caused by International students taking places at the better resources universities is not just factually incorrect but has the potential to compound the harm. California could choose to invest in Riverside, Merced, and other UC campuses to expand access. It could open more campuses and fully fund them. That is a choice that the state could make.
By thinking beyond methodological nationalism and thinking about jurisdictionally defined welfare critically, I argue that we can begin to understand the UC international student cap proposal in more complex, nuanced, perhaps counter-intuitive terms.
Ok. Enough. 
A favor, please.
If you read all the way to this point, then you probably liked or hated what I had to say (the internet has lots of hate reading). Either way, please consider subscribing to my newsletter blog thing-y and sharing this post on social media. Cheers!
– Edited again on June 6 for content and clarity –
– Edited at 9:40 AM June 28 for typos and to correct the Canadian fee regime. Edited at 12:00 on June 28 to reflect that Mingyu Chen is no longer a PhD student. Edited on June 29 for clarity. –
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Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell @@cant_b

Associate Professor @HALEatMSU and Joint Editor-in-Chief for Higher Education ( Speak only for my self.

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