‘Race’, ethnicity, cultural capital, and lived experience in international higher education

While there is a relatively significant amount of research on Asian international students, by comparison there is a paucity of research literature on the experiences of Black African International Students (BAIS) in UK higher education. This is interesting in view of the evidence of a long history of BAIS presence in UK higher education spanning nearly 300 years. At present, 1 in 16 international students in the UK comes from Africa. Data from HESA shows there were 27,815 African international students (49.9% postgraduate and 50.1%undergraduate) studying in UK universities in the 2017/18 academic year. This is 6.1% of the total non-UK domiciled students (and 8% of all non-EU domiciled students. The 13,945 undergraduate African international students represented 5.5% of the total non-UK domiciled undergraduate students.

Much UK research literature usually makes illusory assumptions and homogenizes international students masking key differences, inter alia, in ‘race’, ethnicity, and previous educational experiences, which all shape both lived experiences and outcomes. Many UK studies rarely consider the role of ‘race’ and ethnicity in shaping international students’ lived experiences. As a result, issues of racial discrimination do not usually come up in UK research on international students’ experiences despite significant evidence of racial discrimination both in society and in education in the UK. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the extant literature on race and higher education in the UK reveals the racialized nature of the sector. Top university administrative positions, especially chancellor and vice chancellor, ‘remain a white enclave’ and there are only 15 black academics in senior management roles and only 85 of the UK’s 18,500 professors are black. Black women and men achieve the lowest percentage of first-class degrees (5.7% and 6.9% respectively, compared to 18.3% of white women and 19.4% of white men), and both black groups are over-represented in lower class degree categories. However, higher education institutions ignore the racialized nature of the sector.

This study attempted to fill in this yawning gap in the literature by exploring the lived experiences of a specific group of ethnic black African international students from English-speaking Sub-Saharan African countries. Using theoretical tools from Bourdieu and Critical Race Theory (CRT), this study explored how previous education, along with ‘race’ and ethnicity position BAIS as racialized Others and shape their lived experiences. A qualitative research methodology in conjunction with a CRT framework is used to explore the stories of 21 BAIS studying in ten universities located in eight English cities. A Bourdieusian and CRT analysis shows that BAIS’s lived experience is a function of the possession of capitals demanded by UK higher education, lower expectations and multiple racialized dominations and exclusions. Being black African with prior education in their home countries positions BAIS as lacking outsiders who are admitted to the institutions but not truly included.