H. Perraton: International Students 1860–2010

International Students 1860–2010. Policy and Practice round the World

Perraton, Hilary
334 p.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Giles Scott-Smith, Leiden University

"In the nineteenth century Gandhi crossed oceans to study and returned home to transform India". (p. 1) So this sweeping history of student movement across borders begins, setting the scene for 150 years of evolving cultural trends, economic ‘push and pull’ factors, political designs, and family fortunes. The field of international education has a substantial historiography, charting the ups and downs of institutional planning and purpose. The students who actually participated in that international education have, prior to this book, received attention via studies of particular programmes or imperial networks. Thanks to the endeavours of Hilary Perraton to bring everything together in one place, we now have a global coverage of student exchange that, as she correctly observes, adds this field of activity to ‘the world’s intellectual history’ (p. 2).

Admittedly, others have covered similar terrain, such as the Global Exchanges volume of Tournes and Scott-Smith that set out a similar framework for studying the 20th century’s educational circulations.[1] Both volumes make use of logical periodisations for framing developments: late 19th century, the interwar period, the Cold War, the post-Cold War. Both delve into the political and economic interests that have shaped student movements over time. Both argue that the full significance of this subject still needs to be grasped in studies of migration, cultural history, even finance, but also that defining what exactly that significance is remains problematic. But whereas Global Exchanges exposes the wider significance of through a series of programme-based case studies, International Students adopts a more wide-ranging approach that has the student at its centre. The result is a very readable study that successfully mixes four chapters providing a clear overview of trends 1860-2010 with a set of theme-based chapters on Britain and India, children, the military, the USA, the Cold War, and the economic costs and benefits involved.

In that 150-year period, International student movement went from being a private elite exercise to occupying such an important source of revenue that national and regional strategy papers were written to maximise its pay-offs. In 1860 there were perhaps 2000 international students studying outside of their home countries, a number that would soon grow due to the increasing accessibility of cheaper transport (rail and steamboat), pushing the opportunity beyond being simply a throw-back to the Grand Tour and into the modern age. By 2010 Perraton estimates that there were in the region of 4 million studying abroad as part of a multi-million business of major importance for national exchequers, university finances, and knowledge migration.

The book has a number of strengths that make it accessible, informative, and critically astute. Firstly, the inclusion of many tables indicating the numbers of students moving between selected countries provides a very useful statistical backdrop to the narrative. This reveals to what extent, for instance, the United States was always by far a more attractive destination for mobile students than the Soviet Union. It was not so much the numbers as the ideological fervour of the Soviet model – “the preparation of cadres of national intelligentsia” in the post-colonial world (p. 199) – that really posed the danger for US leadership in this field. Students were the bearers of possible futures, and the USSR had a more profound view on how to guide their contribution as agents of history compared to the US outlook on personal freedom and success.

Secondly, the book is very good regarding its critical attention for the role played by class, race, and gender and how these factors “played a central role in determining who would travel and what reactions they would face” (p. 303). Women were long excluded as participants, and class as a decisive factor behind study abroad continued through the 20th century. Imperial ties produced the most profound contradictions, with Britain caught between its open liberal ethos and its sense of closed-off racial superiority.[2] This resulted in a cultural contest whereby “upper middle class Indian families who wanted to play the British at their imperial games and win” (p. 149). Surprisingly, the USA’s own dilemma regarding how to spin a Cold War ‘freedom and democracy’ mantra despite ongoing racial oppression and segregation is hardly mentioned, even though the book gives plenty of attention to the expansion of third-world-focused development-related international education from the 1940s onwards. Instead, we read about the Soviet Union’s troubles as African students protested against racism in Red Square in 1963 – equally relevant, but only half the story.

The themed chapters definitely add a layer of narrative and analysis that sets this book apart from other studies. The chapter on the international education of children is particularly insightful, with study abroad being available for ‘the most privileged and the most deprived’ (p. 236). As the elites made use of finishing schools in the Swiss Alps, the lower classes encountered different destinations as part of the social engineering of the masses. Barnado’s chilling offhand comment about “philanthropic abduction” (p. 232) speaks volumes about the ways in which the enforcement of social norms was deemed morally justified. Children were also seen as better bearers of the future than students by socialist regimes such as East Germany and Cuba looking to bolster both their regimes and their global influence. The chapter on the military covers more familiar ground, but still causes reflection regarding the linkages between graduates of Sandhurst and St. Cyr going on to lead coups in their home countries, and the associated relations between military training and the arms trade.

The book occasionally wanders into terrain worthy of attention but more difficult to cover, such as the use of youth festivals by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. As with race, US designs in this field via the International Student Conference and World Assembly of Youth are passed over in favour of an examination of the Soviet story. The impact of fascism and Nazism is noted mainly for their contribution to intellectual migration, although the legacies of this are not pursued in any depth.[3] The conclusion does well to move beyond a simple summing up of trends covered by also addressing contradictions. The ‘brain drain’ exemplifies one such complication, where the attractiveness of the United States as a destination for study and ultimately employment undermined the aim of US policy to strengthen the capacities of its allies. But what does it all add up to, in terms of our understanding of international history? That students were regarded as worthy of surveillance by the security services of imperial, democratic, and socialist states over many decades (covered in chapters 4, 6 and 8) should alone make us reflect on the political significance of this particular social group over time. Drawing on an OECD report from 2004, Perraton frames a closing range of observations around four principal goals of study abroad: mutual understanding, capacity building, sources of revenue, and skilled migration. Of these four, it is (always) mutual understanding that has to receive the most critical commentary, it being the most difficult to qualify and quantify.

Here lies the ongoing dilemma for this field of research. OECD studies are fine for setting up a spreadsheet-type cost and benefit analysis, but how closer are we to merging international education with intellectual history? Would Gandhi have transformed India without first crossing oceans? What kind of causality, if any, can be ascribed to these study abroad experiences, in terms of what happened next? This is a fine book and Perraton has done a worthy service to collate everything in such an appealing and stimulating fashion.[4] That there are lacunae, roads not taken and repetition is unavoidable for such a diverse subject. It is nevertheless a significant birds-eye view mixing breadth and depth, and therefore an important marker for international, intellectual, and cultural historians, to name but a few.

[1] Ludovic Tournes / Giles Scott-Smith (eds.), Global Exchanges. Scholarships and Transnational Circulations in the Modern World, New York 2017.
[2] An interesting parallel development in immigration took place, with Britain wanting both a form of imperial citizenship to prolong the metropole’s meaning, and restrictive movement into the metropole to maintain racial hierarchies. See Ian Sanjay Patel, We’re here because you were there. Immigration and the End of Empire, London 2021.
[3] See for instance Udi Greenberg, The Weimar Century. German Emigres and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War, Princeton 2015.
[4] The author lets drop in a footnote that they were part of the international student community in Moscow in the late 1970s (p. 221 note 69), perhaps an indication of why this subject holds such appeal.

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