Why students leave Chinese elite universities for doctoral studies abroad: Institutional habitus, career script and college graduates’ decision to study abroad

Research Highlighted:

Li, L., Shen, W., & Xie, A. (2021). Why students leave Chinese elite universities for doctoral studies abroad: Institutional habitus, career script and college graduates’ decision to study abroad. International Journal of Educational Development, 84, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2021.102408

Despite the rise of China’s elite universities in global rankings, the number of Chinese students going abroad to pursue doctorate degrees is still large. In order to understand the reasons behind, we launched a major project since 2018 and have conducted interviews with more than 100 participants in several China’s elite universities. This article reports a part of the findings.

China is forging ahead in its goal to achieve a world-class higher education system and to move from the periphery to the centre of the global knowledge network (Altbach, 2009). To this end, the Chinese government has exerted much effort over the past two decades in reversing its long-term brain drain into a brain gain (Lee, 2013). However, although the world rankings of Chinese universities are improving, the proportion of students in elite universities who choose to study abroad has not dropped significantly. For example, the proportion of C9 league universities undergraduates going abroad for postgraduate studies kept relatively stable, between 22.56% and 25.88% from 2013 to 2019 (Shen et al,2021).

Previous studies suggest a series of pull–push factors at the systematic and individual levels affecting the motivation and outbound mobility of Chinese students. The factors at the institutional level, however, were rarely examined. The changing landscape of Chinese higher education has seldomly been considered either. In this study, we reported the findings of the qualitative interviews with 31 graduates from the chemistry department of Peking University between April and December 2018. The department has been ranked as the best one in its field in China and the 14th best chemistry department in the 2018 QS World University Subject Rankings. Among the 31 graduates we interviewed, 12 students chose to study abroad while the rest 19 students chose to stay in China for their doctorate. We aim to understand those institutional factors behind their decisions to study abroad or not. The concepts of institutional habitus and career scripts provide with us theoretical insights.

Our data suggests that in our case university, there is an institutional habitus because of the dynamic between policy and individuals. The decision to study abroad is not only motivated by the will of students but is also greatly shaped by the institutional habitus of ‘going abroad is excellent’. Furthermore, going abroad has become part of the career script of our interviewees as a result of translating government policies into universities’ entry criteria for new faculty members. At the cognitive level, oversea degrees and working experiences are considered to be relevant to more original work and an extension of research breath. At the community level, it was perceived to be helpful in improving English writing skills, publishing on top international journals, achieving an extensive academic social network. At the organizational level, it was understood a symbolic capital to getting into elite universities which usually prioritize returnees with oversea degree and substantial working experience in top university abroad. If a chemistry student wants to be a faculty member of a research university, then s/he must act in accordance with the career scripts by going abroad. Overseas degrees are still a hard currency in the academic labor market.

This study contributes to the literature in several ways. Firstly, the main body of literature highlights students’ motivations for going abroad as a rational choice to maximise their returns upon returning. We offer a sociological analysis by examining the influence of culture on the decisions of students through institutional habitus. Students may be economical, but their decisions are heavily shaped by the institutional habitus of their universities. Secondly, although previous studies have focused on system-level factors as gaps in teaching and research quality and salary for faculty between peripheral countries and central countries, or individual-level factors as economic pursuit of returns, this study focuses on institutional-level factors and underscores the importance of cross-unit analysis by highlighting the role of institutions in translating system-level policies into student preferences. National policies have conferred a special symbolic and political capital to returnees and subsequently to overseas students in general (Xiang & Shen, 2009), thereby forming the institutional habitus ‘excellent students should go abroad’. As a result, many students decide to study abroad even before they have developed a good understanding of the domestic and international academic labor market.

The phenomenon of “the study-abroad fever of Chinese students” has attracted the attention of many scholars (Zha, 2015), but at the same time, in recent years, the emergence of anti-globalization trends and the deterioration of China’s international relations have also raised concerns that “the numbers of Chinese students going abroad to several of the key receiving countries will slow or even decline”(Altbach, 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for Chinese students to go abroad and has an impact on the decision-making of some Chinese students to go abroad. It daunts students’ confidence in international traveling. The rising anti-Asian sentiment and increasing political tensions with China may also cause more tightened visa regulations for students from China where is the largest sending area of international students. This article provides a convincing theoretical explanation from the perspectives of institutional habitus and career script for the mobility choice of college graduates from elite Chinese universities in the past 20 years. In the short term, the habitus of going abroad does not seem to change, but how the epidemic, international competition, and the further improvement of the status of Chinese universities will affect students’ choice of going abroad remains to be seen and studied.


Altbach P G (2009). Peripheries and centers: research universities in developing countries. Asia Pacific Education Review, 10(1):15-27.

Altbach, P. G. (2019). The coming ‘China crisis’ in global higher education. https://www.universityworldnews.

com/post.php?story=20190403104242366. Accessed 6 July 2020

Lee, C. S. (2013). China’s Leap Forward from ‘Brain Drain’to ‘Brain Gain’: Its International Student Recruitment Strategy and the Decision-Making Process of Foreign Students. Contemporary Chinese Studies, 14(2), 321-361.

Xiang B, Shen W (2009). International student migration and social stratification in China. International Journal of Educational Development, 29(5): 513-522

Shen Wenqin, Xie Xinyi, Guo Errong (2021). The changing trend of the academic labor market and the challenge of doctoral education in China. Under review

Zha, Qiang (2015). Study Abroad Fever among Chinese Students. International Higher Education, (69), 15-17.

Researchers’ Bio

Wenqin Shen (Corresponding Author) is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at Peking University. He mainly studies the higher education system from the perspectives of history and science studies (Sociology of Science, Philosophy of Science, etc). He authored and co-authored publications focused on transnational history of idea and practice of liberal Education (China, the UK and the US), international academic mobility (especially the mobility of doctoral students and postdocs) and doctoral career trajectories. He can be contacted via email: shenwenqin@pku.edu.cn

Liping Li (First author) is a lecturer at Capital Normal University and a doctoral student at the School of Education of Peking University. Her main research fields are teacher education, international mobility of university students, and doctoral career trajectories.

Dr. Ailei Xie is Associate Professor and Director of the Bay Area Education Policy Institute for Social Development at Guangzhou University. His main area of research is on social mobility and higher education, and parenting style and anxiety in China.

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