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Intersections of Higher Education and Student Migration to the West

By Soma Chatterjee


This article is my first attempt to discuss the highly complex, multifarious issue of international student migration in an accessible manner. While I locate the issue within the broader context of contemporary western nation states’ recruitment of skilled labour for purposes of national prosperity, popularly known as the global race for skill, the limited space and scope of this article allows me to use only one example. I will discuss a Canadian policy – Canada being a non-traditional destination country for international students – and the Canadian state’s effort to secure a position in the global race for skill by rebranding itself as an international student destination.

Context: The emergence of the global knowledge regime

As political scientist and global citizenship scholar Ayelet Shachar (2006) documents in her comprehensive study of the global talent hunt, a ‘[c]ompetitive scramble’ is going on between advanced industrialized countries for highly skilled professional labour. While this race can be traced back to the 1960s (the Immigration and Nationality Act, USA, 1965; the Federal Skilled Worker Program, Canada, 1967; and the Universal Admission Scheme, Australia, 1973), over the following decades, many countries joined in an effort to secure competitive advantage in what has come to be known as the global knowledge regime.[1] With increasing number of competitor states and a limited pool of globally mobile talent, states have been using permanent residency and various pathways to citizenship as tools for recruitment, and also re-arranging their immigration, work permit and visa policies to brand themselves as destinations of choice for professionals and international postsecondary students. The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act (2000), the Lisbon Agenda (2000) and more recently, the Europe 2020 plan (2010) and the British Futures report (2014) demonstrate the intensifying nature of the race.[2] The German Green Card for information technology workers (2000), the Highly Skilled Migrant Program of the UK government (2002), and the Canadian Experience Class (2008) are a few prominent examples of proactive recruitment programs.

It is in this context that international students have come to be prized commodities. Typically, in the post World War II era, international students would head towards the United States as the traditional destination, a trend continuing till early 2000s.[3] As the global race for skill heated up and states embarked on aggressive recruitment strategies, this scenario started shifting. Between 2001 and 2003, the inflow of foreign students increased by more than 36% in the United Kingdom, 30% in France, and 13% in Australia. During the same period, however, the number of incoming foreign students declined by 26% in the United States (Shachar, 2006). Over the last decade, fasttrack entry systems in many OECD countries – not all of them traditional destination countries for international students – have further dispersed the global student traffic. Concerted efforts are being made on behalf of states to retain them as future skilled professionals.[4]

Migration of students/professionals and contemporary western nation building: The Case of Canadian Experience Class     Contemporary western economies are so dominated by discourses of mobile knowledge, talent and entrepreneurial innovation that anthropologist Aiwah Ong (2007) wrote how national citizenship in many of these countries is giving way to a contingent citizenship based on meritocracy. And yet, as many scholars of postwar western nationalism and citizenship practices have pointed out, while skilled professionals are welcome, by no means are they parts of ‘traditional ethnos or demos’ (Shachar, 2006; see also Balibar, 2000; Hage, 2000). Their welcome is always contingent and conditional upon a range of socioeconomic and political factors that are driven by both domestic and international power relations. It is important to keep in mind that many of the aforementioned states used to have exclusionary immigration and citizenship policies till, at least the 1960s, when, due to domestic labour needs and shifting postcolonial hierarchies of nation states, their ‘gates’ finally started opening up to professionals from the global South. While rising discourses of global knowledge economy would subsequently invest many such professionals with a form of honorary membership in states they were historically and conceptually excluded from, a gap between their formal passage of entry and their political membership will prove tenacious.

Take, for example, the case of Canada. The high skilled labour market in Canada has been a site dominated by discourses of skills and merit typical to a globalized knowledge economy. This reached a crescendo in early 2000s, when, following the publication of the 1st National Innovation Strategy, Canada actively started planning to partake in the global race for talent. In the following decade, riding on the tide of a research and development led global economy dictated by innovators and entrepreneurs in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM), the Canadian government introduced a series of policies to stake a claim in the global talent pool. One among these policies is the Canadian Experience Class – an immigration program offering expedited residency to international students and high skilled temporary workers on the basis of their local Canadian experience (following Australia).

Establishing Canadian experience as a precondition for recruitment as skilled immigrant is a well thought-out response to the global race for skill. Not surprisingly, the Canadian government has recently published its first International Education Strategy (tellingly fore worded by the Ministry of International Trade and Finance). International education has been declared one among the 22 priority areas for revenue generation and the recruitment of international students has been intensified across Canadian post secondary institutions. The government recently also published the following statistics on the amount of revenue generated by students from top six countries and regions. These countries/regions are also identified as emerging markets in Canada’s Global Market Action Plan (2013).

Top six sending countries and regions for international students

Country/Region China India MENAT* Mexico Vietnam Brazil
Student population 80,638 28,929 26,203 5,003 3,429 2923
% of population 30.4% 10.8% 9.9% 1.9% 1.3% 1.1%
Estimated expenditure $2.56 B $917.6 M $831.2 M $158.7 M $108.8 M $92.7 M

Since early 2000, the work permit regulations for international students were eased, presumably to facilitate the work experience needed to apply under the Canadian Experience Class program.[5]

Indeed, according to the country’s 1st International Education Strategy (2014), the number of international students in Canada is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. Between 2004 and 2013, there has been a 64% rise in their number.

And yet, I argue that the Canadian nation continues to be an exclusive space. A policy like Canadian Experience Class indeed makes Canada ‘more competitive’ in recruiting and retaining international students. However, attention to the operating logics of their recruitment reveals important details about contemporary Canadian nationalism. It is important to consider here that Canada has had very restrictive immigration policies historically. Racialized populations were typically barred from entering the nation through active mobilization of discourses of deficit, danger, deviance etc. To date, internationally trained professionals face barriers in the Canadian labour market as their skills and credentials are not considered at par with Canadian standards, thereby banishing them from economic and social citizenship. The training programs many of them are made to go through have been critiqued as pedagogic works that inculcate culturally legitimized practices (Ameeriar, 2013; Bauder, 2006; Girard & Bauder, 2007).

Following many of the ministerial speeches on Canadian Experience Class that I studied for my research, Canadian postsecondary institutions are considered sites of acculturation. It is through their exposure to these sites that international students are considered pre-integrated and therefore, ‘set for success’ in the Canadian labour market. They are expected to have perfected English or French language skills, critical soft/cultural skills, and credentials that are recognizable by Canadian employers; important markers for success in a globalized knowledge economy (See Ameeriar, 2013 for the concept of ‘legible’ worker for globalized economies). It is in this context that the welcome accorded to international students should be seen as conditional. It is conditional on their ability to approximate an amorphous and contested notion of Canadianness; an act that continues to position them in hierarchical relations with people invested with Canadian national subject identity (see Nirmal Puwar, 2004 for an insightful discussion on the terms of conditions of entry that allow certain bodies to ‘invade’ elite, exclusionary spaces). The conditional recruitment of international students, I argue, is another phase in the long history of negotiation between the racially conceptualized criteria for national membership and need for labour for economic prosperity that has defined Canadian nation building. On the one hand, it facilitates the functions of a proactive state recruiting necessary labour for global knowledge regime, and a defensive state casting skills and standard obtained in Canada as intrinsically superior, and thereby also securing a thriving domestic training market.


In the larger scheme of things, the policies directing key student and labour traffic to western states sustain migration to the west as a systemic phenomenon, repeatedly re-positioning it as the site of higher learning. Valid knowledge itself comes to be constructed as global/western (see Farrell, 2006; Raghuram, 2013). This, in turn, secures long-term western hegemony in affairs of global political significance.

The phenomenon of the international student as immigrant is complex at a grounded level as well. Experience of migration is such that it is hard to imagine oneself as the subject of an actively designed public policy. As an immigrant, I could not fathom the gravity of immigration policies. Many of my international student peers, similarly, do not seem to have a clue of how their recruitment in various postsecondary institutions of the west ties to bilateral relations, shifting balances of power between established and emerging world economies, and also, the context of systemic de-skilling of large number of internationally trained in these destination countries. They seem caught between the recruiting states homogenizing them as necessary labour and ‘knowledge diplomats’ facilitating bilateral relations and the sending states encouraging them to purchase western education. However, through in-depth discussions I have also realized that they themselves are more complex figures – diasporic citizens, not merely economic subjects (see special issue of Population, Space, Place, 2013). These considerations make ‘study abroad’ a contested area demanding critical attention, not merely a measure of individual success as it has come to be for many of us.

Note: A range of scholarly texts and primary and secondary data on recent Canadian immigration policies have informed my understanding of international student migration in relation to contemporary Canadian nation building. Please contact me for these references:

[1] In knowledge regimes skill/talent, innovation and related research and development enterprises are considered key drivers of social and economic change (See Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1996).

[2] Traditional emigrant countries, e.g., Ireland, India, China as well, are gearing up for the race.

[3] The role of the war on terror is substantial in the subsequent decrease in student mobility. However, the intensifying recruitment efforts on the part of other states are not to be undermined.

[4] This race for international students in the name of national prosperity is a significant component of my doctoral research on how western nation states mobilize discourses of skill and standard to secure ideological national borders along racial lines.

[5] Canadian experience is defined as training in Canadian postsecondary institutions and/or work experience in Canada. It was also institutionalized in the Canadian Federal Skilled Worker Program as a criterion for selection in 2012. In January 2015, an Express Entry system was introduced, essentially making Canadian experience (as defined previously and/or a Canadian job offer) a sufficient condition for selection as a professional immigrant (see MacKlin, The Guardian, 2015).


Soma Chatterjee is working towards her PhD in Adult Education and Commmunity Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. She also teaches as a part-time instructor in the school of community services at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Her doctoral project looks at race and class dynamics in the formation of the ‘national’ and the ‘outsider’ in Canada, and by extension, in western nation-states. Being a diasporic Indian national, Soma inhabits an in-between world. Initiatives like Cafe Dissensus help her stay grounded as she negotiates her multiple worlds.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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