I had the pleasure to attend the Sociological Association of Ireland conference in Belfast last week.  One paper I presented was based on work I have done with my colleague Lisa Moran, and her critical inquiry into the experience of being an ‘international student’.  Lisa presented on this research at the SAI last year, and I presented some of the work at the European Conference on Educational Research at UCD last summer.  That presentation was part of a symposium related to a large project examining ethical internationalisation in higher education.  On the basis of that Lisa and myself were invited to work up our paper for submission to a special issue of the European Educational Research Journal, on ethical internationalisation.  The presentation in Belfast was based on that paper.

Below, I summarise the Belfast presentation.

The presentation explored how the Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) makes it possible to re-story internationalisation in ways that recognise the agency of international students, produces narratives where international students themselves speak to, around, about, and of internationalisation, and enables us to trouble dominant discourses on higher education internationalisation. While the BNIM approach is comparable to other narrative interviewing approaches, it is the iterative method of BNIM that enables the production of powerful narratives.  Lisa is the expert on BNIM so my presentation focused on mostly on other aspects of the research, particularly the ethical dimension.

I presented some highly selective extracts from the extended interviews conducted with those individuals who participated in the research, compared these to the way students are narrated in policy discourse, then discussed how BNIM made it possible to produce these narratives, and finally to argue such narratives enable us to trouble dominant policy discourses.


A key argument made in the presentation was that individuals are constituted as international students by being caught up in networks of texts (such as national or institutional strategies), local organisational practices, interpersonal interactions, and improvisations in living.

‘I don’t see why the college thinks we are different although it treats us as different…. I had to pay 2 years of fees for 1 year in first year and get a reimbursement in the future and that’s because I’m international’ (Amy 24)

This extract refers to the way students are constituted as ‘international’ and thus different through administrative systems.

While Amy recounted her own ideas of being international that were very much to do with expanding her social, cultural and intellectual horizons, particularly as a woman, this contrasted with how she was constituted by the institution as an international student.


‘Irish are just like onions… you have to peel back the layers to know what they are saying…. Like what you’re all really saying…’ (laughs) (Louisa 37)

‘We say everything really directly but here there is a subtext… an agenda. People will cancel at the last minute…. Now I’ve adopted that too…. I’ll just do as the Irish do and when I go back to Germany, I’m German again’ (Katherine 26)

Policy discourse stresses intercultural competence as a positive aspect of mobility as a central feature of internationalisation.

Intercultural competence certainly featured in the narratives of the students.  However, it took on a different quality to that found in policy discourse.  Intercultural competence for the students was emplaced, lived, often anxious, and positioned them as other.

Interestingly, most of the women did not speak about internationalisation in terms of their studies but in terms of their sense of self and difference and new possibilities for being in the world.

But they also talked about danger, of the vulnerability of being a young woman in a different place where the cultural scripts may be different, where being friendly and open can easily be conceived as sexual availability, and so make them objects of the male gaze.

‘I was walking on the terrain, renegotiating what the terrain means of localness, otherness and international and what this means for the self and for others……’ (Rachel 34)

Belonging is a performative and negotiated act. These individuals spoke about how they were positioned through policy, through interpersonal interaction, mediated through cultural scripts and norms – how this positioning as international student or foreigner was troubling for them and for others, could often be ambiguous, and how it was always embodied, in specific bodies that were gendered and racialised – and how this is absent from the disembodied, unplaced discourses of policy.


In a world of increasing globalisation and interconnectedness, with the emergence of new powerhouse economies and the reorientation of the world economy, Ireland needs to take a strategic approach to developing relationships that will be of national importance in the coming years (Investing in Global Relationships DES 2010)

(1)recruiting the best international students to undergraduate and postgraduate programmes; (2) encouraging all staff to engage internationally; (3) promoting global citizenship and (4) fostering a culturally enriched and respectful university campus (Based on the fieldwork institution strategic vision)

Although the institutional strategy is closely aligned with the national strategy, and it is aligned with the European strategy which in turn is strongly aligned to the OECD position, these strategies are not identical, though they carry similar social imaginaries of higher education and internationalisation.

These two strategy documents present ways of conceiving or imagining higher education in the context of internationalisation.

Mobility, in these two documents, is framed by economic rationales through the close alignment of knowledge work with discourses of the knowledge economy.

Investment in internationalisation is fundamentally concerned with the exchange-value benefits to the national economy through enhancing global higher education networks. Indeed, the national internationalisation strategy represents part of the ‘branding’ of Irish higher education as a tradable commodity as ‘Education Ireland’. The national strategy explicitly discusses how Irish higher education should be conceived as a ‘brand’ in similar terms to that of tourism or the attraction of inward foreign investment

Framed by a corporate imaginary, national policy documents portray a ‘transactional’ understanding of internationalisation whereby international students are perceived as investments in future business and research opportunities.


Dominant discourses, institutional strategies, and practices purport to ‘know’ international students without speaking to them.

A transactional approach requires little in terms of institutional response. If the international student is already known, either in terms of them being bearers of ‘recruitment targets’ or future ‘returns on investment’, then there is no need for an ethical response, or to know them in their full humanity.

Drawing on Levinas, we argue that such discourses, strategies, and practices constitute acts of violence in denying the humanity and personhood of international students.


We argued that BNIM, because of its iterative method, makes it possible for international students to re-story, and re-embed experiences of internationalisation that escapes dominant storylines.

The BNIM method allows for participants to construct storylines that are troubled by dominant discourses, but can also ‘trouble’ policy. These discourses ‘trouble’ or ‘disconcert’ policy narratives by emphasising the agency of international students themselves (e.g. how international students ‘transcend’ how they are portrayed as mere ‘categories of policy’ and ‘income generators’ for universities).

However, these storylines also underline the ‘dark’ side of internationalisation. In this case the highly gendered and racialised experience of being ‘other’ and ‘othered’ in diverse, ‘everyday’ spaces and places (e.g. policy realms, the home, recreational spaces).

The BNIM narratives revealed here act as an ethical demand to radical hospitality. Being open to the ‘other’, in this way, means being open to change as a consequence. This ethical demand to openness contributes, we argue, to rethinking and re-scripting higher education ‘otherwise’.

The university may well gain from ‘recruiting’ international students in domains like university rankings, and future research and investment in the Irish economy. But the ethical relations between international students and institutions must be re-ordered or ‘thought otherwise’.

Institutions can also gain from speaking to international students rather than just about them. This invites a shift from learning about the international student to learning from them, and in so doing, thinking the university differently.

Building on the student narratives about their experience of difference, becoming, and ‘gendered danger’ invite an ethical response. We argue that this requires going beyond received notions of intercultural understanding or abstract ideas of how the international experience expands individual’s personal horizons.

Taking the experience of ‘gendered danger’ we argue that the ethical invitation necessitates a transcendence of institutional responses to internationalisation that are usually framed through the lens of the provision of services (e.g. sexual consent training), as vital as these are.

Instead, it invites institutional leaders to examine the degree to which cultural scripts and knowledge that is embedded in higher education institutions ignore or denies the embodied and gendered nature of student and faculty experience, of how higher education institutions can be ‘careless’ places for women and many men.

In being ethically open in this way the university can become, in its interaction with international students, more than itself, more than it was before its encounter with these students. This implies a dialogical ethics as a basis for internationalisation strategy and practice where the possibility for what the university can be is constituted in the spaces where university and international student encounter each other.

BNIM enabled us to construct narratives that have the potential to trouble dominant discourses of internationalisation through outlining some of the boundaries of this dialogical encounter and responsibility.


On ‘boundary objects’, higher education and the knowledge economy

My Friday’s teaching was all sorted, or so I thought.

At the morning’s MA in Academic Practice/Higher Education Research Group session we were looking forward to a presentation on the use of phenomenography in exploring academic practice.  The afternoon’s workshop on ‘supporting postgraduate research student writing’ was organised around three guest speakers.  I could, so I imagined, put my feet up and just enjoy it.

Not quite.

There has been a nasty flu working its way around Galway and I was nursing my own version of it when I received a call from the colleague booked in to do the phenomenography session.  He was down with the flu and not able to present.

Feeling under the weather myself I seriously thought about just cancelling the morning and keeping my energy for the afternoon and the three hour drive home later.

As I sat in my chair feeling sorry for myself my mind kept coming back to this void on Friday morning, troubling me, not letting me rest.  Did I value the afternoon group more than the Friday morning one? Of course not.  I enjoy the quality of the discussions in this group and knew that if I stayed in bed then I would not relax anyway.  I started to think about my current writing project and wondered about talking about this.  But how to structure it?  I had a successful conference abstract but I wasn’t up (psychologically) for sharing my autoethnographic method just yet.  What else did I have.  I started looking through my Prezi folder and came across a presentation that brought a smile to my face.

It was a presentation I had given back in 2012 to a different group of students and explored the conceptual exploration I was conducting at the time that I hoped would lead to a publication.  But that was just before I became ill and ended up taking 2 years off work.  A life time ago it felt.  But I remembered how I had enjoyed the ideas contained in this presentation and wondered if I could share this now.

An hour later, and after a little polishing up, I had Friday morning’s session covered [].

The presentation examined the way discourses of the knowledge based economy, as applied to higher education, worked as a boundary object. I had come across the concept of ‘boundary object’ while reading a brilliant book by the Austrian academic Herbert Gottweiss.  In his book ‘Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States‘ Gottweiss discusses the way ‘boundary objects’ produce policy effects.  This captured my imagination.  I will come back to his argument but for the moment what attracted me was the way the concept could be related to the way discourses of the knowledge based economy appeared to be reformulating the structure and content of academic practice.

Gottweiss referenced the work of Susan Starr and Graham Griesemer in their 1989 article ‘Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and BoundaryObjects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39‘.  Starr and Griesemer propose that a central problematic of the scientific enterprise is how the different social actors can communicate effectively.  Using the Berkeley Museum as a case study they inquire into how a) scientific enterprise often involves a diversity of actors from different social worlds, and b) necessitates communication between scientific and non-scientific actors.  The work of higher education involves a range of social actors – academics, administrators, politicians, students, employers, civil servants, etc.  There is an inevitable tension between diversity and cooperation.  It is in this tension that ‘boundary objects’ operate to facilitate cooperation or communication across this diversity:

Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them,yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation (393).

For Starr and Griesemer ‘boundary objects’ work because they are simultaneously abstract and concrete.  Conservation of the flora and fauna of California became the ‘boundary object’ that enabled different social worlds (scientific inquiry, university administration, local benefactors, local naturalists, etc.) to cooperate, a point of convergence for their different and potentially conflicting visions.  Funds can be attracted for the establishment and running of the museum, benefactors and collectors alike can acquire prestige, academics can expand their knowledge.  Conservation, meaning quite different things to each social world, can be plastic enough to mean something substantial (concrete) to each.

Similarly, the knowledge based economy works as such a ‘boundary object’, allowing for an overlapping of economic, academic, administrative, and political domains.  So successful is it that when we use or read a term such as ‘the knowledge based economy and higher education’ we are not fazed by its originality.  It passes as common sense, it appears to us as a necessary articulation.  Its arbitrariness does not immediately stand out.  Yet, a moments reflection sees the apparent obviousness of the construction fall apart.  Its political nature becomes clearly revealed.  How are these separate words – ‘knowledge’, ‘economy’, ‘higher education’ put together, and how do they construct new meaning?

This is where Herbert Gottweiss came in.

Gottweiss picks up the concept of ‘boundary object’ and re-articulates it through a Foucauldian lens. In this way Gottweiss provides policy discourse with an active role.  The knowledge based economy therefore does important policy work.

This resonated with those at the MA session on Friday morning.  The knowledge based economy was full of significance and empty at the same time.  One contribution to discussion focused on the way we engage in funding applications.  In many respects the particular formulations and key terms are meaningless, and we know it, but they are essential and act as points of obligatory passage.  As such they force us, if we are to engage in the funding game at all, to take them seriously.  We gear our research concerns around their fundability.

Of course, at a more profound level ‘boundary objects’ such as the knowledge based economy re-structure our working practices and our identities.

The conclusion to my presentation sought to capture the profundity of this.  I argue that the discourse of the knowledge based economy and higher education produces three main effects:

  • it creates new objects of higher education – innovation, commercialization, and knowledge transfer
  • it creates new subjects of higher education – students acting as consumers, academics as product innovators, and managers delivering against performance indicators
  • it creates new social relations – academic work is seen as servicing economic activity

It is not that higher education has never been involved in innovation, commercialisation or knowledge transfer before.  Academics have always been innovative, but we are increasingly being required or judged against particular constructions of ‘innovation’ that are determined by their immediate application to commercial activity.  As well as funding for the humanities and social sciences being cut in favour of the STEM subjects, we see basic scientific research sacrificed at the alter of applied science.  The same with commercialisation (of which the tradition of academic publishing is a feature) and knowledge transfer (another name for teaching?).  I raised the prospect that if these criteria had been applied to the revolution in physics that revolved around quantum mechanics we would not be living in the digital age we are.  There is an irony that the simplistic economic rationalism driving current  higher education reform could have prevented the amazing applications we now take for granted, micro-computers, iPhones, and the internet.

Similarly, it is not enough for academics to be involved in the business of knowledge production, we need to be ‘product innovators’.  This happens when we loose grip on the ideal of the free flow of knowledge and see knowledge as a commodity that requires increasingly restrictive intellectual property rights.   Would Peter Higgs (who received a Nobel Prize for his work on the ‘God particle’) have lasted in the modern university with its obsession for ‘key performance indictors’ such as research publications?  Many of those present on Friday morning attested to the way such KPIs were affecting what and how to conduct research, questioning whether this was driven by ‘scientific inquiry’ or bureaucratic aspiration.

And finally, while education has always had an economic function, I have deep concerns about the way this is conceived in policy thinking.

I left the session excited about this earlier conceptual work and a desire to get back to it soon.

Ambition Drives Policy – Or When Policy is Morally Bankrupt

Recently I wrote about the pretence at rational planning that is the current state of Irish higher education reform.  The official policy discourse gives the impression that the flurry of activity that sees the presidents of Institutes of Technology meeting each other, the production of guidelines on criteria for Technological University status (that not quite a ‘real’ university status that IoTs may be granted) by Simon Marginson, and update reports by the Higher Education Authority are somehow the stuff of deliberative democracy.

My claim is that they are nothing of the sort. 

The reality is that as soon as the Hunt Report was published, with its well rehearsed arguments for institutional rationalisation (read budget cuts), Technological University status, and regional higher education clusters, ambitious presidents and registrars of IoTs quickly got into action.

Suddenly there were rumours of potential amalgamations between this IoT and another, of regional amalgamations.  Month by month it seemed these rumours changed, morphed.  What was a ‘definite’ love match one week was cast asunder the next.

It is important to note that all of this occurred in the absence of any real legislative framework.  Indeed, it still does.  It is an example of POLICY WITHOUT POLICY.  Instead, the process on the ground has been driven by ambition.  For all the attempt to put a rational gloss on things, the BIG players on the field call the shots their way.  For instance, the long held ambition for a ‘university of the South East’ (a dream thwarted by the OECD report) has framed the actions of at least one institution.  Others who may or may not come under the orbit of institutional merger in that region are bit players.  Hardly deliberative democracy.

Similarly, the changing elements of a possible regional fix in the North West has, it has been privately reported, been partly driven by a mixture of personal ambition and antipathy.

In a climate of fiscal restraint – OK, let me be blunt about this, in a climate of raiding the public sector purse to pay for the criminal mistakes of the private sector, the running around trying to either get in on a bigger players act, or desperately trying to secure some presence in the new future for non-university tertiary education, has involved massive transactional costs.  This is not just in the money (public money) spent on meetings, but the serious discontent amongst ordinary lecturers about their and their institution’s futures.  This sees itself in petty actions and in ill-health.  Ordinary lecturers are not participating in the discussions about their futures.  These are held by those higher up the institutional food chain.

This could have been different.  The HEA could have organised a more meaningful process.  The relevant government minister could have sought to legislate in a way that actually asked serious questions about what kind of higher education system a small open economy and country like Ireland could have.  But they didn’t.  I don’t know why.  Some might say it is the result of incompetence.  Some might say it was political ineptitude.  Some might say it was both.

What is clear, is that what is happening lacks any compassionIt is ethically moribund.  It is a moral embarrasment.

Why do we keep pretending that policy is rational?

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Recently the Irish Higher Education Authority published a report entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education.  Of course, this is unremarkable in and of itself.  After all, producing policy documents is the job of organisations such as the HEA.

No.  What is of interest here is the image the report gives of planning as a rational and deliberative process.

The report is billed as an update on consultation within and with the sector as to the nature of the institutional landscape of higher education, of the sector’s response to an earlier policy report (Towards a future higher education landscape) that itself was an outcome of the strategic vision supplied by the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (Hunt Report).

The suggestion is that the emerging higher education landscape will be the product of rational debate and evidence.


The architecture outlined in the report of programme and institutional rationalisation, mission clarification, and regional clusters has been part of the political discourse since an OECD review of Irish higher education in 2004.  A significant aspect of all of these strategic interventions is that the PROBLEM of Irish higher education is that a) there are too many higher education institutions (and therefore it is inefficient), and b) the rationale of the system has been muddied by a process of mission drift.

But why is the institutional expansion of Irish higher education in and of itself a problem?  The structural basis of this expansion was the establishment of Regional Technical Colleges whose purpose was to build regional economic capacity through improved local provision of technical and vocational training.  The university system remained as the preserve of the middle classes, producing the economic and political elite.  The RTCs later became Institutes of Technology. They maintained a regional economic focus but, as with the polytechnics in the UK, their leaders were attracted to the status accorded by being more like the universities, moving their institutions towards increased involvement in post-graduate education.  This has always been a threat to the universities.

So, in an age where nearly all higher education systems are involved in processes of massification, where higher education, in all its varied shapes, is charged with the production of human capital in order to make national economies more productive and competitive, when does a country have TOO MANY higher education establishments?  No criteria is ever brought forward for substantiating this judgement.  So, many commentators are left with the feeling that the pressure comes from two sources: the universities, and the need to cut public expenditure.

And mission drift?  Well, yes, there has certainly been mission drift, but the IoTs continue to be primarily focused on their regions and to be overwhelmingly vocational in focus.

So, is it all a manufactured problem?

I think it probably is.

The fact of the matter is that this is all financially and politically driven.  Its about cutting costs (though money will not be saved).  It is also about concentrating public money in Ireland’s top two universities in order to establish them as ‘global’ universities.

A rational process?

Yes, if the rational is securing an elite system of higher education and being a colony of global higher education.


NEXT: Ambition as the real driver of institutional merger and Technological University status.