Hashtag heroes: using social media to combat intolerance

Hashtag heroes: using social media to combat intolerance

Since the Brexit referendum passed in the UK in the summer of 2016 and the election of Donald Trump in the USA in November 2016, higher education institutions in both nations have launched social media campaigns aimed at welcoming international students. These campaigns spread messages of inclusion across the internet on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

The UK and the USA attract the largest number of international students globally, with the UK hosting close to half a million and the USA hosting over 1 million. However, with recent political events and a growing mood of isolationism, there is speculation that the future attractiveness of these two countries is in jeopardy.
In response, many institutions on both sides of the Atlantic are joining together in two sister campaigns that spread positive and supportive messages about the value of international students via social media.

#WeAreInternational in the UK

After the Brexit vote, the University of Sheffield launched the #WeAreInternational social media campaign. According to the website the campaign was created “…in the spirit of treasuring universities as places of international exchange and mutual respect.”
Over 100 universities and the National Union of Students have joined the movement. The highly organised campaign can be accessed via the #WeAreInternational website, which includes a list of supporters, campaign guidelines, a joint statement from the founders, a digital toolkit, a blog and the clip below.

#YouAreWelcomeHere in the USA

Across the pond, Temple University in Pennsylvania posted one of the first #YouAreWelcomeHere YouTube videos in December 2016. Since then, other universities have joined the campaign, particularly after the Trump administration unveiled its first travel ban in late January 2017.
A Twitter account dedicated to the campaign and its hashtag highlights university initiatives that send welcoming messages to current and prospective international students.

Fears of neo-racism in Academia

National social media campaigns for marketing and recruitment of international students are not new phenomena; in fact they are an oft-used strategy. What is novel about the campaigns in the UK and the USA is that they directly counter a political environment that may not be inviting for international students.
Anti-immigration discourse has a tendency to fuel fear of discrimination and safety concerns among prospective students. Indeed, research finds that international students are at risk of discrimination based on their foreign nationality.
Scholars Lee and Rice coined the term ‘neo-racism’ to explain discrimination that international students may experience in the current global society. [i] They draw from earlier research focused on ‘new racism’: discrimination that’s not solely based on biological race, but on cultural attributes and national origin.[ii] Lee and Rice applied the neo-racism framework to a study investigating the discrimination of international students studying at a university in the USA and found that some challenges international students face were due to their foreign national status.

Implications for international recruitment

This adds a whole new dimension to international marketing and recruitment strategies. One of the ‘pull’ factors that attracts international students to live and study in a foreign country is the perceived safety of that country. Recent headlines in mainstream media such as US fears decline in international students after Trump election and Anxious international students turn away from the UK speculate whether the political environment will impact the flow of international students. Thus, being intentional and responding with a welcoming message might help institutions in the UK and the USA keep the number of international students stable — but only time will tell.

Why worry about this?

And now comes the ‘so what’ question. Why does it matter if universities in the UK and the USA continue to attract international students? First of all, both countries collect tuition fees from international students, hence it is an economic imperative to keep or even grow the number of international students who enrol in their institutions of higher education.
Second, being an international institution brings with it global prestige and an element of quality. Love them or hate them, international league tables perpetuate the idea that the number of international students is a proxy for quality.
Finally, there is the (sometimes taken for granted) core value of higher education which asserts that large numbers of international students add to the rich diversity and inclusiveness of an institution.
Leasa is Knowledge Development Adviser at the EAIE.

[i] Lee J. J. and Rice C. (2007). Welcome to America? Perceptions of neo-racism and discrimination among international students. Higher Education, 53, 381–409.

[ii] Barker, M. (1981). The new racism: Conservatives and the ideology of tribe. London: Junction Books.

Leasa Weimer
EAIE, the NetherlandsLeasa is Senior Adviser for Knowledge Initiatives for the EAIE.