What Will Happen to the Cosmopolitans?

Lots of flags_optOne of the most striking features of academic life in Britain for me has always been its cosmopolitan character. The university where I spent my student years had a vibrantly international atmosphere. Both students and staff had come from all over the world, and the university seemed proud of this fact. It was easy to feel at home in this environment, and it was easy to develop a cosmopolitan outlook on sociological knowledge and practice.

To be sure, cracks at times became visible in this image of a cosmopolitan space. During the first year of my doctorate, a classmate attended a conference on cosmopolitanism at a London university. After he returned, he told me that he had overheard a group of academics complaining vigorously about all those foreign scholars who came to work at British universities. Towards the end of my doctorate, a postgraduate student was viciously beaten up for walking into a local pub whose denizens did not appreciate visits by non-locals. Still, these incidents could not alter the fact that I was studying in a genuinely cosmopolitan place.

Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that cosmopolitanism involves two insights: “One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (2006, Introduction).

Arguably, both of these insights are hotly contested in contemporary British society. Since the time I was student, the country has taken a remarkable inward turn, veering more and more towards the rejection of foreigners, immigrants, strangers, outsiders, others. The current government has maintained a stridently xenophobic tone on immigration, from recent declarations about the threat to social cohesion posed by immigration, to statements about immigrant swarms, to the refusal to participate in EU-wide negotiations about the current refugee crisis (1, 2), to policies that expel foreign students after the conclusion of their degrees, to an openly brutal detention and deportation program for asylum seekers (1, 2, 3), to creation of ‘Skype families’ torn apart by the refusal of visas to foreign spouses, to the infamous ‘go home or face arrest’ vans. The escalating xenophobia of large sectors of British journalism need not even be mentioned.

This graphic from a 2014 Universities UK report demonstrates the value of international students to Britain.

Underneath this poisonously xenophobic tone of politics and public debates, Britain is still a colorfully multicultural and sometimes, in some places, cosmopolitan society. Still, it may be time to worry about the future of cosmopolitanism in Britain. The idea itself has all but disappeared from public life, persistent debates in certain niches of academia notwithstanding. There are very few public figures today who advocate for cosmopolitanism as an intrinsic value. A range of studies indicate broadly negative public attitudes towards immigrants. NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey concludes: “In 2013, 77 per cent of people want immigration reduced “a little” or “a lot,” with 56 per cent wanting a large reduction. Both figures are up sharply on 1995 (when they stood at 63 and 39 per cent respectively) but are largely unchanged since 2008 (Ford et al., 2012). The British view that current immigration is too high is well established and stable”. The findings are echoed elsewhere. Migration Watch UK reports strong support for the government’s anti-immigration policies, while The Migration Observatory finds that “immigration is unpopular.” Drawing on the British Social Attitudes survey, The Guardian in 2014 reported that half “of all people – exactly 50% – believe the main reason immigrants come to Britain is to work, according to the survey, but nearly 24% think the main reason is to claim benefits – a higher proportion than think they come mainly to study, to join their family or seek asylum”. Such findings require careful interpretation, and they do not on their own warrant generalizations about xenophobia in Britain. Nonetheless, it seems difficult not to conclude that being an immigrant-foreigner-outsider-newcomer in the country is not easy.

All this poses a considerable danger to the future of British universities as cosmopolitan spaces. To be sure, British universities today do very much value their foreign staff and students. International Students in Higher Education, a 2014 report by Universities UK, emphasizes the importance of foreign students: “International students are of great importance both to the UK higher education sector and to the country more widely. Not only does their presence internationalize the academic environment and campus life, they also contribute more than £7 billion to the UK economy. Non-EU students made up around 13% of the UK student population in 2012–13, up from 10% five years earlier. Within certain subject areas and levels of study, a sustained level of international demand is vital to the provision of courses.” However, the report also warns that increasingly restrictive immigration policies pose a significant risk to the continuing internationalization of British universities. Recent surveys of international students’ experiences conducted by the UK Council for International Student Affairs further underline this point.

Arguably, British universities are not well equipped to meet this challenge. Under the New Labour government and, at an accelerated pace, under Conservative rule, universities have come to regard themselves as businesses that compete with each other for students in an international ‘market.’ Academia’s transition from a primarily intellectual to a primarily commercial space has had important consequences as far as internationalization is concerned. In particular, they have led universities and academic managers to engage with international students primarily in terms of their economic value. Universities UK’s International Students in Higher Education formulates this narrative of financially driven internationalization quite clearly. In a section titled “The importance of international students to higher education provision,” the report argues:

In the academic year 2013–13, around one in eight students enrolled in UK higher education institutions was from outside the EU. International students bring many benefits to the UK, which have been well articulated in recent years: they bring diversity to campus life and enhance the student experience for ‘home’ students; they support the provision of certain subjects, particularly at postgraduate level; and they provide a valuable source of income to universities and to local economies via expenditure on and off campus. (p.3)

Diversity is acknowledged here, but income generation comes across as much more important. Indeed, the report includes a whole chapter on “International students and university income,” while diversity continues to receive only superficial attention. This outlook arguably illustrates the narrative about international student recruitment in British academia at large. In times of waning government funding, economic considerations loom large, while few voice can be heard that defend cosmopolitanism for its own sake. Similar arguments can be made when it comes to university staff. According to statistics compiled by HESA, 51,365 academics and 18,540 non-academic members of staff were of non-UK nationality in the academic year 2013/14. There is no public narrative about the importance of these workers to British universities, just as there is no sustained debate about the importance of cultural diversity in academic spaces. Beyond arguments about the ‘valuable source of income’ foreigners constitute for British universities, there is not much of a debate at all about the impact of immigration policy and attitudes towards immigration on academia. If Britain shuts its doors even farther, for instance by withdrawing from the European Union, will there be space left for academics and other staff with cosmopolitan backgrounds? Will British universities continue to offer the kind of vibrantly diverse environment I enjoyed as a student? Will foreign students still be truly welcome? All these are questions that require attention.

Financial arguments make for a poor defense of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitan values such as those promoted by Kwame Anthony Appiah must be publicly espoused and defended on their own terms. Failure to do so puts the cosmopolitan character of British universities at risk, at a time when many in the country seem to yearn for closed borders and isolation.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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