Foreign Academics in China

Research highlighted

Cai, Y., Braun Střelcová, A., Marini, G., Huang, F., & Xu, X. (2022). Foreign Academics in China. International Higher Education, (111), 29-30. Retrieved from

Note: the text was originally published on International Higher Education (IHE).


This article examines the experience of international academics to mainland China. The emerging trend of foreign academics moving into long-term, full-time positions in Chinese universities is an underreported phenomenon in research. This short article discusses the following questions: Who are the foreign academics in China? What motivated them to work there? What are their expected roles in local academia? Are they satisfied with their jobs? Are they going to stay in China?

Keywords: Academic migration, international academics, internationalization of higher education, China

Funding acknowledgement: Research projects leading to this article were funded respectively by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (project “An International and Comparative Study in Roles and Contributions of International Faculty and Researchers”, 2019-2023, project code 19H01640); Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR, project code ANR-14-ORAR-0004); and Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE).

Being a major global science and technology player, mainland China has become also a destination for international academics. In this regard, the Chinese government’s policy has shifted from primarily encouraging overseas Chinese to return to also attracting foreign-born academics to China. Over the recent years, the composition of the latter group has evolved. The “old” cohort of this group consisted mainly of university (language) teachers, short-term academic visitors, part-time post holders and honorary affiliates, trailing spouses, or Chinese returnees. They have been joined by a “new” cohort, foreign nationals moving to China for full-time, long-term academic positions. The authors of this article have recently conducted comprehensive investigations on this emerging phenomenon, and report on the key findings below.

Who Are the Foreign Academics in China?

The term—foreign or international academics in China—has been frequently used without a univocal definition. In China, policy discourses on foreign academics have evolved from sulian zhuanjia (Soviet experts) in the 1950s, waiguo wenjiao zhuanjia (foreign cultural and educational experts) and waiji jiaoshi (foreign-nationality teachers) in the 1990s, and waiji rencai (foreign talents), the term used in recent talent programs at the national and local levels. The current policies concentrate on attracting researchers with foreign nationality to work in China. In many universities, further priority is given to those of non-Chinese ethnicity, primarily white foreigners from the global West. Although most accurate, up-to-date data is missing, the 2019 Ministry of Education’s data indicates that there are more than 18,000 foreign academics in China. However, recent studies, including the authors’ works, show that foreign academics in China do not constitute a homogenous group. Instead, they can be differentiated by various attributes, such as scientific disciplines, career stage, gender, nationality, ethnicity, country of previous work experience as well as education, and more.

Moreover, recent studies have revealed some interesting findings. First, the most sought-after foreign academics in Chinese universities are established researchers in engineering and natural sciences, coming from the global West. Second, there is a prevalence of academics who are male, senior, and have citizenship, work experience, and degrees from Western countries. Finally, an emerging group of foreign-born academics, who stayed in China after receiving their doctoral degrees there, has appeared. Naturally, the group’s heterogeneity is reflected in the diversity of their experiences.

What Motivated Foreign Academics to Work in China?

Foreign academics come to China for a combination of professional, cultural, social, and personal reasons. The most common primary motivation is career development, since the change of location can bring better opportunities than staying in the previous country of residence. The prospects also concern salaries, allowances, research funding, subsidized housing, dual career offers for spouses and overall recognition of their track records. The second motivation is the cultural and social connection, often entangled with the professional aspect. Especially academics from social sciences and humanities are attracted by the opportunity to work in a unique cultural environment. To some of them, having strong networks in China is essential to their research. The third motivation is related to the academics’ personal reasons, such as having a Chinese spouse.

What Are their Expected Roles in Chinese Academia?

Chinese institutions’ expectations for foreign academics are closely connected to the pursuit of building world-class universities. When hiring foreign academics, the universities and research institutes seek enhancing their international reputation, increasing research productivity, promoting international collaboration, supporting faculty development, and attracting international students. Such a situation is in significant contrast with the 1990s when international staff was hired mainly for teaching. According to the foreign academics themselves, they are primarily recruited to boost the institution’s research performance and international reputation. Nonetheless, they also feel that they are confined to ‘bubbles’, being less integrated in their workplaces than their Chinese colleagues. Many believe they could play more important roles in building links between their affiliated institutions and global academic networks.

Are They Satisfied with Their Jobs?

Despite variations, foreign academics are overall satisfied with their working conditions. In most cases, those in engineering and natural sciences are happier with their jobs than those from social sciences and humanities who are more likely to feel frustrated, especially if they are junior researchers. Nonetheless, foreign academics see challenges in both professional and non-professional aspects of life, especially after a few years. First, they perceive being viewed as a possible source of conflict by domestic academics and administrators. Second, foreign academics often feel isolated from the rest of the institution, i.e. being seen as guests. Third, most of them believe language barriers exist e.g., in applying for research funding. Fourth, shrinking academic freedom is concerning, particularly to some social sciences researchers. Fifth, most find it hard to adapt to the local research administration system. Finally, non-professional challenges mainly include cultural integration (e.g., conflicting value systems), legal procedures (e.g., lengthy visa and residence permit applications), and living conditions (e.g., expensive healthcare, children’s schooling).

Will Foreign Academics Stay in China?   

Regarding long-term retaining, significant differences exist among academics with different attributes. A recent study on Europeans in Chinese public universities shows that these academics’ job satisfaction tends to decrease along with time as they gradually identify further challenges related to their employing institution as well as the larger society. On the other hand, since many such academics accept offers in China with a higher academic rank at a relatively younger age, it is logical they consider relocating elsewhere again. Still, their work experience in China become an essential stepping stone in increasing their competitiveness in the global academic labor market.

Concluding Remarks

Now the world is experiencing extraordinary crises caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the US-China decoupling, as well as the Russia-Ukraine war. The shifting geopolitical dynamics is likely to dramatically influence also the landscape of international mobility of academics. Due to the pandemic travel restrictions in China, the country’s foreign population has already shrunk. For instance, the number of European academics in China has been reduced by one third. In view of that, the evolving flows of international migration in China, including the movements of foreign academics, should be closely monitored and continuously traced.

Relevant publications

Braun Střelcová, A., Y. Cai, and W. Shen. 2022. “The Experience of European Researchers in China: A Comparative Capital Advantage Perspective.” The Journal of Knowledge Economy

Huang, F. 2022. “International Faculty in China: Their Motivations and Work Roles.” In Changing Higher Education in East Asia, edited by S. Marginson, and X. Xu, 203–223. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Huang, F., and Y. Kim. 2022. “International Faculty Members in China, Japan and South Korea: Their Characteristics and the Challenges Facing Them.” In Research Handbook on Managing Academics, edited by C. S. Sarrico, M. J. Rosa, and T. Carvalho, 338–355. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

Marini, G., and X. Xu. 2021. “The Golden Guests”? International Faculty in Mainland Chinese Universities. SRHE Research Report.

Xu, X., Braun Střelcová, A., Marini, G., Huang, F., & Cai, Y. (2022). International academics in mainland China: what do we know and what do we need to know?. European Journal of Higher Education, 1-18.

Author bio:

Dr Yuzhuo Cai, Tampere University

Dr Yuzhuo Cai is Senior Lecturer and Adjunct Professor at the Higher Education Group, Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University, Finland. He is the Director of Sino-Finnish Education Research Centre, JoLii, and Deputy Director of Research Centre on Transnationalism and Transformation at Tampere University. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Triple Helix: A Journal of University-Industry-Government Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He has over 100 academic publications in the fields of higher education research and innovation studies. He can be contacted at

Andrea Braun Střelcová, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Andrea Braun Střelcová is a fellow at the “China in the Global System of Science” research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and PhD student at the Higher Education Group, Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University in Finland. She can be contacted at

Dr Giulio Marini is Assistant Professor at the Social Research Institute, Faculty of Education and Society, University College London where he has worked for the last 6 years. Previously he has been post-doctoral researcher at Scuola Normale Superiore Pisa (Italy), Cipes University of Porto (Portugal), and the CNR Italy. He is member of the editorial board of European Journal of Higher Education, a journal he has been for more than three years associate editor. His research is mostly in the staff side of higher education. He can be contacted at

Dr Futao Huang, Hiroshima University

Dr Futao Huang is Professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan. Before he came to Japan in 1999, he taught and conducted research in several Chinese universities. His main research interests include internationalization of higher education, the academic profession, and higher education in East Asia. He has published widely in Chinese, English and Japanese languages. He can be contacted

Dr. Xin Xu, University of Oxford

Dr Xin Xu (许心) is a Research Fellow at the Department of Education, University of Oxford. Xin’s research concentrates on the globalisation and internationalisation of higher education and research. Recent books include Changing Higher Education in East Asia (co-edited with Simon Marginson; Bloomsbury). Profile page: She can be contacted at

Managing editor: Tong Meng