Interview with Ben Mulvey: International student mobility between Africa and China

Listen to Episode 4: Interview with Ben Mulvey

Read summaries of Ben’s articles here and here.

Photo by Mark Neal from Pexels

NRCEM: Can you briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Ben Mulvey, I’m a PhD Candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong, which is quite a small university – it used to be the Hong Kong Institute of Education but they changed the name. My PhD project is on international students in China from Africa, and broadly, I’m interested in international student mobility as a means of social-class reproduction, and in applying postcolonial theory to south-south international student mobility. I’m also working on another project to do with differences between how those from working and middle-class backgrounds in the UK access internships.

NRCEM: Can you tell us what motivated you to conduct this piece of research on international student mobility between Africa and China?

Originally I was doing my master’s degree in International Development, and had just come back from living in China for a year. I noticed that the course was quite focused on Western aid to other regions. But having spent some time living in China, I was interested in China’s aid to other regions such as Africa, and thought it hadn’t really been covered. I also was living in Wuhan in China, and there’s a lot of big universities there, so I had come across a lot of students from Africa on scholarships. So I originally thought those scholarships would be an interesting thing to look at, and wrote my master’s dissertation on that topic. So that’s where my motivation came from.

NRCEM: What are the key findings/messages of your recent articles in Higher Education Policy and Higher Education?

The first one, in Higher Education Policy, was just a little project. I just looked at the motivations, experiences and post-graduation trajectories of a small group of students from Uganda, and wanted to find out, based on what we know about ‘soft power’, whether the recruitment of international students was ‘working’ from the perspective of the Chinese government. The students I interviewed had quite mixed views really. On one hand they felt socially alienated and were sometimes discriminated against, and obviously this works against soft power. They were also quite sceptical about China’s involvement in their home country through business and bilateral relations. However, ultimately they all had continued ties to China and were able to leverage their educational experience there to their advantage when they returned to Uganda. I argued that overall, the assumptions underpinning the ‘soft power’ rationale for student recruitment are flawed, because students aren’t as predictable and passive the rationale would assume, and basically it’s quite hard to predict what they will think or do in relation to China. That also applies to other countries like the UK that have this rationale for recruiting students.

The second one was more of a theoretical article. I had been looking at the way African students and their home countries are represented in Chinese policy documents. I introduced the concept of semi-peripheral (post)coloniality, for the reason that I am interested in postcolonial theory generally, but I think that China’s position in relation to Africa is quite hard to explain using just postcolonial theory, especially in recent years as it has become more powerful and influential in relation to other countries in the Global South.

The concept basically expresses how the long-term structural and ideological positions of countries are reflected in discourse. So I argued that China’s discourse is defined both by its position of subordination to the core of developed Western countries, and also of its own perceived civilizational superiority over the periphery. The discourse around China’s recruitment of African students reflects that ambiguous position, because there are two narratives present – one of anti-imperialist solidarity and an ethical aid policy, but also one of paternalism and with a sense of civilizational superiority over African countries, which actually reproduces the discourse that is present in the West and used towards China and other countries in the Global South.

NRCEM: While conducting this research, was there any interesting anecdote that you can share?

My fieldwork for my PhD ran into some difficulties. I had a couple of friends in Wuhan who were studying there, so I had been planning to make that the starting point of my fieldwork. I was planning to visit Wuhan for about three weeks, just before Chinese new year. I was about to book my flights just as the situation with Coronavirus was becoming clear there. My friend suggested that I don’t book the flights just in case, and then the same day, the whole city was locked down with no-one allowed to leave. So I dodged a bullet there. But it has affected my fieldwork quite a lot. So far I’ve been able to do interviews with some current students over Skype, thanks to the help of some really kind people in Wuhan and also Jinhua in Zhejiang and a couple of other places, who have helped me to find potential interviewees. So I’ve actually been quite lucky that I’ve been able to carry on with my work throughout this whole time.

NRCEM: Many of our members are interested in the publication process, can you share how you went about writing these articles as a PhD student? What were the highlights/challenges of getting these articles published?

It was quite time consuming getting those two articles published. The first article was just something I wrote while I was doing research methods classes, before I really started properly with my thesis. But the approach I am taking with my thesis is to make each chapter kind of self-contained, so that it could with a little bit of tweaking be an article by itself. Thinking about the chapters in that way from the beginning makes it a bit easier to see how they will become articles in the end. So the second article in Higher Education is just one of the early chapters which puts the study in the context.

As for highlights and challenges, there are also some reviewer comments which I don’t really agree with or don’t really understand. So it can be tricky to deal with them. So in those cases I had to make a decision whether to argue with the reviewer or just change my article in a way that I didn’t really think made sense.

NRCEM: What are your plans/next steps for this research project?

I’m still conducting interviews and some really interesting things are coming up, which I hope to be able to share with everyone soon. I also hope to actually be able to physically go to China soon, as I mentioned, I had a trip to Wuhan planned but that got cancelled. I’m hoping that the situation improves soon, and I can go to finish my fieldwork. After my PhD there’s a million other things that I’d like to research – hopefully I can find a postdoc and actually be able to.

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