Wednesday, 7 January 2015

International Student Mobility: The Role of Social Networks

By Suzanne Beech (@suzanneebeech)

I have a new paper online early with Social and Cultural Geography, it is the second to come out of my PhD thesis on international higher education and the factors which influence students in their decision to study abroad. This paper focuses on one of the biggest factors effecting student mobility (and many other forms of mobility as well) - the role of social networks of friendship and kinship. It looks at the experience of 38 international students studying at three UK universities who were either interviewed or took part in a small focus group between March 2011 and February 2012. Each of the students that took part was enrolled on a diploma seeking programme of study (i.e. their period of time overseas was for the duration of their degree, rather than related to a temporary exchange or sojourn abroad). They came from 23 different countries and were studying both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. While I did not explicitly ask them about their socio-economic background it is likely that, given higher education mobility is often a very expensive pursuit, they came from relatively well-off backgrounds.  What was common to every one of the students that took part was the centrality of their friends and family in making their decision, their social networks were key to their mobility.

1.        What is a social network?

Social networks in this context are not limited to online social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The social networks in which my research is interested are much broader than this. At the most basic level they represent the multiple people (or actors) that a person communicates and interacts with in their day-to-day lives sharing resources and information in the process. Your social network is therefore anyone who you know well enough to engage in conversation, even if that conversation takes place along very limited lines. Any one person can, therefore, have hundreds of people in their social networks and can be part of numerous (sometimes overlapping) social networks e.g. your family could be one social network, your work colleagues another, the people in your tutorial group another and so on. International students, like everyone else, are part of complex networks of individuals all sharing information with one another. John Urry (2007; 2003) has written about how these networks shape mobility by creating connections between people through which they are able to share their experiences of being mobile. Members of a network are therefore able to tell others of the benefits of engaging in mobility and how to become more mobile themselves. It is therefore through networks that mobility often takes place.

2.       How do social networks influence mobility amongst international students?

My research shows that social networks operate in two ways in relation to international students. First, they can offer explicit advice and encouragement. This is perhaps less common than you may think, certainly most students did not admit to seeking out advice and encouragement – perhaps because international student mobility is often considered (at least socially) an individual activity where you go out and forge your own lifecourse – but there was evidence of some students actively turning to others for advice. Aimee from Canada for example spoke to people in her field about the value of an overseas degree, Subash and Sachin (from India) both turned to Facebook to find people who had also studied their course in the UK and Lily (from Malaysia) talked about the importance of being able to discuss her course with current students when on an open day.
More common, however, was the concept that social networks were about sharing the lived experiences of overseas mobility. In this context their social networks did not so much offer them advice and encouragement instead they began to normalise the process of going overseas. Asan (from Nepal) discussed how in his school it was normal for almost everyone to study abroad, suggesting a huge “95 per cent” went overseas (this is possibly an exaggeration, but whether literal or not it is clear that lots of people chose to do so). Marianna (from Greece) wanted to have the same experiences that a friend had when she studied in the UK. Hazel (from the USA) watched friends go backpacking in Europe and wanted to have a similar experience. As Urry (2007) suggests, they had built a greater awareness of travel which had normalised engaging in long term mobility, leading to point 3…

3.     Social networks establish cultures of mobility.

What is interesting is that these networks become self-perpetuating to an extent. More people study overseas and share their experience (either explicitly or implicitly) with their social networks. This then introduces more people to the idea of studying abroad, some of whom will explore the option and choose to study outside of their home country, who will then share their experience with their social networks and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on. It effectively establishes a culture of mobility amongst international students which normalises the process of studying overseas.

There was evidence of the importance of social networks amongst every student who took part in the interviews and focus groups for my research. This suggests that these relationships are critical to mobility. It did not seem to matter where the students came from, or their level of study, social networks were somehow active in all of their decisions’ to study overseas. They had created cultures of mobility for these students which had normalised the process of studying overseas.

My paper on International Student Mobility: The Role of Social Networks is currently online early with Social and Cultural Geography and is available for download here.


Urry, J. (2003). Social networks, travel and talk. British Journal of Sociology, 54, 155–175.

Urry, J. (2007). Mobilities. Polity Press: Cambridge.

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