Educating China on the Move: A Typology of Contemporary Chinese Higher Education Mobilities

Listen to an earlier version of this paper presented at the Sociological Review Foundation sponsored seminar held at King’s College London in November 2017.

Xu, C. L., & Montgomery, C. (2018). Educating China on the Move: A Typology of Contemporary Chinese Higher Education Mobilities. Review of Education, 1-30. doi:   Context and implications document

Dr Lingling XU (Cora)

Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University


The landscape of global higher education is changing rapidly in response to and alongside the geopolitical and geosocial global transformations, with China and East Asia becoming key players in higher education. As China’s economic power and strategic reach grows against a context of global uncertainty, it has become increasingly important to develop a nuanced understanding of Chinese globalisation, not least for its significance to the balance of power relations within and beyond Asia. Higher education provides a powerful lens through which to see how China is globalising and how this might impact on the world. This is manifested in its many established and newer forms of education mobilities. Recognising the lack of research efforts to systematically understand the complexities of contemporary higher education mobilities across China, this paper proposes a typology through a thematic narrative review of more than 250 peer-reviewed journal articles, government and media documents. This typology of Chinese higher education mobilities reveals three key insights, including (1) a critique on the ‘mobility imperative’ and the role of the Chinese state, (2) a call for more longitudinal and/or retrospective research to facilitate a relational understanding of the fluid nature of higher education mobilities in China, and (3) a note on the urgency of developing a
comprehensive theoretical and conceptual tool kit. This article contributes to an updated understanding of the fluid, multiple and multi-directional nature of contemporary higher education mobilities of China.


Amid the fast-changing and highly mobile global higher education scene, Chinese higher education developments over the past decades have shown notable potential to challenge the traditional dominance of Western countries. To grasp the latest trends of higher education mobilities to, from, in and related to China, this article proposes a typology that encompasses nine prototypes of student, academic and institution mobilities. This typology is based on a systematic, narrative thematic review of more than 250 peer-reviewed journal articles, government and media documents, most of which published between 2010 and 2018. The purpose of this is twofold: firstly, to understand how movement of higher education is changing and developing around this important global power and secondly, to draw out implications for the rest of the world. The main implications of the article relate to the development of a nuanced picture of how education mobility is intertwined with complex social, cultural and geographic inequalities. It brings to the fore the significance of considering external higher education mobilities in conjunction with internal forms, emphasising the importance of recognising the dynamic, multiple and multi-directional nature of mobility and noting that education mobilities can be complex, circular or part of a ‘mobility chain’ effect where one sort of mobility can lead to another. This contribution is important not only in the context of China but in other emergent economies such as Mexico, South Africa and India.

Typology of Chinese Ed Mobilities_Xu and MontgomerySource: Xu and Montgomery (2018, p. 6)

Implications for Policy

The research underpinning this article demonstrates that there are changing patterns of educational mobility globally and China can be seen as being at the nexus of some of these changes. The article may have the following implications for policy

  1. The article’s detailed and nuanced analysis of higher educations mobilities to, from, in and related to China could influence ‘Western’ higher education institutions’ policy decisions around engagement with Chinese higher education institutions.
  2. One of the main contributions of this paper is its extensive literature review which focuses predominantly on constructing a non-western perspective by giving precedence to East Asian researchers and authors. As a result of this, the article could be influential in changing higher education policymakers’ western-centric views on China’s higher education mobilities.
  3. One of the article’s main contributions is a discussion of the rural and urban divide in China and how this relates to educational mobilities. A number of large emergent economies such as India and South Africa face challenges in socio-cultural and socio-economic divisions between rural and urban populations and this article could inform governments’ understandings of the relationships between these disparities and higher education mobility.
  4. The idea of mobility is frequently associated with social improvement and is sometimes seen as a panacea for social and cultural inequalities. The paper presents a critique of the ‘mobility imperative’, questioning the premise that mobility is necessary for social change. This could inform policy of governments and also NGOs working with marginalised communities.

Useful links

ScienceNet. (2017, 1 March). Ministry of Education Releases 2016 Statistics for Outgoing and Incoming Education in China [教育部发布2016 年出国留学和来华留学], Retrieved from

THES (2018). China could overtake US on research impact by mid-2020s. . Accessed 13/07/18.


Authors recommend

Forsey, M. (2017). Education in a mobile modernity. Geographical Research, 55(1), 58-69.

Gao, X. (2014). “Floating elites”: Interpreting mainland Chinese undergraduates’ graduation plans in Hong Kong. Asia Pacific Education Review, 15(2), 223-235.

Gu, Q., & Schweisfurth, M. (2015b). Transnational flows of students: In whose interest? For whose benefit? In S. McGrath & Q. Gu (Eds.), Routledge handbook of international education and development (pp. 359-372) (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge).

Hannam, K., Sheller, M., & Urry, J. (2006). Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings. Mobilities, 1(1), 1-22. doi: 10.1080/17450100500489189

Hansen, A. S., & Thøgersen, S. (2015). The anthropology of Chinese transnational educational migration. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 44(3), 3-14.

Hayhoe, R., & Liu, J. (2010). China’s universities, cross-border education, and dialogue among civilizations. In D. W. Chapman, W. K. Cummings & G. A. Postiglione (Eds.), Crossing borders in East Asian higher education (pp. 77–100) (Hong Kong: Springer).

Leung, M. W. H. (2013). ‘Read ten thousand books, walk ten thousand miles’: geographical mobility and capital accumulation among Chinese scholars. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38(2), 311-324. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00526.

Author’s short bio

Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD, Cambridge, FHEA) is Assistant Professor at Durham University, UK. She is an editorial board member of British Journal of Sociology of Education, Cambridge Journal of Education and International Studies in Sociology of Education. In 2017, Cora founded the Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. Cora has published in international peer-reviewed journals, including British Journal of Sociology of Education, The Sociological Review, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Review of Education, European Educational Research Journal and Journal of Current Chinese Affairs. Her research interests include Bourdieu’s theory of practice, sociology of time, rural-urban inequalities, ethnicity, education mobilities and inequalities and China studies. She can be reached at, and via Twitter @CoraLinglingXu.

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