Intervention – “The (In)Visible Student Body: Covid-19 and the Embodiment of International Mobilities”

Johanna L. Waters, University College London;

I want to discuss the invisibility of the international student body in the West and how Covid-19 has rendered it, at least partly, visible. Ordinarily, international students (totalling more than five million at tertiary level globally, according to OECD statistics) are largely invisible and habitually taken-for-granted. Many authors have described how international students are “Othered” in their “host” country (e.g. Lee 2020; Lipura and Collins 2020; Sin 2013). I would argue, however, that in order to be Othered they first need to be seen. Their invisibility exists, inexplicably, despite the huge financial, social and cultural contribution that international students are making to countries, communities and universities in the West. This contrasts with how international students are viewed elsewhere. Within East and Southeast Asia, international students’ bodies are sought after and “appropriated” (Yang 2016). They are discursively framed as valuable human capital and coveted by states as part of explicit economic development strategies. In this Intervention, I want to make three main points. First, I will discuss how the bodies of international students have been obscured and (mis)treated (in Western host countries). Second, I contrast this approach to how students are “appropriated” elsewhere. And third, I consider how international students themselves may view their mobilities post-Covid 19, and act upon this. I conclude with a reflection upon some ethical imperatives attached to international students that have, to date, been unacceptably side-lined.

The invisibility of international students should be understood against a background of the internationalisation of higher education. Over the past 20 or so years, higher education institutions have become increasingly reliant upon incoming international student bodies. Many countries, such as the UK, charge international students fees significantly above those charged to domestic students. They are said to be worth around £20 billion annually to the UK economy (Coughlan 2018). Some international students have been housed in elaborate purpose-built accommodation blocks, with impacts on the economies and communities of wider city areas. According to Revington and August (2020), for example, international students have been important to the financialization of the student housing market in Canada (in relation to the growth of so-called Purpose Built Student Accommodation [PBSA] since 2011). One unintended consequence of this is social segregation: often, universities end up separating international students and domestic students, with implications for how diversity within the institution and the broader urban area is experienced (Fincher and Shaw 2009), and reinforcing the relative invisibility of the international student body (out of sight, out of mind).

Covid-19 has rendered the previously invisible bodies of international students visible in various ways. National responses to Covid-19 resulted in the targeting of incoming Asian bodies as potential vectors of disease. Initially, students were ridiculed for wearing masks, way before it became an accepted and mandated practice in the West. Later on, students were assumed to be themselves “infected”, and anecdotal as well as preliminary research findings would suggest widespread experiences of racism – from micro-aggressions to verbal abuse and even full-scale assault (Mittelmeier and Cockayne 2020). Chinese bodies, in particular, were among the first to be targeted by mobility restrictions and border enforcement as a direct response to Covid-19. The President of the United States began describing Covid-19, in explicitly racist terms, as the “China virus”, and Chinese bodies were stopped from crossing state borders (reminiscent of various 19th and early 20th century Chinese Exclusion Acts, where Chinese bodies were similarly targeted; see Anderson 1991). The notion of invisibility has been discussed extensively in relation to other migrant groups (such as low skilled manual workers) and to women in general, and the ageing female body in particular. There has been far less discussion of the invisibility of the international student body.

In Australia, the importance of international students to both the economy and the higher education system (they represent a third of total students) has recently been discussed at length in relation to Covid-19 and, subsequently, difficult diplomatic/geopolitical relations with China. Their visibility has, consequently, been significantly heightened. Students have been more visible in Australia in recent years, but this has largely related to media coverage of violent, racist attacks against international students. Dunn et al. (2011: 72) discussed multiple attacks on students of Indian decent in Melbourne and Sydney and highlighted both government “inaction” and the denial of racism as the “dominant political response”. Thus, they argue, the state in this case continues to refute the targeted physical, embodied experiences of international students. Contrast this to how states such as Singapore have depicted international students: as a source of strength, wealth and ethnic enrichment. Students from China, for example, have been desired by the Singaporean state, even when the population at large may have far more ambivalent reactions to mainland Chinese bodies (see, for an interpretation of the antagonistic relationship between Singaporeans of Chinese ethnic descent and immigrants from Mainland China through a psychoanalytic lens, Yang 2019). The state has notably favoured the Chinese student body as part of its “foreign talent” programme, with many individuals receiving government scholarships giving them access to fully funded higher education in Singapore. Singapore has already announced its intentions to open its borders to students from China from November 2020 (CNA 2020), subject to a negative Covid-19 test on arrival at the airport.

International students have a voice and can “vote with their feet” when it comes to decision-making around their education. Early indications suggest that students are increasingly concerned with bodily safety when choosing an international study destination, favouring countries that seem to have asserted “control” over the pandemic (Xiong et al. 2020). They may also choose destinations closer to home, making return easier and less traumatic in the face of future global pandemics or other events. A recent survey by Xiong et al. (2020) of potential international students in China and Hong Kong found that over 80 percent claimed they no longer desired to travel for higher education, and those for whom an international education was still considered a possibility cited destinations such as Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan (Taiwan, at the time of writing, had not recorded a single Covid-19 infection in 200 days; conversely and counter-intuitively, UK universities have reported “record” numbers of international students this year [Adams 2020; see, for initial thoughts on this, Mittelmeier et al. 2020])..

The last ten years have seen significant changes in the global geographies of international student mobilities. Regional patterns of student mobilities within Asia are far more pronounced. Often, an international education is more accessible to less privileged students in nearby countries, whereas travel to the US or UK and the payment of extortionate fees in addition to other costs excludes the majority of young people. Consequently, these regional geographies might also signal the democratisation or massification of international student mobility to an extent.

The conclude, this discussion about the (in)visibility of international students’ bodies is really one about their ethical treatment. And broader questions around the ethics of international student mobility remain. The ways in which international students are treated as “less than” – how they are often neglected or ignored in the classroom, or are assumed to be of lower intelligence and less able, how they are often not represented on student committees, or how they struggle to penetrate the friendship groups of the “host” community and how they are “seen” only in relation to the monetisation of their bodies (e.g. Sidhu 2006; Tannock 2018). The “cash cow” trope continues to loom large. Over a decade ago, Clare Madge and colleagues (2009) called for us (within host institutions in the West) to partake in “engaged pedagogy” in relation to international students, drawing on bell hooks’ (1994) insightful intervention in Teaching to Transgress. Browne (2005) has discussed these ideas in broader terms in relation to geography teaching, considering the possibility of creating feminist classrooms that include the personal and create a more collaborative learning experience. In my view, international students continue to be excluded from such collaborative learning, and instead are ostracised and made to “conform”. Perhaps the online space, after Covid-19, can also be a more feminist space, where the body of the international student is both recognised and valued for their humanity.


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