East Asian academics in UK embrace idea of being foreign

‘Internationalisation’ is one of those words which has a fine history that is becoming blurred. It is with some cultural pride perhaps that specialist historians point to the earliest European universities and call them ‘inter-national’ in terms of those who travelled to attend them. In the last few decades, ‘internationalisation’ has developed a very clear academic and intellectual ancestry following the work of, for example, Jane Knight and Hans de Wit.

More recently, internationalisation has become a policy for the export and import of all sorts of market-driven university activities. And right now, internationalisation – a bit like the earlier buzzword ‘globalisation’ – has become a word linked to a certain way of thinking. However, it is a word that academics now need to untangle.

Among other things, internationalisation invites some reflection about who is ‘a minority’: when and where and why.

For example, East Asian students make up the largest group of international students in United Kingdom higher education institutions. They are part of the £10 billion (US$13 billion) a year that international students contribute to the UK economy.

By contrast, the number of East Asian academics working in UK universities has not been significant. Their identity is, by and large, not noted within internal domestic identity categories – the measuring devices for assessing who are ‘minorities’.

In practice, of course, the UK is struggling with the theme of minority identity all the time. According to the Equality Challenge Unit’s report of 2015, black and minority ethnic – or BME – staff are half as likely as whites to hold a senior leadership role in a university. There is only one East Asian vice-chancellor in the UK higher education sector – Max Lu, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, who is also international (Chinese Australian).

More generally, the proportion of foreign-born, international academics employed in UK universities has increased steadily from 19.1% in 2005-06 to over 30% in 2018, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency data, and is expected to rise further.

Such demographic forecasting implies that the continuing success of UK universities will be increasingly dependent on international academics. Furthermore, the UK's vote for Brexit makes the nexus between internationalisation and equality, diversity and inclusion policy an urgent issue for clarification.

Against this background, a two-year longitudinal study on the impact of the Diversifying Leadership programme of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education was recently carried out. It is to be published in May.

Most BME participants in the programme reported experiences of frustration, awareness of racism, discrimination and hidden pathways to formal progression in academia. However, a few ‘minority people’ reported not perceiving these negative experiences. They explained this in terms of their cultural background. Interestingly, they all happen to be international East Asian participants.

This sparked my curiosity. In fact, East Asian academics have so far been invisible in equality, diversity and inclusion policy narratives in the UK higher education sector. This is in sharp contrast to the United States. There, East Asians were rapidly identified as a minority (and harshly dealt with in the 19th century). Gradually opinion changed and they were perceived as a ‘model minority’ group.

Pride and confidence

Neither this ‘model minority’ nor the theme of ‘yellow peril’ penetrated the UK higher education sector, where the dominant discourses have been around the issues of BME students’ attainment gap, the BME staff pay gap and BME underrepresentation in senior roles.

Moreover, most of the international East Asian academics in the UK, whom I know and have interviewed, do not participate in BME support network activities in their universities. But why?

The following interview excerpts depict how international East Asian academics are positioning themselves.

“I know I am being categorised in the BME group, but… I am not part of [that history of] repression and discrimination,” said one academic.

“When people casually ask if the bullying I experienced in my previous university was due to racism, I strongly deny this. I think such attribution is a psychological projection and oversimplifies a complex situation.… I don’t really define myself in racial, ethnic terms. …On the contrary, I enjoy being a foreigner here. I find my inside-outsider position useful for my academic work and life in general,” said another.

“Why do I need to be bothered about my ethnicity when it is not related to my academic work? I don't want to spend time on racial politics. I really don't think the BME policy package based on racial ethnic categories will help my academic career progression. I like the freedom to define myself. I don't need to play the game. For the moment, I enjoy not being categorised… I believe in meritocracy. There are just individual attributes, individual choices and individual disadvantages,” said a third academic.

As far as I can see, on the basis of these early interviews, the positional identities of East Asian academics working in UK universities tend to not be associated with the idea of being ‘a victim’ or part of a ’yellow peril’. Instead the East Asian academics whom I interviewed embrace (and even take advantage of) the idea of being foreign.

This is very likely associated with different patterns of colonialism and different patterns of voluntary migration from East Asia to the UK. The US and the ‘Golden Mountain’ were very attractive to the Chinese and other East Asians in the 19th century. (However, far from finding prosperity in America, Chinese and East Asian immigrants settled in an environment of discrimination and resentment. The anti-East Asian propaganda then led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan of 1907.)

In the 20th century, the harsh treatment of the Nisei during the war was somewhat balanced by the post-1945 political relations of the US with Japan and South Korea. That permitted the construction of the ‘model minority’ within the domestic context of the US – and in a different way and within a different vocabulary, in Canada.

A subsequent layer of research would thus perhaps be of some interest in terms of minority identities. This would be research into a broad range of identities, including Asian migrants from Uganda and so on, to explore the context in which international mobile/migrant academics feel considerable pride in their ethnic, national, cultural and civilisational entities. What are the attributes of confidence, of success?

This is as important a question as asking about the historical, corrosive and long-term effects of colonialism and racial segregation, for example, in the US, and as asking about racial prejudice in the UK – very marked after 1945, and contemporary anti-immigration sentiment – a point of sharp importance given the remarkable cultural and political muddle of Brexit. After Brexit the UK will have far more to reconstruct than its economic system.

Dr Terri Kim is reader in comparative higher education at the University of East London in the United Kingdom, honorary senior research associate at the University College London Institute of Education and a principal fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She was a co-leader of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education-funded research project: 'Tracking the Impact of the Diversifying Leadership Development Programme on participants and institutions', a two-year longitudinal study (2017-18) whose final report is due to be published in Advance HE in May 2019. Email: t.c.kim@uel.ac.uk