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Constructing the Higher Education Student: a comparative study of six European countries

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - EUROSTUDENTS (Constructing the Higher Education Student: a comparative study of six European countries)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2020-06-30

1. Introduction

There are currently over 35 million students within Europe and yet, to date, we have no clear understanding of the extent to which understandings of ‘the student’ are shared. Thus, a central aim of this project is to investigate how the contemporary higher education (HE) student is conceptualised and the extent to which this differs both within nation-states and across them. This is significant in terms of implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumptions that are made about common understandings of ‘the student’ across Europe – underpinning, for example, initiatives to increase cross-border educational mobility and the wider development of a European Higher Education Area. It is also significant in relation to exploring the extent to which understandings are shared within a single nation and, particularly, the degree to which there is congruence between the ways in which students are conceptualised within policy texts and by policymakers, and the understandings of other key social actors such as the media, higher education institutions and students themselves.

The Eurostudents project comprises a significant body of work that, by the end of the project’s five year duration, will have: developed a new theoretical framework for understanding the ways in which the higher education student is conceptualised, based on an innovative and inter-disciplinary comparative approach; generated a comprehensive and cross-national dataset on constructions of the higher education student; and established international networks that will provide a platform for taking forward research in this field after the grant has ended.

The proposed work will also have a considerable impact on the Principal Investigator’s (PI) own career development, through: consolidating her research leadership experience by giving her experience of managing a six-nation comparative research project and mentoring more junior staff within the research team; providing her with dedicated time to publish widely across several academic disciplines; and extending her profile further amongst the international research community.

2. Objectives

The research proposal is underpinned by four discrete but overlapping objectives:

• To generate new knowledge about the ways in which the higher education student is constructed by different actors within a single nation-state (policymakers, the media, higher education institutions and students themselves), and across six different European nations;

• To establish a new inter-disciplinary theoretical framework to understand these conceptualisations of the student, drawing on perspectives from education, sociology, social policy, human geography and cultural studies;

• To build research capacity in this area through: bringing together a team of researchers to conduct the project; establishing European and international networks on constructions of the higher education student; and fostering inter-disciplinary collaborations;

• To consolidate the considerable research leadership experience the PI has already gained in her career to date, through: extending her experience of managing a research project and team of researchers; developing a new inter-disciplinary theoretical framework; and engaging in high-profile dissemination and engagement activities.

3. Innovation and potential impact on the field

This project is innovative in a number of ways. Firstly, it will provide the first, cross-national study of the ways in which the higher education student is constructed within Europe. Data is being collected from six different European countries (Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain) chosen to provide diversity in terms of: ‘welfare regime’; date of accession to the European Union; level of tuition fees payable by European students for ‘first cycle’ qualifications; and the nature of student support systems. Unlike previous research that has focused on top-level policy documents and/or political structures, this project is generating new and detailed knowledge about the extent to which understandings of the student are shared by different social actors within a single nation-state – policymakers (Strand 1 of the research project), the media (Strand 2), higher education institutions (Strand 3), as well as higher education students themselves (Strand 4) – and across six different nations. Thus, it does not assume that understandings can be ‘read off’ policy documents, but that they are actively constructed by specific social actors, and thus heterogeneous constructions may co-exist. Moreover, it does not assume that nation-states are necessarily coherent entities in educational terms but that significant contestations about the meaning associated with being a higher education student are possible.

Secondly, in developing a new theoretical framework to explain the ways in which the higher education student is constructed across Europe, the project has a strong inter-disciplinary focus. It will draw together in an innovative manner theoretical perspectives from various disciplines including sociology, social policy, human geography, cultural studies as well as education. In doing so, it is likely to open up new avenues for theoretical and empirical enquiry. It is anticipated that the project will make important contributions to the following areas: the conceptualisation of national differences in comparative research; spatial analyses of educational processes; the identities of higher education students; the ‘enactment’ of education policy; and the study of media effects. It will also make a major contribution to the significant body of work on the relationship between globalisation and education, by providing new knowledge about the extent of convergence of understandings of the student across and within six nation-states. In this way, it will consolidate and extend the PI’s previous work, which has considered the impact of globalising pressures in relation to the international mobility of higher education students and the international activities of secondary schools.

Thirdly, the project is highly innovative methodologically. A large majority of previous comparative work on European higher education has relied on the analysis of policy texts and/or cross-national surveys. In contrast, this project deploys a wide range of qualitative methods (analysis of text and visual images within films, TV programmes, websites and policy documents; in-depth individual interviews; and focus group interviews) alongside some quantitative approaches (a systematic content analysis of texts). This ambitious mixed method approach is generating a large and complex dataset, which will enable the development of a detailed and nuanced understanding of the diverse ways in which higher education students are conceptualised across Europe.

Finally, the project addresses a politically and socially important topic, and will have impact beyond the academic field. This is likely to be most significant in terms of heightening our understandings of commonalities and differences within the European Higher Education Area; new knowledge about variation in the construction of the higher education student is likely to have implications for student mobility policies (which assume ease of movement across a single European space) and the convergence of European higher education systems more generally.
The project has proceeded well, in line with the timetable specified in the original proposal. Below we outline the various activities that have taken place since the start of the project in August 2016.

1. Setting up the project

The research team was recruited prior to the official start date of the project, and the individuals (two full-time post-doctoral researchers and a PhD student) began work in the autumn of 2016. We also recruited seven members of the project Advisory Group (Susan Wright, Aarhus University; Lea Meister, European Students’ Union; Aina Tarabini, Autonomous University Barcelona; Barbara Kehm, Glasgow University; Maria Slowey, Dublin City University; Carlos Vargas-Tamez, UNESCO; Marek Kwiek, University of Poznan) and held our first meeting with the group in February 2017. Group members have provided ongoing advice and guidance throughout the project (for example, giving feedback on the choice of documents for the policy document analysis, and helping to secure access to various research sites in their own countries).

During the first month of the project we set up a project website (www.eurostudents.net) and Twitter feed (@eurostudents_ ). These have since been used on a regular basis to disseminate our various activities. The Twitter account now has 1710 followers. In addition, we developed a logo for the project, which is used in dissemination activities alongside that of the European Research Council.

Ethical approval for the project was secured from the University of Surrey in February 2016. In the first six months of the project we piloted the various research instruments and attended bespoke team training on the NVivo software analysis package. A state-of-the-art literature review was conducted during the initial months of the project, which was published as an article in the journal Compare (see details below) and has informed subsequent stages of the research. We also wrote various short pieces to advertise the project, including a blogpost for the Society for Research into Higher Education (published in January 2017).

2. Data collection

We have collected data for all four strands of the project in accordance with the timetable set in the original proposal.

Strand 1. Policy Constructions
Sixteen policy documents were selected for each of the six countries in the project (with the exception of Poland, where 12 were collected). These comprised four relevant texts (addressing higher education students) from each of the following groups: speeches by government ministers responsible for higher education; key government strategy documents; documents produced by staff and students’ unions; documents from organisations representing graduate employers. Those not available in English were translated, and all were coded and subsequently analysed using the NVivo software package. Coding in this strand, and in strands 3 and 4 below, has been conducted in line with a coding frame that the team developed during the first six months of the project and which has been updated on an ongoing basis subsequently. In addition to the document analysis, we conducted interviews with four or five key policymakers or ‘policy influencers’ in each of the six countries (a total of 26 across the project). All interviews were transcribed, uploaded to NVivo and coded using the project coding frame. The policy data have fed into numerous publications and presentations.

Strand 2. Media Representations
The PhD student, who is leading this strand of the research, initially conducted desk research on the media landscape in the six European countries in which we are collecting data, to inform the sampling strategy. Two newspapers were then chosen for each nation. Where possible, this has included a broadsheet/‘quality’ newspaper containing longer articles and a tabloid or more ‘populist’ newspaper, containing shorter pieces. Newspaper articles have been downloaded from the LexisNexis database and other appropriate sources. A total sample of 1159 articles was selected for the analysis. A coding frame for the initial, quantitative part of the analysis, was developed (to articulate with the wider coding frame used for the project as a whole) and all newspaper articles coded in line with this. Qualitative analysis was then conducted on a subset of the articles. A first draft of the whole PhD thesis is almost complete. In addition to the newspaper analysis, we have sampled films and TV shows that feature students prominently from our six countries. In-depth qualitative analysis has been conducted on seven of these. The media data have fed into various publications and several presentations.

Strand 3. Institutional Perspectives
In the first part of this strand, 180 higher education institution (HEI) websites were selected for analysis across the six countries. Institutions were selected to represent the diversity of provision in each nation. On each website, three pages were selected for quantitative analysis (the home page, the ‘About Us’ page or equivalent, and the main page directed at prospective students and/or applicants) and a coding frame developed (as for the media strand, this articulated with the broader coding frame being used for other parts of the project). A sub-sample of websites (36) was then chosen for qualitative analysis (focussing on the same three webpages), using the project coding frame. In the second part of this strand, three case study HEIs per country were chosen – again to reflect, as much as possible, the diversity of provision in each country. Four staff interviews were then conducted in each HEI: two with members of academic staff and two with non-academics/professional services staff (a total of 72). These were then transcribed, uploaded to NVivo and coded using the project coding frame. The staff data have fed into several publications and presentations.

Strand 4. Student Understandings
Focus groups with undergraduate students have been conducted in three HEIs in each of our case study countries (amounting to a total of 54 focus groups involving 295 students). The audio-recordings of the focus groups were transcribed, translated where necessary, uploaded to NVivo and coded using the project coding frame. The focus group data have fed into numerous publications and presentations.

3. Dissemination activities

By the end of June 2020, we had written 16 articles (including two editorial introductions to special issues) and five book chapters; guest-edited two special issues of journals; and edited one book. We had also written seven non-academic outputs. Details are provided below and at www.eurostudents.net/project-outputs/. We have also given 53 presentations. Again, details are given below and at www.eurostudents.net/presentations/

Journal articles

Brooks, R. and Abrahams, J. (forthcoming, 2020) European higher education students: contested constructions, Sociological Research Online.
Brooks, R., Gupta, A., Jayadeva, S. and Lainio, A. (forthcoming, 2020) Students in marketised higher education landscapes: an introduction, Sociological Research Online (special section: Students in marketised higher education landscapes)
Jayadeva, S., Brooks, R., Gupta, A., Abrahams, J., Lazetic, P. and Lainio, A. (forthcoming, 2020) Are Spanish students customers? Paradoxical perceptions of the impact of marketisation on higher education in Spain, Sociological Research Online.
Brooks, R., Gupta, A., Jayadeva, S. and Abrahams, J. (2020) Students’ views about the purpose of higher education: a comparative analysis of six European countries, Higher Education Research and Development. (Advance online access.)
Brooks, R., Gupta, A., Jayadeva, S., Abrahams, J. and Lazetic, P. (2020) Students as political actors? Similarities and differences across six European countries, British Educational Research Journal. (Advance online access.)
Brooks, R. (2020) Diversity and the European higher education student: policy influencers’ narratives of difference, Studies in Higher Education, 45, 7, 1507-1518.
Brooks, R. (2020) Asserting the nation: the dominance of national narratives in policymakers’ constructions of higher education students, Sociological Research Online, 25, 2, 273-288.
Brooks, R., Lainio, A. and Lazetic, P. (2020) Using creative methods to research across difference. An introduction to the special issue, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 23, 1, 1-6.
Lazetic, P. (2020) Studying similarities and differences in higher education organisations based on their websites – comparative methodological approaches and research potential, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 23, 1, 75-90.
Brooks, R. (2019) Europe as spatial imaginary? Narratives from higher education ‘policy influencers’ across the continent, Journal of Education Policy. (Advance online access.)
Brooks, R. (2019) The construction of higher education students within national policy: a cross-European comparison, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. (Advance online access.)
Abrahams, J. and Brooks, R. (2019) Higher education students as political actors: evidence from England and Ireland, Journal of Youth Studies, 22, 1, 108-123.
Lazetic, P. (2019) Students and university websites – consumers of corporate brands or novices in the academic community?, Higher Education, 77, 6, 995-1013.
Brooks, R. (2018) The construction of higher education students in English policy documents, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 39, 6, 745-761.
Brooks, R. (2018) Higher education mobilities: a cross-national European comparison, Geoforum, 93, 87-96.
Brooks, R. (2018) Understanding the higher education student in Europe: a comparative analysis, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 48, 4, 500-517.

Book chapters

Lainio, A. and Brooks, R. (forthcoming, 2021) Constructing students as family members: contestations in media and policy representations across Europe, in: Brooks, R. and O’Shea, S. (eds) Reimagining the Higher Education Student London, Routledge.
Brooks, R. and O’Shea, S. (forthcoming, 2021) Reimagining the higher education student: an introduction, in: Brooks, R. and O’Shea, S. (eds) Reimagining the Higher Education Student London, Routledge.
O’Shea, S. and Brooks, R. (forthcoming, 2021) Conclusion, in: Brooks, R. and O’Shea, S. (eds) Reimagining the Higher Education Student London, Routledge.
Brooks, R., Abrahams, J., Lazetic, P., Gupta, A. and Jayadeva, S. (2020) Access to and Experiences of Higher Education across Europe: the Impact of Social Characteristics, in: Curaj, A., Deca, L. and Pricopie, R. (eds) The European Higher Education Area: Challenges for a New Decade Springer.
Brooks, R. and Abrahams, J. (2018) Higher education students as consumers? Evidence from England, in: Tarabini, A. and Ingram, N. (eds) Educational Choices, Aspirations and Transitions in Europe London, Routledge.

Special issues of journals
Brooks, R., Gupta, A., Jayadeva, S. and Lainio, A. (eds) (forthcoming) Students in Marketised Higher Education Landscapes, Sociological Research Online (special section).
Brooks, R., Lainio, A. and Lazetic, P. (eds) (2020) Using creative methods to research across difference, International Journal of Social Research Methodology (special issue).

Edited collection
Brooks, R. and O’Shea, S. (eds) (forthcoming, 2021) Reimagining the Higher Education Student London, Routledge.

Non-academic outputs
Brooks, R. (2020) Higher education and diversity in Europe, Sociology Review Magazine.
Brooks, R. (2020) Students not as apathetic as policymakers like to think, University World News, 28 June 2020.
Brooks, R. (2020) Asserting the nation: the dominance of national narratives in policymakers’ constructions of higher education students, Society for Research into Higher Education blog, 16 March 2020.
Brooks, R. (2019) Using creative methods to research across difference, International Journal of Social Research Methodology – Editors’ Notebook, 12 December 2019.
Brooks, R. (2019) ‘Diversity and European Higher Education Students: National Perspectives in a Global Age’, European Association for International Education ‘Conference Conversation Starter’ publication.
Brooks, R. (2019) European students are not a homogenous group, University World News, 1 June 2019.
Brooks, R. (2019) ‘Diversity in understandings of higher education students across Europe’, Research Professional newsletter and website, 8 November 2019.
Brooks, R. (2017) Constructing the higher education student: a comparative study of six European countries, Society for Research into Higher Education blog, 4 January 2017.

Conference and seminar presentations
We have given 53 presentations at conferences and seminars. We have spoken to different disciplinary audiences including:

- sociology (e.g. European Sociological Association conference 2017, 2019, 2020; British Sociological Association conference 2017, 2018, 2019; International Sociological Association conference, 2018);
- education (e.g. Society for Research into Higher Education, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019; Consortium of Higher Education Researchers conference, 2017, 2018);
- youth studies (Journal of Youth Studies conference, 2019); and
- geography (e.g. Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers’ conference, 2017, 2018, 2019).

Events
We have organised six events: a launch conference (September 2016); two symposia at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference (April 2017 and 2019); a symposium at the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers’ annual conference (August 2017); a one-day conference on the use of creative and visual methods in comparative research (June 2018); and a further one-day conference to discuss some of the emerging findings from the project, at the end of the third year (June 2019).

4. Networking visits

As one of the objectives of the project is to establish links with researchers working on related topics across the world, networking visits have been made to researchers at the following centres/universities: Centre for Global and Higher Education Research, University College London – during seminar (December 2016) and then invited back to run summer school session (June 2017); Eurostudent project workshop in Vilnius (February 2017); Centre for Public Policy at the University of Poznan, Poland (May-June 2017); Trinity College, Dublin (January 2018); Centre for Higher Education Futures, Aarhus University, Denmark (February, 2018); comparative education researchers at Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany (March 2018); and higher education researchers at Complutense University of Madrid (June 2018); and University of Wollongong, Australia (December 2019).

5. Key findings to date

These are outlined in section 1.3 below.
1. Key findings to date

As noted in section 1.2 above, to date, we have written 16 articles (including two editorial introductions to special issues) and five book chapters; guest-edited two special issues of journals; and edited one book. We had also written seven non-academic outputs. We summarise some of the key arguments of these publications below.


a) Findings that draw on multiple strands of the project

Analysis of the key ways in which students from all six countries understood their identity (as students)

On the basis of the focus group data and the plasticine models participants made to represent their understanding of themselves as students, we argue that there is often an important disconnect between the ways in which students are constructed within policy, and how they understand themselves. The models produced by participants typically foregrounded learning and hard work rather than more instrumental concerns commonly emphasised within policy. This brings into question assertions made in the academic literature that recent reforms have had a direct effect on the subjectivities of students, encouraging them to be more consumerist in their outlook. Nevertheless, we also note that student conceptualisations differ, to some extent, by nation state, evident particularly in Spain and Poland, and by institution – most notably in England and Spain, which have the most vertically differentiated higher education systems. These differences suggest that, despite the ‘policy convergence’ manifest in the creation of a European Higher Education Area, understandings of what it means to be a student in Europe today remain contested.
Key reference: Brooks, R. and Abrahams, J. (forthcoming, 2020) European higher education students: contested constructions, Sociological Research Online.

Understanding students as political actors

Drawing on data from students, higher education staff and policymakers from our six countries, we argue that it remains a relatively common assumption that students should be politically engaged. However, while the students in our research articulated a strong interest in a wide range of political issues, those working in higher education and influencing higher education policy tended to believe that students were considerably less politically active than their predecessors. Moreover, while staff and policy influencers typically conceived of political engagement in terms of collective action, articulated through common reference to the absence of a ‘student movement’ or unified student voice, students’ narratives tended not to valorise ‘student movements’ in the same way and many categorised as ‘political’ action they had taken alone and/or with a small number of other students. Alongside these broad commonalities across Europe, we also evidence some key differences between nation-states, institutions and disciplines.
Key references: (i) Brooks, R., Gupta, A., Jayadeva, S., Abrahams, J. and Lazetic, P. (2020) Students as political actors? Similarities and differences across six European countries, British Educational Research Journal. (Advance online access) (ii) Abrahams, J. and Brooks, R. (2019) Higher education students as political actors: evidence from England and Ireland, Journal of Youth Studies, 22, 1, 108-123.

Constructing students as family members

We examined the ways in which higher education students are constructed, either explicitly or implicitly, as family members within newspaper articles and interviews with policy actors across five of the countries in our sample. Such constructions differed quite considerably by nation-state. Students were, for example, positioned as integral family members in the Spanish and Irish newspapers and interviews, but typically as independent actors in the Danish texts, while family relations were discussed in rather ambivalent ways in England and Germany. On the basis of these data, we suggest that the north-south dichotomy in family relationships, which is discussed in much of the sociological and policy studies literature, is played out in more complex ways with respect to higher education. The patterns we observe are seemingly related to structural factors, such as how higher education is funded, but cultural and historical factors as well as religion also have an important role to play in the formation of student-family relationships.
Key reference: Lainio, A. and Brooks, R. (forthcoming, 2021) Constructing students as family members: contestations in media and policy representations across Europe, in: Brooks, R. and O’Shea, S. (eds) Reimagining the Higher Education Student London, Routledge.

Analysis of constructions of Spanish students

In the data we collected in Spain we encountered an interesting paradox: on the one hand, marketisation is less firmly established in the higher education system of Spain than in many other European countries, and policy and institutional narratives in Spain presented the higher education system as being relatively unmarketised. On the other hand, the staff and students we interviewed presented the Spanish higher education system and the student experience as having been dramatically transformed by marketisation. In analysing this paradox, we highlight the importance of not viewing countries as coherent educational entities. In addition—while broadly supporting scholarship that has pointed to a growing market-orientation of national higher education systems across Europe—we draw attention to how the manner in which the marketisation of higher education is experienced on the ground can be very different in different national contexts, and may be mediated by a number of factors, including perceptions about the quality of educational provision and the labour market rewards of a degree; the manner in which the private cost of education (if any) is borne by students and their families; and the extent to which marketisation may have become entrenched and normalised in the higher education system of a country.
Key reference: Jayadeva, S., Brooks, R., Gupta, A., Abrahams, J., Lazetic, P. and Lainio, A. (forthcoming, 2020) Are Spanish students customers? Paradoxical perceptions of the impact of marketisation on higher education in Spain, Sociological Research Online. (Advance online access)

Analysis of English focus group data and policy documents, with respect to the construction of students as consumers

Our analysis of policy documents and data from England underlines some of the complexity in the way in which the concept of student-as-consumer is discussed by both those formulating policy and the intended recipients. In relation to policies, this is evident in some of the apparent contradictions within government documents which, on one hand, emphasise strongly many aspects of a consumer discourse (foregrounding ideas around investment, choice and ensuring value of money) but, on the other hand, also discuss in some detail the vulnerability of students and their need of protection – which is clearly at odds with the notion of an ‘empowered consumer’. With respect to students, a similar degree of complexity can be seen in their differential awareness of the student-as-consumer discourse, and their varied responses to it. Indeed, our work builds on that of Tomlinson (2016) by showing that alongside the three groups he identifies (with different perspectives on consumerism) is a fourth group, which has never before engaged with the idea of consumerism in higher education. It also suggests that government campaigns to encourage students to ‘know their consumer rights’ – through the activities of the Competition and Markets Authority, for example – have had limited effect.
Key reference: Brooks, R. and Abrahams, J. (2018) Higher education students as consumers? Evidence from England, in: Tarabini, A. and Ingram, N. (eds) Educational Choices, Aspirations and Choices in Europe London, Routledge.


b) Findings that relate to the policy strand only

Key policy constructions of students from all six nations

Across all six nations there were some commonalities in how students were constructed in many of the policy documents. For example, a ‘future worker’ discourse was strong in a large majority of the government documents, foregrounding understandings of students as a ‘worker-in-the-making’ and the importance of higher education as preparation for labour market engagement. However, drawing on an analysis of 92 policy documents from the six European countries, we demonstrate that key differences in constructions were also evident in relation to, for example, the extent to which students were positioned as: objects of criticism, vulnerable individuals, investors/investments and Europeans. These differences have implications for both higher education practice and how we theorise the European higher education space.
Key reference: Brooks, R. (2019) The construction of higher education students within national policy: a cross-European comparison, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. (Advance online access)

Different ways in which the idea of ‘Europe’ was drawn upon by policy actors

For many, although not all, of the policy actors we interviewed, Europe acted as a spatial imaginary – providing various socially-embedded stories that constitute particular ways of talking about specific places. However, differences were identified in relation the kind of spatial imaginaries deployed. Europe was seen as a distinct place in only the German data, while it constituted an idealised space in many more countries. This was typically implicit and articulated in relation to emerging idealised spaces, seen in the comparisons interviewees drew between students in different countries. While this could be seen as a means of asserting the distinctiveness of nation-states, the importance of this European frame of reference, and the positive ways in which students from other European countries were viewed, suggests instead the beginnings of a common idealised space. Europe was also perceived as closely entangled with processes of spatial transformation – evidenced in discussions about the significant change brought about by the Bologna Process, the European Higher Education Area, Erasmus, and other forms of education-related Europeanisation.
Key reference: Brooks, R. (2019) Europe as spatial imaginary? Narratives from higher education ‘policy influencers’ across the continent, Journal of Education Policy. (Advance online access)

The importance of national frames of reference to some policy actors

Our data show how policy actors frequently made use of ‘national narratives’ in discussing the contemporary higher education student. Moreover, they often explained students’ perspectives with reference to what are held to be unique national histories and cultural backgrounds. Here, there are many commonalities with the broader literature, stemming from political science and history, which has suggested that, even under conditions of globalisation, ‘national myths’ remain strong, and indeed may in some ways be considered a response to global pressures. These narratives are significant because of the light they shed on understandings of the European Higher Education Area. Despite arguments within the academic literature on the increasing convergence of higher education systems across Europe, the policy actors’ narratives suggest that, in some cases, national frames of reference have not yet been usurped by European ones. They are also significant because of the ways in which they conceptualise students. The language used in policy and by policy influencers can have significant effects. Words do more than name things, they impose limits on what can be said, and construct certain possibilities for thought by ordering and combining words in particular ways and excluding or displacing other combinations. Thus, the emphasis on students as distinct from those in other parts of Europe may have a bearing on how they are understood by other social actors, and by students themselves.
Key reference: Brooks, R. (2020) Asserting the nation: the dominance of national narratives in policymakers’ constructions of higher education students, Sociological Research Online, 25, 2, 273-288

The ways in which diversity among the student population was understood by policy actors

Across the dataset as a whole, various dimensions of difference were mentioned by the policy actors. They were not, however, all discussed in the same way or attributed the same value. For example, the explicit valorisation of ‘age diversity’ in many of the countries can be contrasted with the implicit problematisation of increasing the social class diversity of student bodies in some nations. While the salience given to age, as a social characteristic, is a welcome corrective to assumptions that have long been documented across most national higher education sectors about the ‘young’ biological age of students – and the policies that flow from these, which often serve to exclude those of an older age – its association with an economistic agenda suggests that it is unlikely to help drive through a more structural analysis of difference and inequality. Commitment to this one aspect of diversity does not ensure that other aspects will be treated similarly. This is made apparent in the way in which social class was discussed and problematised by a number of our interviewees.
Key reference: Brooks, R. (2020) Diversity and the European higher education student: policy influencers’ narratives of difference, Studies in Higher Education, 45, 7, 1507-1518.

Analysis of English policy documents

Our analysis of ways in which students are constructed in contemporary English higher education policy suggests that, first, and contrary to assumptions made in the academic literature, students are not conceptualised as ‘empowered consumers’; instead their vulnerability is emphasised by both government and unions. Second, it identifies other dominant discourses, namely that of ‘future worker’ and ‘hard-worker’. These articulate with extant debates about both the repositioning of higher education as an economic good, and the use of the ‘hard-working’ trope across other areas of social policy. Third, it shows that differences are drawn between groups of students. Contrasts are drawn, for example, between international students, juxtaposing the ‘brightest and best’ with those who are considered ‘sham’. Finally, it argues that the figure of the ‘vulnerable’ student and ‘thwarted consumer’ feed into broader government narratives about its policy trajectory, legitimising contemporary reforms and excusing the apparent failure of previous policies.
Key reference: Brooks, R. (2018) The construction of higher education students in English policy documents, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 39, 6, 745-761.

Analysis of policy documents from all six countries, with respect to student mobilities

Within the extant literature on patterns of mobility of higher education students to and from Europe there is some recognition that these differ across geographical space – in relation to variations in national uptake of the European Union’s Erasmus scheme, for example. However, strong similarities are also often identified – about the way in which mobility is desired by students, higher education institutions and national governments, and how this is stimulated, in part, by various European initiatives such as the commitment to forging a European Higher Education Area. Moreover, while scholars have critiqued normative expectations of mobility – pointing out, for example, that not all students have the necessary social, cultural and economic resources to support a period of study abroad – there has been less critical focus on the way in wh