Human capital

The presence of international students often goes by unnoticed by the majority of Belgian students. Something international students have in common with other, less fortunate immigrants. On the other hand, studenst from all over the world are more than welcome whereas other immigrants have to fight for their stay. To address this issue: a letter to our international students.

Dear international student,

For some of you, the adventure of studying in the capital of Europe slowly but surely is coming to an end. For most of the Belgian students, your time at our university went by unnoticed. I guess international students always remain somewhat of an invisible group, although arriving in increasing numbers from all over the world, in particular from crisis-stricken southern Europe.

As you are on your way out, I was wondering if you were aware of the peculiar position you hold in our society. Although analyzing Belgian politics either gives you an instant attack of migraine, or causes hilarity among you and your fellow-students. However, no matter how complex our institutions, if you strolled through our streets with the slightest bit of interest regarding our society, you should have frequently stumbled upon what we like to refer to as ‘the fourth world’: i.e. the don’t haves in a country that seems to have about everything. As an international student, you have at least one thing in common with the impoverished that hide behind the grim facades of overcrowded houses: more than too often they remain invisible to native Belgians and policymakers as well. And if I may generalize, I could add that while international students are by definition foreigners, the poverty of the urban poor has increasingly become synonymous to the inhabitants of neighborhoods with an exotic appearance, to use a euphemism.

Anyway, my point is to confront you with the exact opposite of your similarities: in stark contrast to our impoverished of foreign ethnicity, there seems to be a broad consensus to welcome international students with open arms; with the exception of students from the Netherlands, Germany or France who wish to complete a full 4-year course, of course. They are commonly seen as profiteers or economical refugees. But concerning those of you who are here for a three or nine month period, there is no ongoing public debate about the legitimacy of your presence in our country. Except for a handful of ridiculed nativists, no one seems to be fundamentally questioning it. Although your studies cost a considerable amount of tax-payer’s money on the European level as well as on the level of the national governments, there is an unseen general preparedness to do so. This is all the more noteworthy given the current financial and economic crisis that gave rise to the kind of liberal nationalism or nationalist liberalism that’s focused around the mantra of ‘our money, our wealth.’ But apparently, the only way in which we are sincerely prepared to show our solidarity within a European or global framework, is to grant you the privilege of enjoying the fruits of our education system. So far the European, let alone the global thought.

But let there be no mistake, our willingness and contribution to your education is a two-sided coin. First of all, even if public opinion would side against international students (most likely supported by arguments over the price tag) or the sensitive fact that most of you study in English and thus speak neither Dutch nor French, we would be more or less powerless in our attempts to avert you. Secondly, the truth is we desperately need some of you to fill up the existing shortages in certain segments of our labor market, chiefly engineers. The decision prior to your admission, was based on considerations of long-term economic advantages an investment for the future of our nation’s wealth.

If it weren’t for the hope that the investment would eventually pay itself off and if it weren’t for your plausible future contribution to our economy, certain tendencies within the public opinion would without a doubt stigmatize you as just another one of those ‘fortune-hunters, adventurers and pariahs in a land of milk and honey, sucking on the tit of our nourishing welfare-state.’ The explicit goal of the current Belgian government is to attract more highly schooled and highly trained immigrants who can deliver a substantial added value to our society and economy, without us needing to invest too much time and money in their training. As an international student, you are a cornerstone of this policy. This discourse of active migration goes at the cost of those who, because of their socio-economical background and lack of higher education, are simply unable to present what’s asked from them. They have nothing, thus nothing to offer. As stated earlier, they remain invisible or hide in invisibility as illegal immigrants out of fear for deportation.

To put it bluntly, you are nothing but human capital.

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