Democratizing international student mobility? An assessment of challenges and opportunities from the “accessibility” perspective and the “relational-conduct” perspective

International student mobility (ISM) is an aspect of international higher education that has become increasingly characterized by inequalities, stratification, and arguably unethical and exploitative practices. This paper raises the provocative notion of “democratizing” ISM, and seeks to assess its prospects, challenges and opportunities. The paper first situates “democracy/democratization” in the context of ISM by proposing two perspectives: the “accessibility” perspective and the “relational-conduct” perspective. Under the accessibility perspective, “democratization” refers to greater accessibility and equitable distribution of ISM opportunities and experiences; whereas under the “relational-conduct” perspective, “democratization” is taken to signify less power asymmetry between key ISM actors, more transparency and accountability on the part of the more powerful actors, and greater autonomy and involvement on the part of the mobile students. By drawing on literature as well as the author’s participant observation in this field, the paper argues that from both perspectives, making ISM more “democratic” entails very challenging, if not pessimistic, prospects. To make meaningful progress would require radical changes to current practices that may go against the vested interests of the more powerful actors in the ISM field. One opportunity resides with international students themselves, who can aim to go beyond their “comfort zones” by acting with more criticality, independence, and autonomy.