Testing elite transnational education pathways and contesting orders of worth in the face of a pandemic

This paper considers the COVID-19 pandemic as a test that has disrupted the flow of a particular type of social and physical mobility. It takes pathways embarked by students from Asian countries to “prestigious” Anglophone universities as its focal point of analysis, considering how the rituals and symbolism around attending elite institutions are evolving while universities go virtual or as students are prevented from traveling to their university’s country destination. Building theoretically on the sociology of critical capacity and sociology of testing, I analyse institutional responses — at the peak of the outbreak — from four elite universities in the US and the UK that have hosted large numbers of Asian students in past decades. The paper focuses on how these universities responded to international students under conditions of incredible uncertainty, examining how they justify their role, purpose and operations, while canvassing for continued support from this student segment. The findings highlight contesting orders of worth between states and institutions, as clashes between market, civic and domestic regimes exert significant pressures on organisational efforts to coordinate and cope during this critical moment, thereby raising questions about how prevailing logics of elite transnational education are being altered in the face of a pandemic.

Rebecca Ye is a sociologist of education and work. Her research takes place at the intersection of education and labour markets, and pays special attention to vocations, trajectories and temporality. In recent years, her research projects have examined elite institutions, higher vocational education, and transnational education strategies. Rebecca is presently Assistant Professor at the Department of Education, Stockholm University, where she teaches on the International and Comparative Education Masters programme and supervises postgraduate students in their thesis work. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences, and serves on the editorial and advisory boards of the International Studies in Sociology of Education and the Forum for Asian Studies (Stockholm University).