Category Archives: social mobility

Is international student mobility socially regressive?

Campuses at universities in England are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and students welcome this. But is there a cost and does the cost matter?

The problem

At any one time there is a fixed number of undergraduate places. If universities recruit more international (that is non-EU) students, this logically implies fewer domestic and EU students.

But why would any university recruit international over domestic students? Because they can be charged a lot more. At Bristol University international science undergraduates pay £18300pa. No domestic under-graduate can be charged more than £9000pa.

As most international students come from countries poorer than the UK we can infer that, on average, international students are among the wealthiest in their home countries.

There are exceptions – there are bursaries and some families impose severe sacrifices on themselves for their children’s benefit. But these are exceptions.

In addition (and on average) international students are wealthy by UK standards as well. How can we know this? First, the level of international student fees is much higher than would be deemed acceptable for domestic students. Second, while domestic students re-pay their tuition fees over a long period of time after graduation, international students pay up-front.

But what exactly is bad about all this?

International student mobility might merely give more opportunities to the already-advantaged at the expense of the less-advantaged. This would unfairly increase inequality.  

And this is not just a parochial concern for those who care only about students in England. You might think borders are irrelevant, that we are ‘global citizens’ and – to adapt a phrase of Thomas Rainborowe’s – that the most distant he has as much a life to live as the nearest he.

But if you are worried about fairness and equality globally then the focus of international student recruitment should be the poor(er) of India, China etc. But, as has been suggested above, poorer students are unlikely to be internationally mobile.

Things are not quite this simple

Two possible replies should be considered. First, over time the number of undergraduate places is not fixed. The income derived from more international students can be used to increase the number of places for domestic students. Second, there are other benefits to international student mobility that might compensate for it (where it is socially regressive). Let’s take the second point first.

Fairness and equality are not the only things of value. Economic growth matters – and you might thing that international student mobility leads to a more efficient allocation of labour. Equally, people’s freedoms matter – and you might think that freedom of movement is morally weightier than other values.

In short, lots of things can compensate for socially regressive international student mobility. It all depends on how values are ranked. But ranking values is complex – far too complex a topic for this blog. We will focus on the first point.

Boosting domestic student numbers

The income from international students can be used to increase places for domestic students. But is it? The mere possibility of something happening does not imply that it does happen.

And how many extra places for domestic students are necessary to justify more international students? If ten extra places were created and only one went to a domestic student we might infer that this extra student is a fig-leaf to cover a department’s material immodesty.

Policy implications

Here’s another option: if universities in England charge fees of over £6000pa to domestic students they are required to spend a proportion of that income on programmes that aim to increase university access to groups who, historically, have not benefitted from it. Why not have an international widening participation scheme?

Let’s say that, for every student a university recruits from India, 10% of the fee income is invested in a suitable education programme in India for the educationally disadvantaged. If international student mobility is socially regressive, this would go some way to off-set it.

Embracing this idea may even help universities recruit international students. (‘Come to University X and some of your fees will be ploughed back into your own country’s education system.’)

More pointedly, the degree to which universities embrace this idea would help us determine whether international student recruitment really is part of their educational mission or merely a cash cow.

Justice and priorities

We disagree about justice but we agree about this: if knowing someone’s race, gender or social background enables you to predict how their life will go, something is seriously wrong.

But we cannot change everything at once. Or, to adapt a phrase of Aneurin Bevan’s, if the language of priorities is the religion of social justice,** we should find out which of gender, class or race is a greater disadvantage.

At the level of political philosophy there is no answer to this question. But political philosophy can help to identify the key issues.

A simple approach

We are going to aggregate sources of disadvantage. Let’s assume that gender, class, and race are independent sources of unfair treatment and that each is equally disadvantageous. To keep things simple we will stick with a binary set of attributes, i.e.,

1. Male or female;
2. White or non-white;
3. Middle-class socio-economic status (SES) or working-class SES;
4. Privately or state educated;

(Why 1-4? Because no one has any control over whether 1-4 is true of them.)

If you fall on the right side of any disjunction (the ‘or’) you are disadvantaged and you get -5. If you fall on the left hand-side you are ‘advantaged’ and get 0.

Simple enough. We then aggregate scores. The lower the score the less disadvantage you face.

Below is a ranking of some individuals by their score. (Each measure of disadvantage is emboldened. Anyone interested in the complete ranking should email me.)

Unsurprisingly (this is England) being a white privately-educated middle-class male puts you top of the class. Equally, unsurprisingly, being a non-white, state-educated, working class female is not good for you.

1      White, Male, Middle-Class, Privately-educated:                 Disadvantage score: 0
2      White, Male, Middle-Class, State-educated:                                                     -5
2      White, Female, Middle-Class, Privately-educated                                              -5
3     White, Female, Middle-Class, State-educated:                                                 -10
3     Non-white, Male, Working-Class, Privately-educated:                                      -10
4     White, Female, Working-Class, State-educated:                                             -15
4     Non-white, Male, Working-Class, State-educated:                                         -15
5     Non-white, Female, Working-Class, State-educated:                                    -20

What does this tell us?

This exercise is no more than suggestive but it does enable us to pose several important questions and draw a couple of conclusions. Questions first.

1. Is it correct that each measure is equally disadvantageous?

Perhaps being female should get -7 while being working class -5.

2. Are the measures independent? Is there dynamic interplay between them? Are disadvantages (what the sociologists call) ‘intersectional‘?

For instance, if you are female, does being non-white disproportionately exacerbate the problems you face? If so, we should not aggregate disadvantage. We might need to multiply it.

3. Is the opposite true for some measures? Can disadvantages cancel each other out or partially mitigate each other?

It has been put to me that, while being a white male is more advantageous than being a white female, being a non-white female is more advantageous than being a non-white male.

4. What other disadvantages are important?

One obvious candidate is physical disability. If you are unable to walk then many places – including University College London’s Philosophy Department – are inaccessible.

I don’t know the answers to questions 1-4 but they are important. To be more precise, anyone desigining policies to reduce disadvantage should have some answers to 1-4.


Finally, assuming that the analysis here is accurate, one point can be made: it might be wrong to prioritize gender as a source of social injustice.

For example, if the analysis is accurate, Alan Johnson (a white, working-class, state-educated, male and former UK cabinet minister) faced more difficulties in rising than did Harriet Harman (a white, middle-class, privately-educated, female and former UK cabinet minister).

The significance of this is that FTSE 100 companies, universities etc. currently seek to appoint more women to senior posts. But if gender is the only measure on which they focus, they may simply be helping white, middle-class, privately-educated females get level with their male equivalents.

Clearly this an improvement but, for those interested in social justice, is it a priority? There are two ways in which it might be.

The first is that giving the relevant females the same chances as their male equivalents is intrinsically valuable irrespective of any effects on other groups in society. The problem with this claim is that helping any disadvantaged group has intrinsic value so the priority question remains.

Second, is a kind of two-for-one argument. It might be that helping one group of females has beneficial consequences for other disadvantaged groups. Breaking down some social barriers might lead to others falling too.

But it is not obvious that it will. Advancing the interests of white, middle-class, privately-educated males does not seem to have helped non-white males very much. Why should helping white, middle-class, privately-educated females have different effects?

One reason might be that gender disadvantage is more severe than class or racial disadvantage.  If so, reducing gender inequality will knock down a higher social barrier. This point connects to question 1 above and illustrates how important the question is.

More generally,  if the language of priorities is the religion of social justice,** we need to address questions 1-4 before we have much of an idea about social justice priorities, including the relative importance of appointing more women to senior posts.

**The actual quote is ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism’.

Are you talented? Well, how like soccer is your profession?

Sport, in particular soccer in England, can shed some light on how important individual talent is to success in different careers.

For more than a generation the England soccer team has been ethnically mixed. Some of the best players we have produced are non-white. But the ethnic mix of coaches and managers is less impressive.

Currently, there are three black managers in professional football in England. This is 3% of the total and is broadly typical of the last 20-30 years. About 20-25% of professional footballers are black; and this has been the case for about 20 years.

Racism may well explain this anomaly but, if so, another problem arises: if soccer is racist why are there so many black players? Here is one speculative account: talent operates at the level of players but not, or at least significantly less so, at the level of managers. Let me explain.

It is relatively easy for non-experts (or ‘fans’) to determine whether individual players are competent. While many players do ‘unseen’ work, you don’t need to be an expert to differentiate between Ronaldo and Ricky Lambert.

To put the point more starkly: the chairman of your soccer club could hide his talentless son on the Board and no-one may be any the wiser. But if the manager were forced to put him in the team, within one or two minutes several thousand people would have a fairly accurate view of Chinless Wonder’s abilities. And they would happily express their findings.

Second, there is a lot at stake: managers get sacked often. Since about 2002 the average tenure of any professional manager has been below 2 years. In 2012 it was about 1.5 years.

A manager would have to be a complete idiot to refuse to pick non-white players. Frankly, some managers would consider picking a fan-eating alien if it shored-up the defence.

Third, the competition is fierce and there are few barriers to entry. A lot of people want to be professional footballers; it is a global game and it is cheap. Poor kids are just as able to develop the skills as rich kids.

But it is a lot less clear what a good manager is or does. We can point to exemplars – Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho. But all we know is that they have been successful. It is very hard to establish why. It is even harder to determine who, given the opportunity, will be successful or who will be successful in a different context. The turn-over of managers is evidence of this.

In the appointment of managers, then, there is a lot more room for hunch, gut instinct, bias or just straight-forward prejudice.

Does your profession fit the management or playing model?

One common argument in favour of high-reward careers like banking is that, like soccer players, bankers have rare talents and operate in a competitive market.

But, whatever happens in the future, it will not turn out that Ronaldo could not play soccer – that somehow all those free-kicks flew into the net because of ‘favorable external conditions’. But, as it did turn out, (formerly Sir) Fred Godwin was an abysmal banker. And no-one seems to have known this in real time.

Equally, compare investment banking’s barriers to entry to soccer’s. A potential investment banker from a favela can fall by the wayside at any level of education simply because the school system is poor – not because of his latent ability. If he does get to a university he needs to hope that it is one from which investment banks recruit – and the probability is against this.

Banking does not operate with anywhere near the same competitive pressures as soccer. But let us not indulge banker-bashing.

How might we tell whether a profession operates on the basis of soccer-style talent?

The mix test: one test has already been alluded to: what is the ethnic mix? To this we can the gender mix and socio-economic mix. If a profession is full of white middle-class men with the same backgrounds, we have reason to believe that hunch, gut instinct and bias determines appointments, not individual talent. For instance, only 19% of FTSE 100 board-members are female.

The inheritance test: if you watch the soccer scores live on a Saturday afternoon the sheer profusion of new and different names is amazing. While there have been Churchills in parliament for over 140 years there have been very few Berahino’s in professional soccer. It is hard to hand on the relevant talent and, as noted, the market is competitive.

Let’s add a second test then: the higher the proportion of second- or third-generation individuals in a profession the less likely it is that individual talent determines success. Connections or cultural fit may be doing significant work.

Politics is one profession that seems to do relatively badly by these metrics. In the UK most legislators are white middle-class men and quite a few are the descendants of legislators. In The Son also Rises: surnames and the history of social mobility Gregory Clark claims that until

‘1800 Norman surnames were eight times more likely than the typical surnames to appear among MPs.'(254-5)
‘[E]ven in the twentieth century, Norman surnames remained over-represented among English and Welsh MPs.'(255)

It does not follow that legislators are selected for reasons other than talent. Perhaps soccer’s conception of talent is inapt in politics. But we are owed an account that explains why.

If talent is decisive for politicians how is this ‘talent’ compatible with failing the inheritance and mix tests? Why, for instance, does it seem difficult to hand on soccer-talent but easier to hand on politics-talent?

There may well be good answers to these questions. I would certainly like to hear them.