‘Uneven consequences’ of international English-medium-instruction programmes in China: A critical epistemological perspective

Song, Y. (2019). ‘Uneven consequences’ of international English-medium-instruction programmes in China: A critical epistemological perspective. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. doi: 10.1080/01434632.2019.1694525

This study examines international and Chinese students’ epistemic practices in mixed English-Medium-Instruction (EMI) Master’s degree programmes in a top-rate comprehensive university in Shanghai, China. The in-depth student/instructor interviews and ethnographic classroom observation converge to reveal that the EMI curriculum constructs an implicit hegemonic hierarchy among students based on their pre-enrolment possessions of linguistic capital of English and cultural capital concerning Americanized academic norms and discipline-specific knowledge. Given the implicit hegemony, it is also argued that students have developed varied degrees of awareness towards and resorted to strategies of inter-referencing and cultural syncretism in order to negotiate diverse epistemic frames of reference with regards (1) English as an academic lingua franca, (2) the epistemic domination of the Global North, and (3) reimagining China and modernity. Practical and conceptual implications on IHE are proposed based on the analysis.

In recent years, the rapid growth of higher education in Asia diversified the directions of international student mobility. While intra-Asia student mobility remains the main source of international students in Asian universities, the international student composition remains multi-continental, multi-national as well as diverse in individual educational/life trajectories (Song, 2019; Xu & Montgomery, 2018). According to the 2018 statistics of the Institute for International Education, Chinese universities have received 489,200 international students in 2018, ranking the top destination for international students in Asia and the third in the world (IIE, 2018). Chinese higher education systems and international curricula, though subject to substantial influences from the American university models, have specific agenda and rationales to (1) serve the national diplomacy of cultivating talents friendly to China and (2) enhance the international ranking of Chinese universities in order to complete the mission of building world-class universities (Jiani, 2017; Ma & Zhao, 2018). In response to the emergence of East Asia in the global IHE context, the very notion of internationalization also needs to be understood in accordance with the changing ecology (Huang & Marginson, 2018).

As a major strategy to attract international students, English-as-the-medium-of-instruction (EMI) programmes have been increasingly launched by universities in non-Anglophone countries, particularly in Asia (Kuroda, 2014). Research on international EMI programmes in Asia has provided an indispensable lens to understand internationalization (Bedenlier, Kondakci, & Zawacki-Richter, 2018). Current EMI studies in Asia have focused on the English language ideologies inbuilt in the national and institutional policies as well as being held by students enrolled in the EMI programmes (Zhang 2018), quality control over the instructors’ English language proficiency and curriculum design/enactment as measured against students’ expectations (Botha, 2016; Gu & Lee, 2018), and international students’ intercultural experiences and/or cultural adaptation (An & Chiang, 2015; Li, 2015).

Though the dominance of English as the academic lingua franca has been critiqued as linguistic imperialism in relevant literature (Pennycook, 2017; Phillipson, 1992), the impact of global knowledge politics on EMI practices has generally fallen out of the scope of investigation. Hence it remains largely unknown about the dynamics of epistemic exchanges in between agents at multiple dimensions of IHE, particularly in Asian contexts, as structured within the uneven geopolitics of knowledge production. Among critical works on knowledge politics, Chen’s (2010) Asia as Method has drawn critical attention to the political unconscious and intellectual desire to adopt the imagined and reimagined “West” as the exclusive epistemic framework that guides knowledge production in Asia. Epistemic frameworks here refer to structures of knowledge and conceptual schemas that are mobilized to categorize, characterize and valorize social practices as situated within specific politico-economic contexts (Chen 2010, p. 217). Informed by Chen’s (2010) Asia as Method, the present study develops a critical epistemological perspective so as to investigate how various types of power relations centering on various epistemic frameworks co-shape international and Chinese students’ experiences in international EMI programmes in China.

Students have used varied epistemic frameworks to navigate the semi-Americanized academic norms of the EMI programmes under study. Those variations gave way to an implicit hierarchy among students based on their pre-enrolment possessions of linguistic capital of English and cultural capital concerning Americanized academic norms and discipline-specific knowledge. This finding echoes the previous critique on the uncritical adoption of American EMI model as neo-colonial hegemony in Asian and African contexts (Kim, 2012; Leask, 2015). It also suggests that EMI shall not be understood as a sole matter of medium of instruction but rather a whole process of English academic socialization situated within the global-scale neoliberal competition for symbolic and cultural capitals being afforded by English-mediated, Anglophone/Euro-centric knowledge indispensable for students to enhance transnational mobility (Gu & Lee, 2018; Hayes, 2019).

Nevertheless, the implicit hierarchy does not identify with the “double-country oppression” as proposed in Hayes’ (2019) study. While the disciplinary knowledge system in the EMI curricula is grounded predominantly on that produced in the Global North, it has not been taken as the exclusively privileged knowledge in the EMI curricula. The classroom practices, especially the student group discussions and peer sharing sessions, helped to create a space for inter-referencing not only in between a diversity of epistemic perspectives and frameworks within the course subjects but also in between the individual-specific experiential knowledge. Voicing opportunities have been appreciated and even contrasted to their absence in Anglophone universities, which can also be attributed to the students’ critical awareness and desire for both global and local relevance of knowledge rather than blindly reproducing the uneven geopolitics of knowledge (Naidoo, 2016). These classroom practices also helped reject and/or disrupt frequently assumed homogeneity of the international student body and unquestioned dichotomy between the local and international students in definition of ‘internationalization’ as being critiqued in existing literature (Jones, 2017). The EMI classrooms hence have the potentiality to serve as “generative spaces where alternative relationships between knowing and being can emerge and intervene in our lived realities” (Ahenakew, Andreotti, Cooper, & Hireme, 2014, p. 218). Pedagogically, it would also benefit students if critical literacy could be included in the curriculum design and used to guide classroom practices, particularly critical meta-analysis of the historical development of varied discipline-specific perspectives as well as the strengths and constraints of each theoretical traditions and methods (Stein, Andreotti & Suša, 2019; Stein, 2017).

More importantly, the present study supports that conducting critical IHE studies in non-Anglophone and non-Western-European contexts help modify and expand the conceptualization of ‘internationalization’ (Bedenlier, Kondakci & Zawacki-Richter, 2018). The significance resides not much in the diversification of research contexts as in the lived experiences and related self-reflection afforded by varied historical-spatial manifestations of modernity in the era of globalization (Mignolo, 2011). Instead of assuming the naturalized acceptance of the modernity in the singular among international students, a nuanced analysis of students’ lived experience shows that media consumption practices and interpersonal interactions outside the classroom play important roles in shaping students’ understanding of the diversity of modernity in connection with their experiences and knowledge prior to joining the EMI programmes in China, particularly for those students from other Asian and Latin American countries.

Sharing the critical IHE agenda to de-depoliticize and historicize internationalization (Buckner & Stein, 2019), the present study suggests that internationalization needs to be understood as a multi-dimensional dynamic network co-shaped by national, institutional and individual agents within specific socio-historical spaces of globalization, where the individual students’ historical bodies and ongoing lived experiences in and out of the classroom are also actively engaged in shaping ‘alternative’ internationalization. Even though the international, national and institutional policies play significant roles in shaping EMI programmes worldwide while being substantially structured by the unequal geopolitics of knowledge production, the dynamics of interpersonal epistemic exchanges provide dialogic spaces for students and instructors to take bottom-up initiatives to empower previously unacknowledged ‘voices’ and to break away from the centre-periphery structure that hinders advancement of social imaginaries about modernity in the plural.

Author Bio

YANG SONG is currently an assistant professor at the Department of English Language and Literature, Fudan University, Shanghai. Her research focuses on English as a medium of instruction in the context of internationalization of higher education in China, students’ identity formation in relation to their lived experiences of interculturality, multilingual linguistic landscapes in urban China, and digital literacies involved in the teaching and learning of online journalism. Her publications appear in international peer-reviewed journals, such as Journalism, English Today, Multilingua, and Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Email: songyang@fudan.edu.cn.

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