In what they say is the first experiment to investigate the effect of ‘symbolic capital’ on international mobility, the team sent fictitious applications for doctoral supervision to 399 sociology professors across Germany.
“We wanted to measure how important the symbolic capital countries and universities have for international mobility”
With most details kept constant, including gender, the researchers varied only one element of the applications: the country and university of the student.
Applications from candidates claiming to be from the US or from a higher-ranking university were more likely to receive positive feedback, results showed.
“We know a lot about global inequality in terms of economic and political inequality, but we know very little about global inequality in the academic system,” lead author Dr Jürgen Gerhards told The PIE News.
“We wanted to measure how important the symbolic capital countries and universities have for international mobility.”
The researchers chose four universities: Yale and Pennsylvania State University in the US, the National University of Singapore and Vietnam National University.
Out of 199 applications from the two US universities, 47% received a positive response, compared to 29% of the applications from two Asian Universities.
The differences were especially significant between Yale and the two Asian Universities . Yale University scored the highest, with 51% of positive responses.
Even students who got a positive feedback were treated differently according to their origin, Gerhards told The PIE, with those from the US receiving more detailed and informative responses.
Gerhards also added that the team were surprised to see that NU Singapore, a highly-ranking university, didn’t elicit more positive responses.
“The symbolic capital associated with the country’s higher education system is more relevant than an individual university’s reputation, which, in turn, is more important than a department’s scholarly quality,” the study warns.
But discrimination based an entire country’s scientific reputation can claim “the lowest degree of legitimacy” as a proxy for a candidate’s academic ability, the researchers argue.
According to the study, results point to the emergence of a “global academic caste system” with elite universities in core countries such as the USA or the UK.
But students from countries and universities at the periphery can have a hard time accessing the core of the global academic system.
“Those who lived, studied and worked abroad can be both more open-minded and better-informed about the higher education system in other countries”
It’s fair to say that international mobility is not inclusive yet, Gerhards said.
“It makes a huge difference whether a student comes from a more peripheral country or a more unknown university, compared to a country which is considered to be at the centre of the global system,” he said.
However, an international education experience may be able to shift attitudes in academia.
Results show that 50% of the professors who were born or studied abroad answered positively. The same was true only of 29% of professors born in Germany and 35% of those who studied only in Germany.
“Those who lived, studied and worked abroad can be both more open-minded and better-informed about the higher education system in other countries,” commented Gerhards.