Wasted talents? China’s higher education reforms experienced through its visiting scholars abroad

Research Highlighted:

McKeown, J. S. (2021). Wasted talents? China’s higher education reforms experienced through its visiting scholars abroad. Journal of Contemporary China. https://doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2021.1884961


China’s post-1978 modernization plans include an internationally competitive higher education system. Central to this effort are researchers and professors capable of advancing China’s technological capabilities and educating its ambitious, globally-minded youth. National funding for scholars going abroad was designed to infuse the nation with sophisticated knowledge and to improve university quality. Research on 131 Chinese scholars who spent significant time abroad, mostly in the United States, shows little evidence that these funded experiences abroad were used deliberately to improve Chinese universities. Results show that policies supporting scholarly exchange have not produced successful internationalization efforts on Chinese campuses. Scholars in STEM fields and those receiving national funding indicated significantly higher research focus and productivity, however did not indicate putting it to use at their home institutions.


For years, visiting scholars from China to the US and other western countries were typically considered academic research partners collaborating on mutually beneficial international exchange. However, Chinese visiting scholars have recently come under intense scrutiny, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Hopes of a benign economic win-win scenario between China and more advanced economic powers (particularly with the United States) now seem outdated and naïve. Despite this new attention, little is known or been researched about who these individuals are, now numbering over 45,000 annually in the United States alone, and what experiences they have had. This article seeks to fill the gap in knowledge and contribute to a more complete understanding of what is a complex and enduring relationship between Chinese and other academic communities abroad.

China’s professors, like its students, are highly mobile. It is in this aspect of Chinese university development that this article is situated. The author surveyed 131 recent Chinese visiting scholars, defined as someone on a non-immigrant visa engaged in academic activities and not enrolled as a student. These visiting scholars had spent significant time abroad at foreign institutions, mostly in the United States and other English-speaking countries. Their motivations, funding sources, goals, and experiences abroad, as well as their careers after returning to China, were examined within the context of the growth and competitive aspirations of China’s university sector, within its economic and strategic aspirations overall, in the 21st century. Their anonymous responses reflect a nuanced understanding of their roles in the bigger picture of international academic research cooperation; however, they also reflect an under-utilization of their experiences and skills once back in China. Mostly they show appreciation for the personal and professional benefits resulting from their lengthy experiences overseas, not strategic ones of vital importance to the nation overall or its growing university sector.

Results from this study show comparatively little evidence that visiting scholars play an important role in the internationalization process of their home institutions after returning to China. Lack of formal avenues to put into practice new-found international experience, such as leading new projects or committees, job promotions, or contributing to their home universities’ administrative structures, were typically reported.

In addition, important and statistically significant differences were observed based on the source of funding for the experience and the scholar’s academic discipline that may contribute to understanding the growing scrutiny of, and at times suspicion towards, Chinese scholars abroad. Heightened tensions, changes in academic visa policies, and calls to restrict what had previously been a welcoming and open international academic exchange between China and the West have occurred recently. Specifically, the findings show that those scholars receiving Chinese national government funding (MOE) and those in the STEM fields reported significantly greater focus on their research agendas, less cultural interaction while abroad, and more joint research outcomes with international collaborators. While some of these findings might be expected, they have not been documented and analyzed sufficiently. Furthermore, the findings can, when taken in context of the overall study, help explain potential sources of misunderstanding and suspicion that threaten this important international academic collaboration.

The main reasons Chinese scholars cited for going abroad suggest that they do not see themselves as part of a top-down strategic project of high national priority in which they must participate. Nor do they indicate that they were mentored to see themselves as such. Rather, the findings show that personal motivations reflecting real career interests and desire for language and cultural gain were strongest. Therefore, the broad and long-standing ambitions of the Chinese state to advance its technological and economic power may be understood as matters of articulated national policy and official rhetoric, however the execution of specific policies and implementation at the local and institutional level seem quite different. While the state may articulate its priorities of making Chinese universities more world-class and improving faculty teaching quality, such national goals were not cited as relatively important reasons for having this experience for these visiting scholars, making the purpose of the funding questionable and adding to the evidence that national policy and local / institutional execution in China are not aligned.

These results suggest overall that both the pre-departure motivations and the post-experience expectations on visiting scholars by their institutions or the state were minimal. Far from expecting clear and prioritized objectives related to helping their institutions modernize and internationalize, or to improve teaching performance or grow a research network abroad, these Chinese scholars seemed primarily motivated to advance their own research agendas for their own professional and individual reasons. Rather than being rewarded with job promotions or cash awards upon return, instead these scholars seemed to derive a sense of reward from the intrinsic value of the time abroad, to gain new knowledge and perspectives, and to develop new interests and skills. These are noteworthy and altogether expected outcomes of scholarly engagement abroad, and in all respects embody the spirit of international educational exchange. Yet, that these experiences are occurring within high-level Chinese national policy priority and under increasingly suspicious host country scrutiny makes the lack of strategic fulfillment particularly important to observe. It seems reasonable to conclude that there may be considerable misunderstanding of these scholars’ actions, misalignment with the Chinese policies that brought them abroad, and a misguided suspicion placed on them by some host country authorities.

Taken as a whole, the Chinese visiting scholars’ motivations for undertaking their extended time abroad, and their activities during it, were very much the same as those of all scholars and researchers who go abroad: individual research agendas, professional development, and personal benefit within the constructs of international exchange. Combined with the scant evidence of long-term impact these scholars had after returning to China, despite generous national investment in their development, this article suggests that CCP policy to fund and use these experiences to improve Chinese universities is not being effectively implemented. The study also suggests that concern about these scholars’ true purposes for being abroad, expressed by some host governments, are not being fairly or consistently made. Therefore, the scholars’ own independently made, individually motivated, professionally important, and personally beneficial experiences suggest that neither sending nor receiving country understands fully the normality of this international academic experience, and that it is much more meaningful for the individual visiting scholar’s career, personal and professional development, and life goals beyond any real or implied national objectives. This article seeks to fill in important gaps in our knowledge.

Author Bio

Joshua S. McKeown, Ph.D. is Associate Provost for International Education at SUNY Oswego and International Education Leadership Fellow at the University at Albany (SUNY). He led SUNY Oswego to awards from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange (CSCSE) among others. McKeown authored The First Time Effect: The Impact of Study Abroad on College Student Intellectual Development (SUNY Press 2009) and numerous book chapters and articles including in the Journal of Contemporary China (2021). He did his Fulbright in India and was a mentor with IIE’s Connecting with the World Myanmar program.

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