Transnational education at a juncture: Sociological futures post-Brexit

BSA Early Career Forum Regional Event on 2 May 2017, Keele University

To register, click here.

This one-day seminar seeks to serve as a platform to make important theoretical, empirical and methodological contributions to Transnational Education in a post-Brexit era.

We have put together an exciting programme on the day, including two keynote speeches by Professor Catherine Montgomery (University of Bath) and Dr Johanna L. Waters (University of Oxford).

Both the programme and the abstracts can be found below. To register for this seminar, click here.  For inquiries, please email Cora Lingling Xu at  or Reza Gholami at


9.30 Registration
10.00 Welcome
10.15 Keynote speech 1: Understanding educational futures post-Brexit: Transnational higher education and the rise of the East

Professor Catherine Montgomery, University of Bath

11:15 Brexit, universities and the ‘academic exodus’ discourse

Aline Courtois, Aniko Horvath, and Giulio Marini, IOE, UCL

11:45 Coffee Break
12:00 A game for the rich: Chinese middle class, family strategies, and capital conversion at cross-border joint-universities in China*

Yunyun Qin, University of Hong Kong, *Virtual presentation

12.30 Quo Vadis? Student mobility, European crisis and Brexit

Peter Jones, Keele University

13:00 Lunch
14.00 Keynote speech 2: Transnational education and new geographical imaginaries post-Brexit

Johanna L. Waters, University of Oxford

15.00 Transnational higher education (TNE) students finding their voice: The experts and ultimate insiders

Keith Pinn and Veronica Earle, University of Hertfordshire

15.30 Coffee Break
15:45 Weaponised TNE and the post-referendum ‘Empire 2.0’: a Bahraini case study Mike Diboll, IOE, UCL
16:15 The symbolic capital of English HE institutions at the wake of Brexit negotiations: Institutional strategies to guard against ‘isolationism’

Giulio Marini and Aline Courtois, IOE, UCL

16:45 Discussion and wrapping up
17.30 Close

Note: Post-seminar dinner/drinks at Sneyd Arms: if you plan to join on your own cost, please email Reza at by 28 April 2017 so we can book a table in advance.


Keynote speech 1

Understanding educational futures post-Brexit: Transnational higher education and the rise of the East

Professor Catherine Montgomery, University of Bath

Over past decades Transnational Higher Education (TNHE) programmes have centred on those originated in ‘western’ institutions with programmes being transferred from ‘the west’ to East Asian countries (Djerasmovic, 2014). However, the dominance of ‘the west’ as provider and controller of TNHE is increasingly being challenged by China and East Asia. The current political climate in Brexit-obsessed UK is building obstacles and barriers to international education with growing isolationism and tightening immigration controls for international students while China’s strategies smooth the way to higher educational mobility by introducing new measures allowing foreign students to stay on in China after their degrees to take up jobs or internships and reducing red tape around residence permits (Sharma, 2017). This paper will focus on the implications of China’s rapidly expanding TNHE and its massive investment in transnational campuses, both those built within China that bring the world to China and those built beyond China that reach out to the world (Montgomery, 2016). Against the context of UK-Brexit disarray and increasing isolationism in the USA, China is attracting international students from across East Asia, sources of students traditionally bound for ‘the west’. Some elite UK HEIs have the resources to develop new transnational strategies and relationships post-Brexit with Oxford University unveiling proposals to open a satellite base in Paris in a symbolic post-Brexit gesture (Yorke, 2017). Overall the battle for dominance in international education is a battle that the East will win and there will be implications for institutions, academics and students worldwide.

Keynote speech 2

Transnational education and new geographical imaginaries post-Brexit

Johanna L. Waters, University of Oxford

 In this presentation, I consider the ‘geo-social’ implications of a post-Brexit world (after Ho, 2017), with specific reference to emergent geographical imaginaries and transnational higher education (TNHE). Brexit-related discourses, prevalent within the British media on the lead-up to the referendum, presented a sometimes insular, parochial and nationalistic view of UK affairs, which could be extended to discussions of higher education. However, there have been nascent signs that Brexit might pave the way for a greater number of (not fewer) ‘educational’ engagements with other countries outside of the EU. Brexit may initiate and forge unconventional, less traditional relationships around education with a greater diversity of ‘foreign’ players. Consequently, the geo-social map relating to international and transnational education might be re-written in interesting and provocative ways. I draw on my own empirical work, and that of others, to consider: a) why a geo-social perspective on TNHE might be both interesting and important; b) how countries such as China are already challenging conventional geo-social relationships when it comes to international engagements in education; and c) how we might speculate on the consequences of Brexit for the UK’s changing geographical imaginaries around TNHE.


 Brexit, universities and the ‘academic exodus’ discourse

Aline Courtois, Aniko Horvath, and Giulio Marini, IOE, UCL

 As soon as the referendum results were announced, British universities made their fears about the negative impact of Brexit known. The retention of EU staff has featured prominently among the concerns they disclosed to the media. Universities communicated extensively on the value they attached to their EU, and more broadly non-UK staff, and some promised to assist such staff should Brexit have implications on their residency status.

However, these discourses mask a number of issues. Higher education is the sector that uses zero-hour contracts the most, after the hospitality industry (Butler 2013; UCU 2016). These contracts designate workers as transient, disposable, ‘guest workers’ within the academy. Their very transience (sometimes embedded in their career strategies [Khattab and Fenton 2016]) disqualifies them from challenging their employment conditions in any meaningful way. Even tenured staff see their employment security threatened as universities implement performance measures, on which the continuation of their employment depends. Thus, the staff retention discourse co-exists with aggressive practices aimed at increasing employment insecurity.

The UK academic market is segmented, and only the ‘stars’ in the top tier have the power to negotiate their salaries and working conditions (Paye 2015). Furthermore, while several EU academics have spoken publicly about their desire to leave the UK, a key question for many is: where to? The casualisation and segmentation of the academic markets in other English-speaking countries (Australia: Ryan et al 2013; Canada: Bauder 2006; Ireland: Courtois and O’Keefe 2015; the US: Berry 2005) make them unlikely destinations for those already marginalised in UK academia. Other European countries are exporters rather than importers of academics; and low-pay, insecure work is becoming the norm (the Netherlands: Bal, Grassiani and Kirk 2014, Finland: Nikunen 2014; France: PECRES 2011).

Finally, as shown by Khattab and Fenton (2016), non-UK workers are concentrated in the lower ranks of the university, in particular temporary research positions; while permanent (or more stable) positions are more commonly filled by UK citizens. The most precarious workers are those likely to also be in precarious positions in relation to their immigration status, with the added difficulty that holding temporary, part-time positions makes it more difficult to negotiate residency. In this sense, these workers may find themselves at the intersection of employment insecurity (academic non-citizenship) and non-citizenship; with fears that Brexit amplifies the vulnerability of those with limited claims to ‘flexible citizenship’ (see Ong 2006).

Based on critical discourse analysis, the proposed paper aims to deconstruct the dominant discourse produced by universities by re-centring the conversation on the relations of subordination and exploitation that exist in the university as a workplace, and how these intersect with broader issues of citizenship.


A game for the rich: Chinese middle class, family strategies, and capital conversion at cross-border joint-universities in China*

Yunyun Qin, University of Hong Kong, *Virtual presentation

 The cross-border higher education in Mainland China is growing fast. Data from Chinese Ministry of Education shows that there are currently around 2,000 cross-border joint educational programs and institutes on the Mainland China. Among the existing literature, few studies addressed the issue of social justice in cross-border joint-universities, particularly the role of these universities in promoting or hindering social mobility in the current Chinese society. The purpose of this research is an attempt to respond the issue of social justice by analyzing the process of capital conversion in students’ life experiences from admission to graduation and the strategies the Chinese middle class families employ to facilitate the conversion procedure by applying Bourdieu’s theory of social and cultural reproduction. The data are mainly from ethnographic field notes, in-depth interviews, participant observation, and various organizational documents in a cross-border joint-university on the Mainland China. This research argues that the cross-border joint-universities and the Chinese middle class families develop a collusion relationship to facilitate the students’ capital conversion and further preserve economic inequalities and differences in social status. In this capital conversion game, the economic capital plays a central role. Although the cross-border joint-universities provide Chinese students more choices of university education, the choices are mainly for the rich.

Quo Vadis? Student mobility, European crisis and Brexit

Peter Jones, Keele University

 With a focus on patterns of student mobility, this paper sets out to examine the issues which have been thrown into sharp relief by the unfolding crisis of the European Union since 2008 and the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, namely the legitimacy and popular support for the European project itself.   The paper presents the patterns of where students move from and to, with relatively thin regionalisation evidenced by increasingly even patterns of flow, going hand in hand with increasing concentration in dominant economic, political and cultural spaces. Having identified the patterns of student mobility, the paper then moves on to critically examine the claims made about what these patterns should be like: this essentially amounts to the ideology of Europeanism within the  flat free-market space of the European Union. Given the extent of the unfolding crisis for the European Union, of which the vote for Brexit was only one example, and in particular  the turbulence in the  peripheral countries of the South and East,  as evidenced by the so-called populism, revanchism and nationalism in the political sphere, the paper argues that  continuing rhetorical and material support for student mobility, will need to confront the reality of  renewed questioning of who goes where and  why,  with which  benefits  and for whom?


Transnational higher education (TNE) students finding their voice: The experts and ultimate insiders

Keith Pinn and Veronica Earle, University of Hertfordshire

 There is a relative lack of recognition in published work relating to the TNE student voice and their experiences at undergraduate level. As Hoare (2012) stated, “We know little about their preferences, even less about the outcomes that they attribute to their TNE experience and nothing in any depth about their longer term career and life trajectories”. TNE students have, therefore, not fully had their voices heard (Caruana and Montgomery, 2015). The University of Hertfordshire is carrying out research in Malaysia with its biggest partner to find out from students what they perceive to be the benefits and challenges on their TNE journey. As part of this research we are keen to find out why students value studying on a UK franchised programme and what the host and sending institutions can learn from student experiences in order to deliver a high-quality student experience. Although the research is continuing we are happy to share some of our preliminary findings. If recognised more and better understood, the student voice could prove invaluable in contributing to the improvement of TNE programmes.

 Weaponised TNE and the post-referendum ‘Empire 2.0’: a Bahraini case study

Mike Diboll, IOE, UCL

 This paper will explore the political and crypto-colonial dimensions of UK state-backed TNE, focusing on the use of higher education consultancy and related activities in relation to Bahrain.

Since the British and Saudi-backed suppression of the 2011 Bahrain Uprising, UK education and higher education initiatives have emerged as a crucial area of ‘softpower’ projection used to shore up the legitimacy of the pro-British Al Khalifa regime in Bahrain, to maintain, deepen and extend dependent, centre-periphery relations between the UK, Bahrain and the neighbouring Gulf states, and to lend credibility to Britain’s claim to be an agent for ‘reform’ in the Gulf client-state.

Following the June 2016 plebiscite on the UK’s Membership of the European Union and the subsequent political pressure for a ‘hard’ Brexit, the current Conservative government has spoken explicitly establishing an ‘Empire 2.0’ as a way of making good trade losses with the EU, with intensifying trade relations with the Gulf States – in every sector from arms, securitisation and surveillance to education and higher education – as a key part of this project.

Referencing the experiences of current and former Bahraini students studying in Bahrain and/or the UK, this paper will explore the problematic ethical, pedagogic, political and professional ramifications of a ‘weaponised’ TNE, used to extend and deepen crypto-colonial relations in a context of institutionalised sectarianism, so that educational and higher educational ‘reform’ becomes an enabler of structural violence.

Finally, this paper will problematize the reciprocal part of this dialectic: the Gulf States’ softpower investment in UK higher education, especially in areas such as Gulf, Middle Eastern, or Islamic studies.

As such, this paper will provide a case study of TNE in the neo-Imperial context of ‘Empire 2.0’.

The symbolic capital of English HE institutions at the wake of Brexit negotiations: Institutional strategies to guard against ‘isolationism’

Giulio Marini and Aline Courtois, IOE, UCL

 With the referendum held in June 2016 the UK chose to leave the European Union. Although negotiations are on-going and post-Brexit outcomes for the UK are hard to predict, many sectors are already devising plans to cope with such a strategic move. The UK HE sector, seen as one of the most successful in Europe and beyond, is linked with strong ties to continental Europe in student intake, research staff and international collaborations, often achieved through European partnership and funding schemes (e.g. Erasmus Program, European funding agencies and the like). The only point that seems to be clear at the moment is that Brexit cannot be neutral for UK HE, considering the ongoing regionalisation of the sector (Robertson et al. 2016; EC 2014) and that regular institutional improvements of current strategies (Smith 2010) cannot be sufficient. Moreover, it is clear that – even if not openly acknowledged – the general stance is a defensive one, as the White Paper “Ensuring the United Kingdom remains the best place for science and innovation in Brexit trajectory” implies in its title and in some details in the 10th point dedicated to HE and science.

In this paper we focus on the symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1989) held by English institutions and their different strategies in dealing with the necessity to keep untouched and not eroded their peculiar sphere of prestige through probably reformulated strategies. Although we agree that prestige is substantially tied-up and not subjected to quick changes (Blackmore 2016), we explore strategies in a context that differs from recent analysis (Holstein et al. 2016). Instead of competing for resources in a market context (Brewer et al. 2001), we maintain Brexit imposes the necessity to assure resources in different ways, changing rapidly and in a very uncertain environment: for example, the sudden necessity to replace key resources at institutional level, such as EU funding for local development or intake of EU students in ‘less prestigious’ universities, or retention of successful scientists with EU passports for more research intensive institutions.

The data for the paper comes from qualitative interviews conducted with top and medium-level management in a selection of UK HE institutions, varied by size and ‘reputational’ standing. The analytical method adopted is that of Critical Discourse Analysis (Smith 2014) as it best fits the analysis of discourses on specific plans and strategies, when they are still in a phase of preparation and can be collected only under a very sever confidential pattern and from leaders of institutions in charge of coping with changing conditions. The emphasis over discourse is coherent with the assumption by Bourdieu that symbolic capital is the semantic construction that harmonises the other types of capitals. From a HE point of view, the object of the paper is the emergence of a new game of (plural and differentiated) implementation(s) inside and outside institutions and/or HE national system.





Radical Social Change via the ‘Un-radical’: Thinking through ‘Diasporic Education’

By: Reza Gholami

Before you read any further, know this: I do believe that the world is in need of radical change. But…

If recent decades have taught us anything, it’s that an automatic preference for traditional national citizenship among populations can no longer be taken for granted. From the corporate elite criss-crossing the planet as they work in multi-national companies that do not pledge allegiance to a single country to nearly half the population of the UK (and other European countries) who are pro-European-Union, to global humanitarian and environmental crises which elicit collective supra-national action in ways that may not benefit the individual nation-states involved, we are today constantly reminded that our national identities and citizenships are not in themselves ‘enough’ to live in the world – that they do not equip us sufficiently to deal with significant amounts of our daily experience. I think the late Ulrich Beck was right when he proffered that the future of the world is easier to imagine globally than nationally.

In light of these issues, and no doubt many others, it can be argued that we are currently in a sort of transitional period (which is not to say that a transition will take place), moving, perhaps, from an era dominated by nationalist logics towards a different one. What this other era might look and feel like, no-one knows exactly. There are aspirations and anxieties; proponents and opponents; and discussions usually involve words such as ‘global’, ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘transnational’, and so forth. More substantive concepts are also sometimes thrown into debates, such as ‘global citizenship’, ‘global social justice’, and ‘human rights’. But ultimately – and for good reason – there is no blue-print or consensus for a post-national world.

This ‘transitional period’ (for want of a better phrase) in which we find ourselves is at one level a period of social anxiety and trouble. Across the world – but especially in the developed world – it seems that sizable sections of populations are ‘pulling’ towards the world of globality and cosmopolitanism (vague though it is) because they believe that on balance the interests of planet earth and its inhabitants are best served in such a world (and some simply think that an increasingly inter-connected world is better for business). Yet similarly large numbers of people are pulling in the opposite direction for a number of social, political and economic reasons, believing that increasing national power (so-called ‘sovereignty’) automatically equates to more power, equality and prosperity in their own lives. The recent events of Brexit in the UK showed a country more or less split in half over issues of identity, citizenship and future. After months of highly problematic (read: fraudulent, simplistic, exploitative) campaigning on both sides of the fence culminating in a vote to leave to the EU, the nation found itself in a state of bitter divisions, prejudicial relations and political and economic uncertainty. Britain, it seemed, was ‘actually’ very different from what many people living in Britain imagined!

For me, two questions need to be addressed urgently: 1) has national citizenship become untenable? That is, are we at a stage where, although we can of course continue to exist as national citizens, doing so is an insistence which will become increasingly costly and harmful for people and the planet? And 2) for those of us interested in moving beyond national citizenship, what options are there for achieving this? Thinkers such as Ulrich Beck and David Held have been grappling with similar questions and have offered innovative, rigorous ideas for pushing beyond nation-centrism especially through the concept of cosmopolitanism. These ideas are certainly viable and must be engaged with seriously (see Gholami 2016; Gholami in press). However, given the huge challenges thrown up in any political and philosophical discussion of ‘the cosmopolitan’, including the fact that it seems to require at least some ‘radical change’, it is also worth considering whether there are less daunting, more immediately concrete and practicable ways of facilitating social change in that direction.

Social change, it seems, is overwhelmingly brought about in two ways: top-down or bottom-up. From above and below, groups attempt to galvanize, mobilize and utilize an array of human and other resources to re-shape ‘society’, often calling for fundamental or radical changes. Yet, from ISIS to Donal Trump, not to mention scores of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements in world history, ‘the radical’ can often be exploitative, destructive, exclusive, ineffective…blind. The problem with top-down and bottom-up approaches is that too many unhelpful assumptions hover about them: that people are inclined towards conflict and need to be managed; that ‘movements’ (should) have common goals; that enemies are easily identifiable and ‘they’ wish to do ‘us’ harm; that violence may be necessary to achieve what ‘we’ want…As I said above, I do believe that the world needs radical change, especially when it comes to relinquishing nation-centric logics. But I am increasingly convinced that it is a good idea to align social and political action with forces of gradual social change, incorporating ‘the mundane’, the ‘un-radical’, from within the existing structures of the late-modern world.

These forces are already at play, particularly in the super-diverse urban spaces – such as London, Paris and New York – of late-modernity. If we tune out the cacophony of vitriol coming from above and below and peer not-too-deep beneath the layers of finger-pointing and scapegoating which pass for politics these days, we will see people engaging with each other and wider society to address vital issues (e.g. of diversity or resource management) in ways which are infinitely creative and effective. The relatively recent boom in social enterprises can be cited as an example in this vein: approaching the logic of capitalism differently to focus on social justice rather than greed-driven individualism. For me, however, a better example is found among migrant and diasporic communities, which, I would argue, we should positively regard as permanent and normal features of the contemporary world. My recent research has allowed me to explore these issues within a range of diasporic organisations but especially the educational institutions of the UK’s Iranian and Turkish diasporas. These fascinating sites are producing unique modalities of education which I have elsewhere described as ‘diasporic education’ (Gholami in press). Briefly, the first point to bear in mind is that such schools cannot be fully regulated by any national government; but they are managed and run by highly qualified and passionate educationalists who are free to collaborate with colleagues across the world to develop innovative pedagogies and curricula – and this is exactly what they are doing. Secondly, due mainly to issues of funding, the schools are becoming increasingly demographically and educationally diverse: one Iranian school, for example, had a significant number of pupils from Serbian, Kurdish, Polish, Turkish and White-British backgrounds, all taking advantage of the maths, English and science classes available. Thirdly, it is important to remember that although a similar diversity may exist in state-school classrooms, the dynamics and power relations at a diasporic school are entirely different. On the whole, my findings suggest that the students had very positive educational and citizenship outcomes, some being markedly happier and performing better academically than in their ‘normal’ (state) school. The upshot is that in these schools concepts such as citizenship, self/other, and education were implicitly and explicitly approached very differently. They never allowed any national or diasporic culture to fully ‘close’ and claim identities, knowledge and cultural forms – and children and young people seemed to really enjoy that experience; they accepted it and worked/lived with it completely naturally. As a result, those very concepts themselves became redefined at the level of concrete everyday experience.

I have no doubt that these children can approach questions of conviviality, ‘global citizenship’, social justice, etc. radically differently in the future than the way we are approaching them today – they can potentially do a much better job, though only if society at large understands the value of what is happening today and supports it. Whether driven by necessity, pragmatism or desire, these modes of agency and engagement are producing desirable – and ultimately radical –  social change. But this is often change which establishment politicians and mainstream media – with their jingoism and economic reductionism – are simply unwilling to acknowledge and support, and which is judged to be too ‘low-key’ and de-centred to have any value for most ‘grassroots’ counter-movements. My argument is that we are missing a trick! We should become better at observing – not interfering through regulation – these social trends and learn from them to develop public policies. We should also iterate back and forth between them and our social theories as a way to bolster both – i.e. inductively develop social theory which helps to maximise the social, cultural, legal and political benefits we harness from these ‘un-radical’ social actors.



Beck, U. (2002) “The Cosmopolitan Society and Its Enemies” Theory, Culture and Society 19 (1-2): 17-44

Gholami, R. (2016) “The Art of Self-Making: Identity and Citizenship Education in Late-Modernity,” British Journal of Sociology of Education

Gholami, R. (in press) “The Sweet Spot between Submission and Subversion: Diaspora, Education and the Cosmopolitan Project” in Carment, D. & Sadjed, A. (Eds.) Diaspora as Cultures of Cooperation: Global and Local Perspectives. Palgrave.

Held, D. (2010) Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities. Polity Press.

About the author:

Dr Reza Gholami is Lecturer on Sociology of Education and Programme Director for MA Education in the School of Social Science and Public Policy at Keele University, UK. His research interests include citizenship education, cosmopolitanism and social change, post-national education policy, and the educations of migrant and diasporic communities.