Conceptualizing the discourse of student mobility between “periphery” and “semi-periphery”: the case of Africa and China

Mr Ben Mulvey, Education University of Hong Kong

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Research Highlighted:

Mulvey, B. (2020). Conceptualizing the discourse of student mobility between “periphery” and “semi-periphery”: the case of Africa and China. Higher Education. doi:10.1007/s10734-020-00549-8

The aim of this article is to supplement current understandings of international student mobility to China. China hosted nearly half a million international students in 2018 (MOE, 2019). African students constitute the second largest regional group – 81,562 studied in China in 2018. The growth of China as a destination for international students is a relatively recent phenomenon, and as such, a large part of research on international student mobility examines the phenomenon of students moving from East Asia to Anglophone Western nations. Some of this literature has adopted a postcolonial lens to understand the nature of this form of migration. However, less attention has been paid to other student flows, including students moving from sub-Saharan Africa to East Asia, and as a result, the explanatory power of existing postcolonial approaches to international student mobility is limited, given that the literature tends to adopt a binary of “Western” and “non-Western”.

The starting point for the analysis is the premise that globalised higher education is inherently unequal. For example, Altbach (2007) makes the distinction between powerful university systems in the global core, such as the USA, and those in the periphery. He argues that centre-periphery relations between university systems resemble neo-colonial domination. One outcome of this article was to extend and adapt Altbach’s arguments by drawing on the concept of semi-peripheral (post)coloniality (e.g. Ginelli, 2018) to analyse how structural forces shape the nature of educational mobility between the periphery and semi-periphery, and to refine current postcolonial theorising around student mobilities in the light of non-Western destination countries such as China. I argue in the article that this concept, combining insights from world system theory with postcolonial theory, adds nuance to current postcolonial conceptualisations of student mobility, and also aids in understanding China’s position, which defined by both subordination (by the global core) and superiority (over the periphery).

Postcolonial theory is somewhat limited in terms of its ability to explain China’s position, in that it tends to reproduce a dichotomy of centre and periphery, or of West and non-West. As such, the concept of semi-peripheral (post)coloniality is put forward as a means of explaining how this ambivalence manifests in student mobility discourse. Ginelli (2018) outlines that the concept expresses how the long-term ideological and structural positions (positions within the world-system) can lead to the (re)production of colonial relations and colonial discourse. Countries within the semi-periphery are relatively well connected to the global centre but in some ways remain subjugated to it. They normally do not have colonies, but are perceived to have civilizational superiority over the global periphery. These countries have a strong urge to “develop”, “catch-up” with and imitate the global core, and share the same sense of responsibility for the modernisation of the periphery (Ginelli, 2018).

The analysis provides an overview of the global context within which the strategies of globally mobile African students are embedded, and argues that this structural context results in asymmetrical patterns of knowledge exchange, drawing on a core-periphery model of university systems. I argue that ambivalent position of China in relation to Africa, of solidarity and also of civilizational superiority, is expressed in recent discourse around higher education scholarships. There are two examples of where this kind of discourse occurs. The first is in the presentation of international students as recipients of ‘charity’ in the form of scholarships mirrors the historical relationship between the core and periphery, rather than challenging it. Non-western students are at times framed as recipients of development aid, which is benevolently granted by Western countries, so that peripheral countries can “catch-up” on the linear and universal path of “progress”  (Stein and Andreotti, 2016). Therefore, China’s higher education scholarships to African students, presented as ‘win-win’ and on equal terms actually further the asymmetric internationalization of higher education which Ivancheva (2019) argues is an example of semi-peripheral (post)colonialism (Ginelli, 2018). Ginelli explains the ambiguous position of the semi-peripheral world in relation to the postcolonial periphery, arguing that instead of challenging eurocentrism, Eastern European countries, through unequal exchanges, actually embraced this eurocentrism and undermined their own anti-imperialist position.

The second example comes from the “soft power” rationale which underpins China’s recruitment of African international students, and reproduces colonial discourse in a number of ways. This rationale seems to imply that knowledge should be largely flow in only one direction. That is to say, the student should learn about the host’s culture, and take this knowledge back to their respective home country, rather than the student being a source of knowledge for the host. In the case of China, as with student mobility between the West and other regions, discourse implies that the flow of knowledge is one-way: the implication is that international students have nothing to offer their hosts. Moreover, soft power as a rationale for international student recruitment has its roots in colonialism – as Lomer (2017, p. 590) notes, students from Britain’s colonies were given scholarships with the assumption that higher education was a means to “guide the thoughts” of colonial subjects. This logic appears to be mirrored in the assertion that African students in China should be future leaders. In addition to this, implicit in the rationale is an assumption that students will naturally develop positive attitudes towards their host country and its social and political conditions (Lomer, 2017). This appears to be true of China’s attempts to be true of China’s rationale for recruiting international students: That students would return home and choose to “spread China’s voice” is taken for granted – implying that exposure to China through study abroad would be enough to cause students to firstly develop positive opinions towards China and secondly, choose to act on this positive disposition after graduation. As Tian and Lowe (2018) state with regard assumptions contained within China’s public diplomacy efforts “it would be cultural arrogance to assume that ‘success’ is assured simply as a consequence of exposure to Chinese society and culture” (2018, pp. 242-243).


Altbach, P. G. (2007). Globalization and the University: Realities in an Unequal World. In J. J. F. Forest & P. G. Altbach (Eds.), International Handbook of Higher Education (pp. 121–139). Springer Netherlands.

Ginelli, Z. (2018, May). Hungarian Experts in Nkrumah’s Ghana. Mezosfera.Org. Retrieved from

Ivancheva, M. (2019). Paternalistic internationalism and (de)colonial practices of Cold War higher education exchange: Bulgaria’s connections with Cuba and Angola. Journal of Labor and Society, 22(4), 733–748.

Lomer, S. (2017). Soft power as a policy rationale for international education in the UK: A critical analysis. Higher Education, 74(4), 581–598.

Ministry of Education (MOE) (2019). 2018来华统计 [Concise Statistics on International Students Studying in China in 2018]. 教育部国际合作与交流司 [Department of International Exchange and Cooperation of the Ministry of Education].

Stein, S., & de Andreotti, V. O. (2016). Cash, competition, or charity: International students and the global imaginary. Higher Education, 72(2), 225–239.

Tian, M., & Lowe, J. (2018). International Student Recruitment as an Exercise in Soft Power: A Case Study of Undergraduate Medical Students at a Chinese University. In F. Dervin, X. Du, & A. Härkönen (Eds.), International Students in China (pp. 221–248). Springer International Publishing.

Author bio

Ben Mulvey is a PhD candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong and visiting research student at University College London Department of Geography. Ben’s research focuses on sub-Saharan African students in China, and what this student flow can reveal about China’s attempts to (re)shape the global “field” of higher education. He can be contacted via the following email address:

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