Crossing the ‘bridges’ and navigating the ‘learning gaps’: Chinese students learning across two systems in a transnational higher education programme

Research Highlighted

Dr Kun Dai, Peking University, China

Kun Dai, Kelly E. Matthews & Peter Renshaw (2020) Crossing the ‘bridges’ and navigating the ‘learning gaps’: Chinese students learning across two systems in a transnational higher education programmeHigher Education Research & Development, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1713731

Read about Kun’s other publication here.


Chinese universities are actively pursuing cross-border collaborations in the form of transnational higher education (TNHE) programmes. The complexities of designing and implementing programmes that involve internationalisation of the curriculum often reveal gaps between policies and practices (Fischer & Green, 2018). Students in articulation programmes are uniquely positioned to reveal potential cross-system gaps, having shared the lived experiences of learning in such curricular contexts and to inform any programmatic curriculum reform processes. Our study captures the experiences of Chinese students to illuminate how they navigate their learning journeys in a China-Australia articulation programme. To communicate the complexity of learning in modern transnational higher education programmes, we employed activity theory as the theoretical framework to explore cross-cultural contradictions shaping students’ experiences of learning. Assessment, programme rules, teaching strategies, and class and campus settings created contradictions that students had to negotiate as in-between learning spaces. We argue that cross-system contradictions play important roles in transnational higher education programmes. Therefore, instead of seeking to eliminate these contradictions or smooth cross-educational differences, these contradictions should be leveraged as learning opportunities to enrich transnational higher education programmes.


An exploratory qualitative study was adopted to investigate a group of Chinese students’ learning experiences in an articulation programme. We adopted a purposive sampling method to invite students from an undergraduate 2+2 articulation programme (two years in China followed by two years in Australia to complete a degree) with Digital Design as the major to participate in this research. To explore the students’ learning experiences, we used semi-structured individual interviews to collect data. Transcripts were exported into NVivo 11 software for analysis. We employed an iterative cycle of inductive and deductive analysis that involved coding to AT concepts along with emergent themes arising from our reading of the transcripts. We selected extracts from the interviews to offer thick and rich descriptions to illuminate participants’ experiences in their own words.

Findings and Discussion

The experiences of the students in our study provided insight into learning in transnational higher education, which response to the call from Qin and Te (2016) for researchers to capture student voices in cross-system programmes. By using AT, we illuminated cross-system contradictions that students navigated between two activity systems in a single TNHE degree programme where some students saw bridges to cross while others saw only the obstacles of learning gaps. Contradictions emerged among students’ learning goals, their practices, and programme rules within and between two partners. Our findings showed numerous cross-system contradictions that students had to face and navigate, in different ways and with varying degrees of success, during their cross system educational experiences. Assessment modes, teaching strategies, and class and campus settings were the key factors that generated cross-system learning contradictions for students. The differences in these aspects between Chinese and other Western contexts were not surprising, which further affirm several existing findings (Kember, 2016; Tweed & Lehman, 2002). The academic or contextual contradictions we have revealed several issues in operating TNHE as sources for change and development (Engeström, 1999, 2001). Learning through different contradictions in and between two partners will appeal to many students, though not all. For some students, tensions and contradictions motivated them to alter their learning goals and approaches in the cross-system transition (Engeström, 1999).


While we argue that it is essential for policymakers and educators to enhance cross system communications in the process of operating articulation education to improve students’ learning experiences, the intention should not be to diminish cultural differences or assert the dominance of one provider over the other. Instead, curricular planning should prepare students for the richness of global learning that will challenge their cultural assumptions. Learning in this combined setting, students were positioned between the two partners with a complicated sense of agency. Some students navigated the cross-system experiences with ease while others struggled. These multiple responses could help universities, lecturers, and policymakers to strategically design and manage such articulation programmes to enhance the quality of cross-system education under the growing trend of internationalisation of higher education. Prospective studies could investigate how lecturers and policymakers understand cultural and educational differences between different systems and how they might productively use these differences to improve international education cooperation.

Authors’ Bio:

Kun Dai is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow (funded by China International Postdoc Exchange Program) at the Graduate School of Education, Peking University, China. His research focuses on transnational education, intercultural learning and adjustment, and students’ cross-cultural learning experiences. Dr Dai services as an associate editor of the Journal of International Students.

Kelly E Matthews is an Associate Professor in Higher Education in the Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow.

Peter Renshaw is a Professor at the School of Education, the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Professor Renshaw’s research has focused on learning and teaching processes both at school and tertiary level. Professor Renshaw was President and Secretary of Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) and a member of the Executive for over a decade (1991-2002).

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