“Decentring” international student mobility: The case of African student migrants in China

Research Highlighted:

Mulvey, B. (2020). “Decentring” international student mobility: The case of African student migrants in China. Population, Space and Place, n/a(n/a), e2393. doi:10.1002/psp.2393

Listen to an interview with Ben Mulvey; Read the summary of Ben’s interview

Read Ben’s other entries here and here.

Mr Ben Mulvey, Education University of Hong Kong

A higher proportion of African tertiary students are globally mobile than in any other region, with approximately six percent undertaking higher education outside their home country (Kritz, 2015). At the same time, China hosts the second greatest number of African international students of any country, and African students are the second largest regional grouping of international students in China – there were 81,562 students from all 54 African countries studying in China in 2018. The development of China as a major destination country for African students and the growth of outbound international student mobility amongst African students are both emergent phenomena. This partly explains the lack of empirical research on this student flow, and why the bulk of research on international student mobility focuses on major sending countries in East Asia and destinations in the West. The result of the focus on “Rest” to “West” student flows in international student mobility is that existing theory around students’ mobility decisions, largely developed with reference to these student flows, are insufficient to explain some forms of South-South mobility. In this presentation, based on empirical research consisting of 40 interviews conducted with African students in Chinese universities, I analyse the decision-making processes of this group of student migrants, and explore how this new knowledge challenges existing conceptual understandings of the nature of international student mobility (ISM).

An outcome of the article is that it draws attention to under-acknowledged unequal dynamics within the Global South. I seek to situate Africa-China educational migration within the broader context of the globalisation and the global regime of coloniality, incorporating structural power relations into an analysis of student migrants’ decision making. The research aims are as follows: firstly, to understand the logics underpinning African students’ decisions to study abroad in China, and secondly, to explore how these logics may be shaped by structural forces.

In terms of the theoretical approach, this paper is concerned with how ISM is embedded within a global regime of coloniality (e.g. Grosfoguel, 2010; Mignolo, 2013). Whilst there are a number of articles (e.g. Madge et al., 2009; Stein and de Andreotti, 2016; Ploner and Nada, 2019) which examine various facets of ISM through a postcolonial lens, the approach has been developed in a very limited way. I pay particular attention to how global structural inequalities shape student decision-making, answering calls by Kelly and Lusis (2006) and others for an approach to migration studies which incorporates global structures of inequality and power into the analysis, applying an innovative approach to educational migration in the Global South specifically, thus making a theoretical contribution to the ISM literature.

Grosfoguel (2010) describes how peripheral nation-states exist under a regime of global coloniality, as non-core zones continue to exist in conditions of coloniality despite the end of formal colonialism. This is fundamentally because the exploitative global division of labour which developed as a result of colonialism is reproduced in the “postcolonial” capitalist world-system (Wallerstein, 2004). It is obvious that this global regime shapes South-to-North migration patterns, and as such postcolonial approaches to analysing labour migration are well established. For example San Juan (2011) and Eder (2016) describe how low income countries such as the Philippines become reservoirs of cheap labour and Western countries its’ clients, reproducing colonial asymmetrical relationships. Less well developed in the literature however is the notion that firstly, migrations within the Global South, and secondly, migration for educational purposes, entrenched within the same global system, can be viewed through this lens.

I give four main examples of how mobility between Africa and China is mediated by global structural forces, arguing that doing so deepens understanding of the structural drivers of student migration, and of the mechanisms through which international student mobility is related to inequality. African students have a wide variety of rationales for seeking overseas study, usually influenced in some way by China’s structural position within the (post)colonial global political economy, and by China’s reproduction of core-periphery relations in its interactions with Africa. Empirically the article makes a significant contribution to the literature by outlining four cases of student mobility decision-making which differ from those outlined in existing literature. Some are from outside the middle-class, and are able to leverage China’s soft power gambit to go beyond their “field of the possibles”. Others are pawns in China’s political manoeuvring, and are essentially forced into studying overseas by their own government. Most, unsurprisingly, appear to be middle-class. I note however that these students are not necessarily members of the affluent “global” middle class (e.g. Koo, 2016), and are excluded from the “best” educational migration opportunities in the West by the unequal distribution of capital afforded by the global (post)colonial political economy. A minority of students are social elites who are able to leverage social networks in order to take advantage of China’s courting of the political class across Africa. This example again demonstrates how China’s semi-peripheral position is reproduced in its relation with African nations (as peripheries), and in turn how this creates discrepant logics of migration. All of these examples demonstrate how China’s ambiguous political and economic relationship Africa, borne out of its position within the postcolonial world system, serve to create logics of migration that cannot be easily explained using existing frameworks which tend to be quite simplistic in their assumptions about who moves and to what ends.

Author bio

Ben Mulvey is a PhD candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong. Ben’s research focuses on educational migration between Africa and China, and what this student flow reveals about China’s attempts to (re)shape the global “field” of higher education. He can be contacted via the following email address: bmulvey@s.eduhk.hk

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