Student Mobility Choices in Transnational Education: Impact of Macro- , Meso- and Micro- Level Factors

Research Highlighted

Li, X., Haupt, J., & Lee, J. (2021). Student mobility choices in transnational education: Impact of macro- , meso- and micro- level factors. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.

Xiaojie Li, University of Arizona, USA

From Program Assessment to Research Study

The idea of this study was originated from the program assessment work that my colleagues and I have been doing on University of Arizona (UA)’s transnational education (TNE) programs. Students in these programs receive two degrees, one from UA and one from the partner university. For undergraduate students, they can choose to complete all four years of study in their home country, while having the opportunity to physically study at UA for up to two years. Over the past years, our research team surveyed student mobility plans by asking where they intended to complete their studies, pursue a graduate degree, and find a job in both short and long term. We found that students’ mobility plans greatly varied among different partner universities. We began to realize that student mobility is likely related to the institutional and national contexts of the partner university. In order to understand whether/how the contexts matter, we conducted in-depth interviews with students in one of our oldest programs, in which UA collaborates with Ocean University of China (OUC), a Project 985 university[i], and offers a dual bachelor degree in law. In this study, we incorporated 167 survey responses and 13 interviews.

The Three-Level Contextual Framework

We adopted the three-level contextual framework from Haas & Hadjar (2020). Based on a review of the studies on higher education student trajectories, these authors found that student trajectories were often analyzed through the macro-, meso- and/or micro-level predictors. Macro-level factors are those related to national higher education structures and the larger social environment, such as the labor market situation. Meso-level factors mainly refer to the organizational context of higher education institutions, and the micro-level factors are those vary at the individual level, such as demographic attributes. Factors at each level are able to influence student trajectories independent of other factors, and factors within each level and across levels interact simultaneously to influence student trajectories through higher education. Guided by the framework, we examined student mobility choices at four transitional points: (a) initially when they choose to enroll in a TNE program, (b) during their program when they choose to study abroad or stay local to complete the program, (c) near graduation when they choose to apply for graduate school, and (d) near graduation or completion of graduate studies when they seek employment.

Key Findings: The Macro- and Meso-Level Contexts Matter

The macro-level context of the local university admission policies played a significant role in shaping student choice to enroll in the TNE program. For most students, they were aiming to go to a prestigious Chinese university instead of actively seeking international education opportunities. In the end, they perceived the dual degree program as an alternative path to attend a Project 985 university when they obtained a gaokao[ii] score that was not high enough for regular programs at a university at the same level.

A majority (58%) of the students intended to complete their degree in China, and student mobility at this stage was impeded by the meso-level factors (i.e., program structures). The first two years’ English education in the program turned out to be inadequate for some students to achieve the required TOEFL score. Also, studying at UA would hinder their preparation for kaoyan[iii].

In terms of pursuing a graduate degree, students showed a stronger interest in international education (64%). Macro-level factors, baoyan policy[iv] and different labor market situations in China and abroad, facilitated to retain students in China. At the meso level, on the contrary, the TNE program better prepared students to study abroad for graduate education through English medium teaching and an admission agreement with graduate law programs at UA. In addition, the program put students who needed to take kaoyan at a disadvantage.

Lastly, the majority (65%) envisioned their future in China in the short term, and even more students (76%) in the long term. Labor market at the macro level is a primary factor that made students who planned to attend graduate school overseas to intend to return. It would be difficult to find a job abroad despite an interest in doing so.

Implication: TNE’s Dual Role

The main argument we made in this study is that TNE needs to fulfil a dual role in facilitating mobility and supporting immobile students. As most students indicated an interest in pursuing a graduate degree in the US, our findings generally support previous studies that TNE can function as a stepping stone for physical mobility. However, we also found that the program structure restrained student intentions to study abroad during the program. To address this, TNE program could strengthen English language teaching in the first and second year to better prepare students to enter an English-only academic environment. Also, short-term study abroad could expose students to the host country in order to make more informed choices about graduate school.

Meanwhile, given that TNE programs are designed to provide students with access to a foreign education without mobility, they could better support students who plan to attend local graduate schools and apply their TNE to local contexts. This is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic when international mobility is not always available or safe. For TNE in China, specific approaches may include mitigating the course load in the semester when kaoyan takes place and expanding the availability of graduate-level TNE, so that students do not have to choose between a local or international graduate school. Also, TNE program may intentionally connect students with local employers who value their TNE experiences.

Author Bio

Xiaojie Li is a PhD candidate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. She is also a graduate associate assessing the UArizona’s transnational programs and international student experiences. Xiaojie can be contacted via or Twitter @xiaojieli6.

[i] Project 985 university: The goal of Project 985 is to found world-class universities. It includes less than 40 universities, which are usually seen as the most prestigious universities in China.

[ii] Gaokao: National College Entrance Examination

[iii] Kaoyan: Unified National Graduate Entrance Examination

[iv] Baoyan policy: a small portion of undergraduates from some universities can be referred to a master’s program in China without kaoyan, under the exam-free referral policy.

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