‘Non-traditional’ International Mainland Chinese Students in the UK: An Exploratory Study of Factors Influencing Their Choice of International Higher Education


Zhe Wang Picture


Doctoral Student

University of Oxford


Nowadays, there is an emerging group of self-funded Chinese international students from non-elite families in mainland China. Their emergence breaks the traditional concepts about Chinese (mainland) international students. This study aims to understand the factors that influence the choice of postgraduate education in the UK. Through a narrative analysis of eight ‘non- traditional’ Chinese international postgraduates in the UK, this study suggests Bourdieu’s theory can help understand the educational choices of this group. Through this qualitative study of the emerging group at a UK university, this study provides a critical perspective, suggesting these students are comprised of individuals from different social backgrounds. For some of them, their choice of international higher education (IHE) can be regarded as a result of their habitus, while for others, their choice of IHE is a result of their agency to accumulate certain forms of capital in the field of IHE. Both choices in turn reproduce social inequalities.





This report is based on my Master’s thesis, aiming to understand the choice of international higher education in the UK by the ‘non-traditional’ Chinese International students. As the significant contributors, the emerging groups of ‘non-traditional’ attracts the attention of many circles. The Wall Street Journal stated that: “as the number of foreign students surges … up more than 40% … are coming from middle-class backgrounds” (Chen, 2016)[1], and the investment of high-cost IHE is not an easy decision for them. Apart from the term ‘middle class’, other terms such as ‘middle income’ or ‘wage-earning class’ are used to characterise this group. The idea of ‘middle class’, however, is a controversial concept in the literature of China’s class studies. Then, instead of arbitrarily define participants as students from middle-class or middle-income families, I chose the term ‘non-traditional’ students to describe my participants. So, the research questions in my study are who ‘non-traditional students’ are and why there are more and more ‘non-traditional’ students going abroad to study. More specifically, this study aims to explore the factors influencing ‘non-traditional’ Chinese international students who choose postgraduate in the UK.


This study invites Bourdieu’s practice theory as the theoretical framework to understand educational choices of international students. It is found that the choice of IHE as practices structured by habitus, and practices generated from agency illustrates the dialectical relationship between structure and agency. From eight participants’ narratives, it was found that influencing factors vary according to social background.


A qualitative method was employed to answer the research question and address a gap in the knowledge. By using semi-structured interviews, rich data were found in the narratives. Narrative analysis was used as the data-analysis method to help analyse participants’ stories and understand how they make sense of stories.


There are five major findings in this study. Firstly, participants come from different middle classes, including old middle class, new middle class and first generation of middle class. Secondly, there are divergences in attitudes towards international higher education and ‘highly secure’ jobs. Thirdly, the choice of international higher education as practices is structured by habitus, and this choice in turn structures the field and intensifies a new rule of game as collective practices. Fourthly, social actors can actively accumulate forms of capital to gain social positions in the field with their choice of international higher education. Finally, Chinese postgraduate education is an abandoned field by participants in the new games. When these findings are related to the existing literature, it can be found that international cultural capital is regarded as a collectively accepted mode of convertibility among forms of capital. Meanwhile, as more students choose IHE, this cultural capital is conditioned by social institutions. This further explains the ambiguous attitudes towards IHE. Moreover, the fact that Chinese postgraduate education is replaced by international postgraduate education as a way to reproduce and produce social inequalities is a global phenomenon. Middle- classes’ choice of cross-national social reproduction confirms their social positions in the field. Based on cross-nationally reproduced inequalities, intra-national inequalities are more difficult to reduce. Another implication is that, although today’s scholars think China’s middle classes haven not formed a class consciousness, this study suggests that they have. By practicing collectively believed rules, their identity as being from the middle- classes are forming with status prestige, even though great intra-class differences and conflicts exist.



[1]Chen, T.-P.J., Miriam 2016. Why So Many Chinese Students Come to the U.S. [Online]. WSJ. Available from: http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-so-many-chinese-students-come-to- the-u-s-1462123552 [Accessed 29 August 2016].


Author Bio

Zhe Wang is a first year DPhil student at the University of Oxford. Her research interest includes transnational education mobilities, and international higher education, (im)mobility and citizenship. Holding a Master of Research degree in Education and a Master of Art degree in Linguistics, she is now studying in the school of Geography and the Environment. Her study experience makes interdisciplinary research be of fundamental importance to her both in terms of theory and research method. Drawing insights deriving from postcolonialism, postmodernism, and human geography, now she is doing a study on the choices of landing cities of Chinese overseas student-returnees. She can be contacted at zhe.wang@sant.ox.ac.uk


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