Between international student and immigrant: A critical perspective on Angolan and Cape Verdean students in Portugal

Elisa Alves and Russell King


International student migration/mobility (ISM) has been studied from diverse perspectives. Key topics for attention have included students’ motivations to study abroad, their experiences and integration in the host society, the efforts of universities and other higher education institutes (HEIs) to attract them, and government policies on ISM (Riano & Piguct, 2016). However, the actual meaning of the term ‘international student’ remains somewhat elusive. According to King, Findlay and Ahrens (2010), it has been studied through two main lenses: a statistical-geographical one, focused on defining, quantifying and mapping the flows across international borders; and a more sociological perspective, focusing on students’ motivations, perceptions, experiences and identities, often linking and contrasting the societies of origin and destination.

From the perspective of host countries in Europe, North America and Australia, the sociological literature points to a certain way of life among international students: they are seen as young, mobile cosmopolitans (Bilecen, 2016; King & Raghuram, 2013), possessed of the economic, social and cultural capital to be considered an elite population (Brooks & Waters, 2011; Murphy-Lejeune, 2002). In fact, many authors go further and suggest that international students are ‘an elite within an elite’, in the way they are positively selected within the pool of higher education students, and that their international exposure gives them further advantages which can be ‘capitalised’, leading to increasing inequality within the overall population of students and graduates (Bilecen & Van Mol, 2017). Put another way, going abroad to study, especially at a ‘world-class’ institution, bestows social distinction and upward socio-economic mobility among international students and their families (Findlay, King, Smith, Geddes & Skeldon, 2012; Waters, 2012).

While we accept this general theoretical argument about ISM and the social reproduction of elites, we are wary about considering international students as a homogeneous class. Our analysis in this chapter will nuance the meaning, experiences and embodiment of international students, based onprimary research on Angolan and Cape Verdean students in Portugal. These two groups of international students have long been the most numerous in Portugal, dating back to colonial times (Costa & Faria, 2012; França, Alves & Padilla, 2018). Angolan and Cape Verdean labour migrants have also been two of the largest immigrant communities in the country (Malhciros, 1998). This latter situation creates a social perception of the international students from these countries as underprivileged immigrants rather than an elite or a cosmopolitan category.

The chapter unfolds as follows. Next, we discuss different meanings of the term ‘international student’. This is succeeded by a brief section on methods. The main body of the chapter presents research findings, based on semistructured interviews with 49 research participants - final-year students and graduates - most of whom were interviewed twice. We find that many students feel themselves, and arc made to feel by the racialised reaction of the host society, as somewhere ‘in between’ international students and immigrants.

International students: Multiple understandings

According to most definitions, an international student crosses an international border to study in another country; but this is not necessarily the same as being a ‘foreign student’. In its Education at a Glance, the OECD (2018, p. 225) clarifies the distinction:

Foreign students are those who are not citizens of the country in which they are enrolled and where the data are collected. Although they are counted as internationally mobile, they may be long-term residents or even be born in the ‘host’ country. While pragmatic and operational, this classification may be inappropriate for capturing student mobility because of differing national policies regarding the naturalisation of immigrants. ... International students are those who left their country of origin and moved to another country for the purpose of study. The country of origin of a tertiary student is defined according to the ... ‘country of prior education’ or ‘country of usual residence’.

The above distinction is crucial, especially when making international comparisons of statistics on ISM, but there are other complexities to bear in mind. The differentiation between ‘national’ and ‘international’ students can be sociologically problematic (Jones, 2017). On the one hand, international students might know the language of the foreign country, might have studied there before and be familiar with its academic system. On the other hand, a ‘national’ student might not know the language well, perhaps because he or she is a naturalised migrant or refugee, or belongs to a minority ethnic and linguistic group. What is more, students of migrant heritage who are ‘visibly different’ might be perceived as ‘foreign’ students, whereas in fact they are resident nationals.

Further complexity arises when we consider motivations. For many migrants and mobile people, including students, the decision-making process involves multiple motives. The aim of studying abroad might, or might not, be the principal reason for the move; either way, it could be mixed with other purposes. Obtaining a student visa might be a pragmatic route to enter a country when the main reason is something else - to work, to get refugee status or to raise a family. This leads to an interesting semantic about whether students who are spending a study period abroad, and are perhaps simultaneously engaged in other things, such as part-time work for an income, should be regarded as migrants or as mobile people. As indicated at the very beginning of this chapter, ‘ISM’ stands for both international student migration and international student mobility. In the broader literature on migration, and reflecting the so-called ‘mobilities turn’ in studies of Western societies (Cresswell, 2006; Urry, 2007), the main distinction between migration and mobility focuses on length of stay and degree of embedding in the host society. In one of the first detailed studies of students moving within Europe, Murphy-Lejeune (2002, p. 5) summed up this distinction as follows:

Migration [is] a decisive final movement leading to a long-term social integration and assimilation, implying a slow but intense transformation of the individuals concerned. Mobility [implies] a shorter kind of integration, where personal transformations may be more peripheral.

Subsequently the migration-mobility dialectic was applied to two binary situations within ISM. Students who moved for entire degree programmes, commonly 3 years or more, were migrant students, whereas those who moved within a degree programme, for a semester or year abroad, were mobile students (King & Raghuram, 2013). The second mode of distinction is based more on geography: students moving within Europe arc engaged in mobility, whereas those coming from outside Europe or Western countries are student migrants (King, Lulle, Morosanu & Williams, 2016). In this latter scenario, historical and colonial relations may also play a part, since the students are moving along the same channels as the larger volumes of economic migrants looking for work in the former colonial mctropole. Examples are Indians in the UK, students from the Maghreb countries in France, from Latin America in Spain, or from Portugal’s former African colonics (including Angola and Cape Verde) in Portugal. According to Rozenweig’s (2006) ‘migration model’ of international student movement, ‘student immigration’ occurs when the protagonists come from countries with low returns to education and poor opportunities for remunerative employment for returning graduates, so that a period of study abroad is followed by applications for better-paid jobs in the host country.

From the etic categories imposed by researchers, statisticians or hostcountry governments, we move to the cmic perspective of the international students who, on the whole, do not see themselves as migrants.

Ask them if they are migrants, and they will reply no, they are international students...Purposely or unwittingly, they distance themselves from migrants, who are constructed in their minds as people who move for work and who arc more likely to be poor people or refugees.

(King et al., 2016, p. 15)

The quotation above refers to intra-European student movers, where the dominant construction among EU institutions, which applies also to temporary labour migration, is to label this as ‘mobility’ (thereby stressing its temporariness) rather than as ‘migration’ (which implies a ‘threat’ of permanent settlement). However, even within Europe, this distinction is problematic, reflecting geopolitical discrimination. On the one hand, ‘Western’ European students are viewed as unproblematic mobile students who will probably move on and, even if they do elect to stay, are welcome to do so; on the other hand, migrant students from the ‘Eastern’, post-2004 accession countries arc viewed with a marker of territorial stigmatisation (Wilken & Dahlberg, 2017). The experience of students from countries like Poland and Romania is reinforced by their need to work part-time to support their studies. Because of their stigmatised nationality, they are then viewed by employers as akin to less-educated labour migrants and offered only menial, poorly paid jobs. Outside Europe, the exploitation of international, especially non-white, students is also confirmed, for instance in Australia (Nyland ct al., 2009; Tran, 2017). These studies have the effect of further distancing international students from the ideal of the cosmopolitan international individual who is viewed as a mix of some kind of cultural tourist and proto-expat (Bilecen, 2016).

The cases we explore in this chapter concern two international student communities in Portugal, from Angola and from Cape Verde. Our data report only individuals who left Angola and Cape Verde and went to Portugal with the main purpose of completing a course, which means a focus on international students (as opposed to foreign students) and on degree mobility. For an unbiased reading and discussion of the results, we adopt a neutral position regarding the use of the terms mobile students vs migrant students. As the outcomes of our study will show, Angolan and Cape Verdean students in Portugal do not always see themselves as ‘typical’ international students; nor does the host society view them in that way. Some of them feel more like immigrants, living in precarious conditions and struggling to survive. Both within the university and in the wider society, they are made to feel rather like ‘second-class’ international students. Detailed evidence for this will now be presented, following a brief outline of our research methods.

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