‘Non-traditional’ International Mainland Chinese Students in the UK: An Exploratory Study of Factors Influencing Their Choice of International Higher Education


Zhe Wang Picture


Doctoral Student

University of Oxford


Nowadays, there is an emerging group of self-funded Chinese international students from non-elite families in mainland China. Their emergence breaks the traditional concepts about Chinese (mainland) international students. This study aims to understand the factors that influence the choice of postgraduate education in the UK. Through a narrative analysis of eight ‘non- traditional’ Chinese international postgraduates in the UK, this study suggests Bourdieu’s theory can help understand the educational choices of this group. Through this qualitative study of the emerging group at a UK university, this study provides a critical perspective, suggesting these students are comprised of individuals from different social backgrounds. For some of them, their choice of international higher education (IHE) can be regarded as a result of their habitus, while for others, their choice of IHE is a result of their agency to accumulate certain forms of capital in the field of IHE. Both choices in turn reproduce social inequalities.





This report is based on my Master’s thesis, aiming to understand the choice of international higher education in the UK by the ‘non-traditional’ Chinese International students. As the significant contributors, the emerging groups of ‘non-traditional’ attracts the attention of many circles. The Wall Street Journal stated that: “as the number of foreign students surges … up more than 40% … are coming from middle-class backgrounds” (Chen, 2016)[1], and the investment of high-cost IHE is not an easy decision for them. Apart from the term ‘middle class’, other terms such as ‘middle income’ or ‘wage-earning class’ are used to characterise this group. The idea of ‘middle class’, however, is a controversial concept in the literature of China’s class studies. Then, instead of arbitrarily define participants as students from middle-class or middle-income families, I chose the term ‘non-traditional’ students to describe my participants. So, the research questions in my study are who ‘non-traditional students’ are and why there are more and more ‘non-traditional’ students going abroad to study. More specifically, this study aims to explore the factors influencing ‘non-traditional’ Chinese international students who choose postgraduate in the UK.


This study invites Bourdieu’s practice theory as the theoretical framework to understand educational choices of international students. It is found that the choice of IHE as practices structured by habitus, and practices generated from agency illustrates the dialectical relationship between structure and agency. From eight participants’ narratives, it was found that influencing factors vary according to social background.


A qualitative method was employed to answer the research question and address a gap in the knowledge. By using semi-structured interviews, rich data were found in the narratives. Narrative analysis was used as the data-analysis method to help analyse participants’ stories and understand how they make sense of stories.


There are five major findings in this study. Firstly, participants come from different middle classes, including old middle class, new middle class and first generation of middle class. Secondly, there are divergences in attitudes towards international higher education and ‘highly secure’ jobs. Thirdly, the choice of international higher education as practices is structured by habitus, and this choice in turn structures the field and intensifies a new rule of game as collective practices. Fourthly, social actors can actively accumulate forms of capital to gain social positions in the field with their choice of international higher education. Finally, Chinese postgraduate education is an abandoned field by participants in the new games. When these findings are related to the existing literature, it can be found that international cultural capital is regarded as a collectively accepted mode of convertibility among forms of capital. Meanwhile, as more students choose IHE, this cultural capital is conditioned by social institutions. This further explains the ambiguous attitudes towards IHE. Moreover, the fact that Chinese postgraduate education is replaced by international postgraduate education as a way to reproduce and produce social inequalities is a global phenomenon. Middle- classes’ choice of cross-national social reproduction confirms their social positions in the field. Based on cross-nationally reproduced inequalities, intra-national inequalities are more difficult to reduce. Another implication is that, although today’s scholars think China’s middle classes haven not formed a class consciousness, this study suggests that they have. By practicing collectively believed rules, their identity as being from the middle- classes are forming with status prestige, even though great intra-class differences and conflicts exist.



[1]Chen, T.-P.J., Miriam 2016. Why So Many Chinese Students Come to the U.S. [Online]. WSJ. Available from: http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-so-many-chinese-students-come-to- the-u-s-1462123552 [Accessed 29 August 2016].


Author Bio

Zhe Wang is a first year DPhil student at the University of Oxford. Her research interest includes transnational education mobilities, and international higher education, (im)mobility and citizenship. Holding a Master of Research degree in Education and a Master of Art degree in Linguistics, she is now studying in the school of Geography and the Environment. Her study experience makes interdisciplinary research be of fundamental importance to her both in terms of theory and research method. Drawing insights deriving from postcolonialism, postmodernism, and human geography, now she is doing a study on the choices of landing cities of Chinese overseas student-returnees. She can be contacted at zhe.wang@sant.ox.ac.uk


Educational Pathfinders? Unpacking Narrative Claims of North American and European Transnational Undergraduate Students in China

This is the excerpt for your very first post.


Kris Hyesoo Lee

University of Oxford

Abstract: To date, research on International Student Mobility (ISM) has predominantly been concerned with movements from Asia to English-speaking and/or European nations. Consequently, there has been a marked imbalance in the current literature on ISM, which primarily defines Asian countries as the dominant actor for outbound student mobility. In contrast, educational migration from English-speaking and/or Western countries to China, as a newly emerging study abroad destination, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and consequently has been eminently under researched. Therefore, this qualitative study brings critical examination to bear on how transnational students from North America and Europe experience studying for a bachelor’s degree delivered by an offshore campus in China.

The data is collected through questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, which complement with (digital) ethnographic observations of participants’ visual/textual narratives on their social media accounts. Sociological concepts and theories drawn from Michel Foucault and critical race theory/critical Whiteness studies are primarily used to theoretically frame a critical exploration of the narrative claims of international students on their educational experiences and choices.

The study sets forth commonalities as well as differences between transnational student flow to China and mainstream mobility. It highlights often personal and multi-layered ways in which transnational students make sense of their motivations for, and experiences of study abroad. Furthermore, place, space and materiality of international branch campus are analysed to explore the ways in which transnational students create meanings of their institutionally staged space of education, interact with others within and outside of it, and materially create power relations.





My doctoral research aims to offer, within the context of international branch campuses in China, a critical exploration of narrative claims of transnational students from Anglophone and European countries to study for English-taught undergraduate degrees in an unorthodox study abroad destination. In particular, it highlights often personal and multi-layered ways in which transnational students in China make sense of their motivations, decisions around their study abroad destination, and educational and non-educational experiences.

To date, research on International Student Mobility (ISM) has predominantly been concerned with movements from the Global South to major destination countries, particularly English-speaking and/or Western nations in the Global North. As such, ISM is often associated with the pursuit of English language and a Western education. In contrast, educational migration from English-speaking and/or Western countries to newly emerging study abroad destinations (e.g. China) is a relatively recent phenomenon, and consequently has never been thoroughly examined. In other words, there has been a marked imbalance in the current literature on ISM, which primarily defines Asian countries, China in particular, as a source of international students rather than a destination for such students. The purpose of this research, therefore, is to examine the motivations and experiences of these internationally mobile students from the Global North, who are important agents in reinforcing or reconfiguring current geographies of international higher education.

A cross-disciplinary review of current scholarship on ‘international student mobility’ and ‘internationalisation of higher education’ led me to an overarching question: how do international students from Anglophone and/or European countries define the field of international higher education and position themselves within it? This inquiry then involves three sub questions that guide my understanding of the overarching question:


  1. What are the motivating factors and considerations that inform the decision to study for a degree programme in China? In other words, what factors enable international students from European and Anglophone countries to ‘eschew’ education from their home country or other English speaking/European countries for education in an unconventional destination?
  2. What educational and non-educational experiences do international students from European and Anglophone countries (intentionally or unintentionally) obtain by studying in China?
  3. What are the perceived roles of international branch campuses as a social space in legitimating and/or enabling such motivations and experiences?

To answer the above questions, sociological concepts and theories drawn from Michel Foucault are primarily used to frame this inquiry theoretically, and to offer a critical exploration of the often complex narrative claims of international students on their educational experiences and choices. Particularly, I found the notion of subjectivity useful to look at the stories that are constructed for international students, and how power produces a particular subjectivity that is internalised and constitutes the ‘true story’ for them. This subject position is also observed from the ways that international students talk about their experience, because they talk about what they actively invest in the subject position during their stay in China. Places, spaces and materiality are also significant in the ways in which transnational students from the West shape the everyday life at an international branch campus in China. The physical context creates possibilities for meaning making that can be vital for these mobile young people’s experiences in an unorthodox study abroad destination. On the other hand, place, space, and materiality are embedded within ‘social norms’ that also open up possibilities for power relations, and exclusion.

The study draws on ethnographic data collected at an US university’s branch campus in China. The data is collected through questionnaires and semi-structured interviews with 32 North American and European transnational students. I complement semi-structured interview accounts with (digital) ethnographic observations of participants’ visual/textual narratives on their social media accounts.

Findings point out that although the group of international students in my research do not fit in to the stereotype of ‘international students’, they develop subjectivities based on sameness and difference. While many students reported that the decisions to come to China were impulsive , my analysis shows that there is a dominant image of the cosmopolitan international student, which my participants tried to ‘become’. In addition, Whiteness was a major theme residing under the surface of the North American and European international students’ experiences in China. Although participants dominantly talked about racial privilege in China, it is similarly related to a broader privilege of mobility associated with Western nationality, English proficiency, and disposable income. Such privilege is not necessarily based on white complexion. Other international students, although in different degree, ‘acquire’ whiteness through their affluence, association with western culture, and institutional membership within an elite US school. In addition, analysis of the physical environment of participants’ transnational education, such as the international branch campus and urban space in China, describes how transnational students create meaning and conduct themselves within and outside of institutionally staged spaces, and how they materially create power relations and interplay with other actors involved.

By positioning the participants’ narrative accounts within the powerful discourse of neo-liberal globalisation and the internationalisation of higher education, this study demonstrates how these globally mobile students reinforce and/or undermine some of the taken-for-granted assumptions and dominant representation of international students in existing literature. The study concludes with a discussion of implications concerning commonalities and differences between Southward and Northward international student mobility, as well as a call for further research into the role of transnational student flow to newly emerging study abroad destinations.


Kris Hyesoo Lee is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, where she conducts a sociological study of the transnational mobility through education, particularly contemporary migration from the West to China. She uses a range of disciplinary lenses including human geography, sociology, and education to deepen an understanding on the meaning of globalisation, international and transnational mobility, and identity and belonging. Prior to undertaking her doctoral studies, she served various roles in the higher education sector. She holds a master’s degree in Education from the University of Cambridge, where she was a member of Wolfson college.