Consuming UK Transnational Higher Education in China: A Bourdieusian Approach to Chinese Students’ Perceptions and Experiences

Research Highlighted:

Yu, J. Consuming UK Transnational Higher Education in China: A Bourdieusian Approach to Chinese Students’ Perceptions and Experiences. Sociological Research Online, 0(0), 1-18. doi:10.1177/1360780420957040

Dr Jingran Yu, Southern University of Science and Technology, China


Accompanying the ascendance of neoliberal market principles in higher education systems (Naidoo and Williams, 2015), the ‘student-as-consumer’ discourse has prevailed in the Global North while developing great complexity, which diverges across different nation-states (Brooks, 2018). However, little is known about students receiving Western higher education in the transnational education market (TNE), ‘in which the learners are located in a country different from the one where the awarding institution is based’ (Council of Europe, 2002), particularly in China, where a neoliberal approach does not apply. In the Global North, where the ‘student-as-consumer’ discourse took shape, ‘the state’s right to intervene is habitually questioned’; by contrast, in China, the intervention of the state into any social conduct is widely accepted (Marginson, 2018: 498). The Chinese state is the largest promoter and regulator of TNE. On the one hand, TNE represents ‘a faster and more efficient way’ to directly import advanced educational resources and to train competent professionals domestically (Huang, 2007: 428). On the other hand, foreign education, together with the mobilities of foreign people, information, and ideology also present a potential threat and thus must be controlled under a centralised plan (Lin, 2016). Thus, instead of a bottom-up way that is more responsive to the market, the development of TNE in China has been characterised by centralised control and top-down planning (Lin and Liu, 2016). All foreign TNE establishments operating in China are required to operate within the ‘Chinese–Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools’ (CFCRS) framework laid out by the Ministry of Education in partnership with a Chinese higher education institution.

Methodological and theoretical approaches to the case

This article emerged from a research project exploring the influence of TNE in-situ experience on Chinese students’ socio-spatial mobilities, based on a qualitative case study of the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China (UNNC), the first Chinese-Foreign Cooperative University. In the partnership, the University of Nottingham gained full control over the curriculum and other academic affairs, while leaving the administrative issues to Zhejiang Wanli College and its parent Wanli Education Group, such as campus construction, facilities management and logistics, negotiations with the Communist Party of China (CPC) and government. Drawing upon 30 semi-structured interviews (including 27 with Chinese UNNC students and 3 with UNNC staff), this article examines Chinese students’ perceptions and experiences of UNNC education with reference to patriotism education by the Chinese partner, international education by the University of Nottingham, and investment strategies by students themselves. The analysis of this paper mainly adopts a Bourdieusian perspective, seeing knowledge construction in the global field of higher education as intrinsically linked to power inequalities. ‘The West’ exercises symbolic power that confers the ability to legitimate certain forms of cultural capital, such as the English language, Western lifestyles, Western university credentials, etc. There is thus a‘stratification of knowledge’ between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’, where the knowledge of the West is legitimised with higher symbolic value.

Findings and discussions

First, Chinese patriotism education is provided at UNNC but has been kept to a minimal level compared to public universities in China. There is only one relevant module, Chinese Cultural Courses, delivered to Chinese students through weekly evening courses outside their university curriculum. Most students showed resistance, although some of them appreciated the necessity of such courses at UNNC. Without having much effect on Chinese students, conversely, the courses have been gradually adapted, with its content being depoliticised and its pedagogies leaning more towards British-style education.

Second, in talking about their experience of ‘a truly international education’ as advertised on the UNNC official website, the students frequently referred to ‘critical thinking’ and often in a positive way. Most students tended to believe that the liberal arts education they received at UNNC was more advanced than traditional Chinese-style education. Nevertheless, there were also students felt the true spirit of British liberal arts education was ‘sometimes not properly delivered’. Students observed a ‘merely rhetorical’ misinterpretation of ‘critical thinking’; in some cases, ‘critical thinking’ was simply understood as ‘rebellious thinking’. Some students also felt ‘cultural bias’ of the Western teachers and challenged the necessarily positive view of ‘critical thinking’ as it was implemented at UNNC. The durable, transposable Western educational habitus is generative of the teaching and learning that Chinese students experienced. As a result, formal education at UNNC served to impose Western discourses on Chinese students.

Third, a consumerist approach emerged in students’ perceptions of TNE. Students have cautiously calculated the quality of service, the long-term return in both the local and international credential markets, and the risk of potential failure. It turned out that UNNC was the ‘most score-effective’ option, which comes with good returns and low risk. On the one hand, UNNC experience is beneficial for Chinese students to gain the linguistic and institutionalised cultural capital that is necessary for future global mobility, as well as to imitate the educational habitus in the field of global education that is dominated by ‘the West’. On the other hand, they can also avoid the risk of potential failure in overseas education, staying embedded within domestic sociocultural networks, with the extra benefit of a good university credential that is convertible within the Chinese educational system.

Despite this consumerist approach, some students regarded their perceived-change in UNNC towards ‘utilitarianism’ as necessarily negative. They attributed this perceived-change to Chinese society and as by no means relevant to UK higher education which represents ‘humanitarianism’, contradicting the intensifying marketisation that many scholars have observed in the Global North, and particularly in the UK.

In conclusion, the case-study students have become voluntary participants in the symbolic violence exercised by ‘the West’, experiencing and perceiving TNE through ‘the symbolic veil of honour’ and thus valuing British education highly in both material and immaterial forms. This unique transnational educational space has emerged as an important factor in shaping students’ perceptions and experiences, incorporating the field of UK higher education into the field of Chinese higher education. They converge and, at times, collide, while both are embedded in the wider field of global higher education. Market-based rationalities converge with a centralised statist agenda, while being subordinated to a symbolic classification in which ‘the West’ dominates and colonial relations of knowledge production emerge. British-style education is perceived as legitimate, not only conditioning students’ perceptions of Chinese patriotism education but also affecting the staff’s approach to the ‘enhancement’ of pedagogies. Consumerist approaches further affirmed its symbolic value, by accelerating the circulation of cultural capital gained in a Western setting through active conversion into economic capital in the global marketplace. However, through transubstantiation, economic capital is presented in the immaterial form of cultural capital, and hence the real instrumentalism of cultural capital is concealed (Bourdieu, 1986). Cultural capital seems to be fundamentally different from economic capital because its self-interested nature is much less transparent. As can be seen in UNNC students’ responses, UK higher education was perceived to be unrelated to ‘utilitarianism’ and was only characterised by ‘humanitarianism’. As a result, Chinese students highly valued UK higher education in both material and immaterial forms, colouring the way in which they experience and perceive TNE, which is strengthened rather than being balanced out by China’s nation-building efforts. This article reveals the persistent symbolic power of UK higher education in the transnational context and its reproduction within the hierarchically structured global field of higher education.


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Author’s Biography

Jingran Yu is a visiting scholar at Southern University of Science and Technology (China). She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Manchester (2020). Her interests lie at the intersection of sociology, education and geography, including but not limited to socio-spatial (im)mobilities and (in)equalities; international branch campuses; transnational higher education; cosmopolitanism; educational space and place. She can be contacted at

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