The history of foreign students: A challenge for immigration history.

Nicolas Manitakis

This presentation is in large part a summary of my thesis entitled “Study migrations in Europe: From the internationalisation of knowledge to the national appropriation of competences. A case study: Greek students in France (1880-1940)”. But here, I would just like to develop a few thoughts which might feed the more general debate scheduled for the end of the afternoon session.


Is the foreign student a migrant, an emigrant or an immigrant, depending on whether we position ourselves on the side of the country of origin or that of the host country? Can the history of foreign students assume its full place within immigration history as the latter has been constituted, notably in France over the past two decades? In fact, the answers to these questions are not as obvious as they might seem. Because of the transient nature of their stay, foreign students are not often perceived as immigrants. As a general rule, only foreigners who come to engage in an economic activity and settle definitively in the host country are so considered. In my view, however, it cannot be denied that foreign students belong to that category of individuals “entering a country which is not their own in order to settle there”, according to the prevailing definition of immigrants. It might be objected that their settlement in the host country turns out to be temporary, but this objection must be discounted for two reasons.
The first is that their stay is not always fleeting: it happens that a portion of these students, which varies depending on their national origin and religion and the immediate historical situation, settle permanently in the country where they have come to study.
The second reason is that even among foreign workers, whose immigrant status cannot be denied, the stay can turn out to be just as temporary—a fact which is often forgotten because historical research in the countries of immigration concentrates on the foreigners who remain rather than those who leave.
It is true, moreover, that the latter have left many fewer traces in the archives. But immigrants cannot be defined in function of the final outcome of their displacement. A more reliable criterion for identifying them seems to me to be the ongoing, deep-rooted relationship which the foreigner establishes with the host society, whether this is localised in the world of working or that of higher education. Such an approach permits a clear distinction between categories of transient foreigners (tourists, businesspersons, etc.). In this sense, we can say that the foreign students clearly belong to the immigrant category. The French authorities themselves have ultimately recognised this reality. Considered temporary residents, foreign students were required to have a student residency card as of 1945. In practice, since the end of the nineteenth century they have been required to legalise their stay by making a declaration of residence at the City Hall or police prefecture and, as of 1917, by obtaining a foreign identity card as “non-workers”. Even during the interwar period, however, French jurists, who distinguished two main categories of foreigners, “immigrants” and “tourists”, continued to classify students among the latter. This situation resulted in the following paradox: foreign students were in practice treated by the administration as immigrants while they were considered, notably by immigration specialists, as tourists. During the 1930s, owing to the impact of the economic crisis and the vast polemic stirred up by the foreign presence in the French higher education system, there was a growing awareness of this contradiction, as witnessed, among others, by the creation of a student visa. Thus, foreigners who informed French consulate personnel of their intention to pursue university-level studies in France were no longer issued a short-term visa (two months) but a long-term one (ten months). This awareness of the stable nature of the students’ stay in France was the point of departure for the clarification provided by the ordinances of June 1945.
In my opinion, the most important contribution that immigration history can make to the history of foreign students would be to draw attention to the profound rupture produced at the end of the nineteenth century in France (and probably in other host countries) via an increasingly sharp separation between nationals and non-nationals. This was to give rise to the obligation for foreigners to legalise their stay with the French administration and, as of the interwar period, their entry as well. As we have seen, students were not exempt from this obligation. The intensification and massification of student migrations in Europe during the same period coincided with a moment of crystallisation in the formation of nation-states, a moment when borders became quite real. Thus, I would argue that historians of foreign students cannot confine themselves to analysing the composition of this population (national and social origin, gender, religion, etc.) or their studies (choice of discipline, educational institution, type of curriculum, etc.) but must also take into consideration questions concerning its legal status and its relationship to the State and the administration of the host country.
To understand the key nature of such issues, it suffices to consider that from the early twentieth century to the present day, in France, a foreigner must legalise his or her stay in order to be admitted to an institution of higher education. Indeed, a 1910 ministerial decision stipulated that, in order to enrol in university, foreigners were required to furnish the administration of the institution of their choice with the acknowledgement of their residency declaration—an obligation which the various foreign student guides continuously reiterated. After the war, which saw the introduction of the foreign identity card, they were first required to obtain a receipt and then to produce the ID card itself in order for their enrolment to be validated definitively.
But foreign students as a subject of research also poses a problem for migration historians, for they do not belong to the habitual categories of foreigners which such researchers have generally dealt with until now, notably salaried or independent workers. Quite often they come from the middle and upper classes of their countries of origin, already have a high level of education and frequently a good knowledge of the language and culture, notably written, of their host country. They live in the very heart of the cities (the Latin Quarter in Paris, for example) and rub shoulders with nationals in the amphitheatres and laboratories. In general, they intermingle with the local population more than other categories of foreigners do. And they often, but not always, have a high rate of return to their country of origin. In all these respects, marked differences distinguish them from workers, until now the subject of predilection for immigration history. As a result, increased research on the subject can only enrich and renew this historical field.

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