State-mediated Brokerage System in China’s Self-funded Study Abroad Market

Lan, S. (2018). State-mediated Brokerage System in China’s Self-funded Study Abroad Market. International Migration. doi:10.1111/imig.12515


Dr Shanshan Lan, University of Amsterdam


The thriving of China’s self-funded study abroad market is marked by the tremendous increase of students who use the services of educational intermediaries to facilitate their transnational journeys. This is largely due to the marketization of China’s higher educational system and the liberalization of state policy towards commercialized brokerage services. Based on multisited fieldwork in China and Italy, this paper examines the intersections between the regulatory, the commercial, and the social dimensions of the educational migration infrastructure in China. It identifies a tension between the neoliberal ideas of individual autonomy and freedom, which are promoted by the state and private intermediaries, and the self-perpetuating nature of the educational migration infrastructure, which facilitates and constrains different groups of
parents’ and students’ desire for international education.


Ping is a middle-aged woman whom I met in summer 2015, when she accompanied her 16-year old daughter Maggie to attend a mock SAT exam held on a university campus in Jinan.1 Like the majority of my informants, Ping identifies herself as middle-class, that is the middle stratum of Chinese society. Ping and her husband are both state employees in the railway sector and both have college degrees. Although Maggie is still in her first year of high school, she has already taken the TOFEL exam twice. Ping explained her obsession with Maggie’s education: “Since this is our only child, we want to provide her the best education we can afford. Now she is performing OK in school, but we know that she won’t be able to attend an elite university in China. In China your exam score determines what major you can choose. We want to send her abroad so that she can attend a better university and choose a major based on her interest.” Ping told me that she has been following the advice of a study abroad agent, Esther, to prepare for Maggie’s eventual entry to an elite university in the United States. After the mock SAT, Ping would travel with Maggie to Shanghai to attend a six-week intensive English training course hosted by a renowned English language centre. The total cost of the trip, tuition plus food and lodging, would be around 50,000RMB. Meanwhile, since Maggie wants to major in industrial design, Esther suggested she should attend the summer school of the Chicago Art Institute next year. She convinced Ping that this pre-college overseas study trip is an important investment for Maggie’s future application for universities in the US, because it will distinguish her from other applicants from China.

Ping is just one among many middle-class Chinese parents who invest extravagantly in their children’s dreams to study abroad. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, about 544,500 students left China in 2016 to study abroad and 91.49 per cent of them were self-funded. In 2014, the estimated value of China’s study abroad market already reached 200 billion RMB (Er, 2014). While these statistics reflect the flourishing of the education-migration industry in China, they fail to account for the anxieties, hopes, confusions and determinations experienced by Chinese parents and children in their daily life interactions with educational intermediaries from both the state and non-state sectors. With the marketization of China’s higher educational system and the commercialization of international student migration, studying abroad is often framed in popular Chinese media as a special type of educational consumption and a matter of personal choice. This article contends that recent transnational student migration from China is in fact largely facilitated and structured by the state. The diversification of brokerage services in China’s self-funded study abroad market reflects the state’s deliberate efforts to relax its control over transnational student mobility in order to relieve the problem of uneven distribution of educational resources in the country. However, state attempt to liberalize the study abroad market ends up perpetuating social inequalities due to its tacit endorsement of neoliberal ethos such as self-responsibility and self-improvement.

Due to its highly commercialized nature, educational brokerage in China starts to bear some features of international labour brokerage in regard to transnational collaborations between multiple agents and the development of complicated agent chains (Xiang, 2012). The existence of agent-chains functions to maximize profits because  it broadens the scope of student recruitment for all agents, since they can always channel students who fall outside their service range to other agents. As collaborations between agents in China intensified, some intermediaries often group the application files of all students who apply for the same university together and send them to the Italian embassy in one package. The downside of this practice is that it may significantly increase the waiting time for students whose application materials have to go through multiple agents. The profit-driven nature of commercialized intermediary practices also prompted some agents to make presumptuous promises to parents such as guaranteed admission to an overseas university and full refund in case of failed applications. In order to fulfil these promises, some agents had to resort to unethical practices such as providing falsified information concerning the student’s language skills, social activities and personal talents. One of the negative consequences is that some students who got admitted by overseas universities had to drop due to their inability to follow the curriculum. In Jinan, I encountered several Chinese students attending universities in the United States, who had to switch majors or change universities after realizing that agents’ advice did not serve their best interests.

The Chinese case study has important policy implications since much of the social inequalities in China’s higher educational system can be attributed to the uneven distribution of educational resources by the state. Reforms in China’s educational system should focus on democratic sharing of educational resources, and the cultivation of  independent thinking and problem-solving capacities among Chinese students. This will prepare them to handle the many challenges of studying abroad and also decrease their dependence on commercialized agents. To protect the interests of student migrants, the state needs to play a more active role in the professionalization of educational brokerage services. To the extent that agents can persuade parents to buy expensive training courses in preparation for elite university application, and to influence student’s  choice of study majors and universities, unethical intermediary practices can be detrimental to the future development of student migrants. This problem has already been manifested by recent examples of Chinese students being expelled from US schools due to low grades, academic dishonesty and breaking rules (Zuo, 2015). From the receiving  country’s perspective, host universities should advertise their services for international students more aggressively in China, instead of depending on recruitment agents. Once students learn that many of the overseas services provided by intermediaries in China can be freely obtained from the host universities’ international office, they are less likely to purchase expensive service packages from study abroad agents. This may help them to avoid some of the pitfalls in educational consumption covered in this article.

Author Bio

Shanshan Lan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests include urban anthropology, migration and mobility regimes, comparative racial formations in Asia and Euro-America, transnational student mobility,  African diaspora in China, Chinese diaspora in the United States, and class and social transformations in Chinese society. Lan is the Principal Investigator of the ERC project “The reconfiguration of whiteness in China: Privileges, precariousness, and racialized performances” (CHINAWHITE, 2019-2024). For more information, please see

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