The value of Xinjiang class education to ethnic minority students, their families and community: A capability approach

Research Highlighted:

Su, X., Harrison, N., & Moloney, R. (2020). The value of Xinjiang class education to ethnic minority students, their families and community: A capability approach. The Qualitative Report, 25(11), 3847-3863.

Dr Xin Su, Henan University, China


This article illustrates how families of Xinjiang class students perceive the benefits of the Xinjiang class policy for students. Through the work of Melanie Walker, we adopted the capability approach as an analytical tool and collected data through in-depth interviews with families of Xinjiang class students over three months of fieldwork in Xinjiang and eastern China. We obtained a list of seven functional capabilities that illuminate the value of Xinjiang class education, and complaints that need to be addressed in the future. The results demonstrate how the benefits of Xinjiang class education, from a familial perspective, accrue to students, their families, as well as to the wider community. Also, the findings reveal that agency of parents is limited in this educational process. We propose that a pretransition program and improved communication between parents and teachers would facilitate better outcomes for students and their families, and ultimately result in more effective implementation of Xinjiang class policy.

The Xinjiang class policy, as part of a long-term government strategy to support interethnic relationships, and to provide ethnic minorities with access to higher education in Xinjiang, funds middle school students, mostly ethnic minorities from southern Xinjiang’s impoverished rural and nomadic regions to attend boarding schools in predominantly Han-populated cities located throughout eastern China. Research on the Xinjiang class policy has largely focused on the Uyghur-Han dichotomy, and in particular the interplay between the institutionalized authority of the state agenda and the responses of ethnic minority (especially Uyghur) students, with a small number of studies focusing on students who have graduated from Xinjiang classes. Although there are numerous critiques of Xinjiang class education regarding the discussion of its political goals over educational goals, the value of this schooling for ethnic minority students and their families has been largely overlooked, in the general discussion of how Xinjiang classes translated resources into students’ capabilities, and provided them with real opportunities and options to strive for certain achievements.

Through the Capability Approach developed by Amartya Sen, and further illustrated by Melanie Walker in the educational context, the notion of functional capabilities is used to articulate the capabilities that are fostered through education and valued by undergraduates. Functional capabilities capture the significance of both capability (opportunity) and functioning (achievement) in learning. Four overarching functional capabilities and nine subthemes consist the research finding. Specifically, families of Xinjiang class students recognize individual functional capabilities which contains valuable factors such as independence, employability and knowledge on students, after they received education in eastern China. Second, relational functional capabilities being founded in the data refer to students’ development associated with benefits to their family or ethnic community, it focuses on three dimensions including being respected and inspiring community member in terms of academic achievements, financial contribution to the family, and supporting local community members in education. Third, collective functional capabilities refer to one’s role as an agent of social change, in this sense, graduates of Xinjiang classes are keen to improve the situation of their local society. Besides all the functional capabilities fostered through Xinjiang class education, families’ complaints about limited information concerning the program, and top-down communication with school teachers is founded in the data.

Ethnic minority education in China is often viewed as promoting national integration, while ethnic minority people are viewed as passive recipients of mainstream education and its policy directives. The significance of this research lies in its attempt to involve families of Xinjiang class students into the discussion of government schooling and to voice their perspectives about Xinjiang class education, through which we present evidence showing how parents observed students developing functional capabilities through government schooling. Moreover, we find that educational mobility inevitably influences the parent-child relationship largely through the discontinuity of home and host cultures. Specifically, students are separated from their home and community for at least four years, moving strategically between different settings in their “double life,” thus positioning them as familiar strangers both at home and in schools. On the other hand, parents have high expectations in allowing their children to go-away for education, despite the fact that some lack understanding of their children’s “new” lives in inland China. Hence, the existence of silence between students and their families could not be ignored and should be included in the discussion of the long-term impact of government schooling on ethnic minority students.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Xin Su is currently a lecturer at School of Education, Henan University, Kaifeng, China. She has obtained her PhD degree from the Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University. Her research focuses on ethnic minority education in China, especially those from Xinjiang, and the interplay between family/community expectation and identity exploration. Please direct correspondence to

A/P Neil Harrison works at School of Education, Macquarie University. He has worked in Indigenous education as a primary, secondary and tertiary teacher, and has over 30 years of teaching and research experience in the field. Neil’s current research focuses on teaching about the experiences of trauma, and in particular teaching difficult histories.

Dr. Robyn Moloney used to teach in the Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University, and she is now a professional casual staff at Macquarie University. She is a language educator with 30 years’ experience. Robyn’s research interests include issues of intercultural language and development.

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