Mobile educational space and imaginative travellers in-situ: A case study of a UK international branch campus

Research highlighted

Jingran Yu (2022) Mobile educational space and imaginative travellers in-situ: A case study of a UK international branch campus in ChinaSocial & Cultural Geography, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2022.2055780

An increased awareness has emerged within academia of how international student mobility (ISM) intensifies differentiation within global educational geographies, consolidating the educational power of certain institutions within specific countries, and consequently entrenching and sometimes even creating socio-spatial inequalities (e.g., Brooks & Waters, 2011; Findlay et al., 2012; Waters, 2012). In contrast, transnational education (TNE), ‘in which the learners are located in a country different from the one where the awarding institution is based’ (Council of Europe, 2002), enables students to receive international education in situ. Instead of the corporeal movement of students, in TNE, it is the education provider that is on the move, incorporating various interdependent movements of educational resources, including teaching materials, knowledge, information, and even staff and institutions. Thus, TNE seems to hold great potential for promoting the reconfiguration of educational geographies through its important role in connecting educational institutions and participants across different places and influencing the (re)distribution of educational resources and power across global space (Leung & Waters, 2013). However, compared to ISM, TNE remains under-researched. The few empirical studies that have explored this topic have concluded that its value has been fundamentally compromised owing to the lack of corporeal mobility (e.g., Waters, 2017, 2018).

This paper challenges the predominant representation of TNE students merely in terms of their corporeal immobility and problematizes the neglect of spatiality and materiality of international branch campuses (IBCs) in extant studies. Based on a case study of a UK international branch campus in China, it incorporates interview narratives and ethnographic observations to reveal the students’ experiences and imaginations, and to delineate the unique texture of the spatiality of the campus. It is worth noticing that IBCs in China are required to take the form of ‘Chinese-Foreign Cooperative Universities’, i.e. ‘joint-venture IBCs’ in the expanded definition provided by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (Garrett et al., 2016). The power balance between the Chinese and foreign partners has profound influences on the spatiality of the campus. In this case study, this power balance between the Chinese and British partners has resulted in the unique layout of the university campus which is roughly divided into two halves: the Academic Area, controlled by the British partner, and the Living Area, where the Chinese partner is mainly in charge. 

In this paper, I present the case-study IBC as an infrastructure of (im)mobilities, which is both locally embedded and transnationally connected. On the one hand, this paper explores how transnational imaginations are enabled by the immobile materiality of the IBC in three dimensions: the material space, the virtual space, and the relational space. On the other hand, informed by the perceived–conceived–lived conceptual triad (Lefebvre, 1991/2014), this paper investigates Chinese students’ imaginative spaces by looking at how they perceive, experience, and conceive various spaces, on the basis of which they develop a sense of (not) belonging. This is where issues emerge around ‘whose space’ it is when the control over space is challenged. IBC space and its imagination, as intended by the TNE institution, may not always coincide with the ideas of the students and their imaginative space. At times, the two may collide. 

As the students embody transnational imaginations and mobilities in situ, they are transformed into what I perceive as imaginative travellers, who never physically travel abroad but whose being and belonging have been constantly informed and negotiated in relation to their everyday transnational experiences. Travelling between two different spaces, the Academic Area and the Living Area, the national and the transnational setting, has become a daily routine for the students, contributing to their embodiment of transnational mobilities in an imaginative form and giving shape to the transnational imaginative space they conceive. Informed by their own predispositions, students have developed transnational spatial imaginations, according to which they make differentiated judgements about the different styles in the material environment they inhabit and develop a sense of (non)belongingness to different cultures through their spatial experiences. In everyday spatial practice, imagined and actual spaces may sometimes reinforce and sometimes negate each other. Students then develop a sense of ‘our’ and ‘their’ space – a sense of belonging and not belonging – in their perceptions, experiences, and conceptions. This may have coloured their perceptions, leading to a value-laden appreciation of the space in the Academic Area as well as their simultaneous dislike of the space in the Living Area.

The findings have teased out the ways in which transnational imaginations are enabled by immobile materiality of the IBC, and how students consequently construct their imaginative space, revealing the dynamic interrelations between imagination, materiality, and (im)mobility in (transnational) educational spaces. As international student mobility (in the sense of corporeal mobility) has intensified, and sometimes even created socio-spatial inequalities in global educational geographies, it is important for scholars to pay attention to the imaginative mobilities enabled by TNE because ‘imagination is an essentially creative act that facilitates people’s ability to move beyond structural imbalances of power and economic constraints’ (Salazar, 2020, p. 773). Indeed, imaginative mobility may not be a substitute for corporeal mobility, but may instead change the very nature of being co-present. Accordingly, our views on the emplacement of education, as either here (domestic education) or there (international education), also need to expand to include educational spaces that can be both here and there, that is, trans-national. Contributing to the early discussions about IBCs as infrastructures of (im)mobility, what is novel in this paper is that it offers detailed depictions of the imaginative process, in which spatial imagination and imaginative space (re)produce each other, and are complicated by the various sources of power at play. Drawing upon thick ethnographic data, this paper offers a unique case study of a Chinese-Foreign Cooperative University in which the power balance between the British and Chinese partners has profound implications on the uneven spatiality of the campus. It is important to pay attention to the ‘unevenness of imagination flows’ (Lipura & Collins, 2020), which is subject to political economy in the wider sociocultural context, in which the mythological ‘West’ is often considered ‘legitimate’ and imbued with much higher symbolic value than ‘the rest’. Students, whom I call ‘imaginative travellers’, have tended to display a proximity to ‘the West’, which is physically distant and where most of them have never been, in contrast to ‘the Chinese’ where they are actually located but from which they are imaginatively distant. This may reinforce the existing symbolic power of the West in the global stratification of knowledge.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Jingran Yu (余婧然),
Xiamen University, China

Dr. Jingran Yu (余婧然) is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Education, Xiamen University, China, and an Honorary Research Associate at the School of Environment, Education and Development (SEED), the University of Manchester, the United Kingdom. She received a doctorate degree in Sociology from the University of Manchester, and won the British Educational Research Association (BERA) 2021 Doctoral Thesis Award for her thesis. Her research interests lie at the intersection of sociology, education, and human geography, with a focus on internationalisation of higher education and socio-spatial (im)moblities. She can be contacted at: or

Managing editor: Lisa(Zhiyun) Bian

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