International habitus, inculcation and entrepreneurial aspirations: International students learning in a Chinese VET college

Xu, W., & Stahl, G. (2023). “International habitus, inculcation and entrepreneurial aspirations: international students learning in a Chinese VET college“. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-14.

While research continues to document the influence of higher education institutions on students’ identities, studies considering how these institutions inform students’ post-study aspirations and career pathways remain limited. In the article International habitus, inculcation and entrepreneurial aspirations: International students learning in a Chinese VET college we published in Globalisation, Societies & Education (doi:10.1080/14767724.2023.2193316), we engage with a new phenomenon – international students in vocational colleges in China and examine how the cultural and expressive characteristics of the institution empowered them to imagine their futures.

Drawing upon Bourdieu’s conceptualisation of institutional habitus, we use institutional habitus to probe empirical data highlighting the specific effects on students who attended the VET college. Byrd (2019, pp. 16-17), in reviewing the use of institutional habitus in empirical research, critiques the lack of attention on ‘institutional status as the source of institutional habitus’ and ‘field’s role in structuring institutional practice’. As such, we contextualise the social status of the specific Chinese VET college under research in two dimensions. Firstly, the institution’s positioning at the bottom of the educational hierarchy1 has led to negative stereotypes of its domestic students (e.g. educational ‘failures’) and low enrolment of international students. Secondly, the VET sector is embedded in the nexus between China’s two strategies of soft power – the internationalisation of higher education and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Han & Tong, 2021; Wen & Hu, 2019), which influences the institution’s action and decision on providing career support to its international students.

Based upon qualitative data collected through semi-structured interviews with 17 self-funded international students and two teachers in the VET college – Seaside – in southeast China, we found that the institutional culture informed the career choices of students. The education and entrepreneurism integrated mode of learning, in conjunction with the institution’s (in)formal ties with enterprises, hands-on experiences and the accrual of valuable social capital in the entrepreneurial field, appears to shape the students’ evaluation, perception and decision-making of the field of possibilities and the future direction of their lives after graduation. Seaside has taken advantage of its geographic location to foster more authentic entrepreneurial experiences. As strategies of shaping aspirations, students were not only encouraged to engage in a broader range of career programs, but also to visit and liaise with local entrepreneurs through the teachers’ personal network. These institutional practices, as cultural and expressive characteristics of Seaside, are structured in a way that that ‘recognize[s], reward[s], and inculcate[s] systems of thought and behaviour’ (Byrd, 2019, p. 2) based on a specified version of vocationally oriented, entrepreneurial culture.

Importantly, our data further suggest that students’ capacities to imagine career possibilities were significantly influenced by Seaside. They unanimously expressed their intentions to start up their own business after completing their studies, and some of them already registered companies and received orders from customers, even though their original aspirations were to pursue an academic route which is more common amongst international students in China. The school is a primary generative space for habitus, ‘where the student is directly and indirectly imparted with patterns of thinking and being’ (Stahl 2015). Their attraction to entrepreneurialism reflects the influence of institutional practices on an individuals’ behaviour as they are mediated through a complex mix of curriculum offer, organisational practices and such (Reay 1998, Reay, David et al. 2001). 

In understanding the issues involved with student choice in educational contexts, a number of important studies have tended to draw upon the concept of institutional habitus, which extends Bourdieu’s (1990) work on the individual habitus, to help explain the ways in which individual institutions play a significant role in shaping and influencing young people in progressing to higher education (see, for example, Reay 1998, Reay, David et al. 2001, Pugsley 2004) or imagining a wider field of possibilities after graduation (see, for example, Lee 2021, Lee 2021). This article contributes to the theoretical building of institutional habitus by expanding it to career choices in Chinese higher education. We have found institutional habitus to offer rich explanatory potentiality in understanding that aspirations are ‘not simply individual cognitions residing within ones’ heads’; rather, individuals’ aspirations and views of futures careers are ‘complex and socially embedded (and constructed) phenomena’ – formed within social contexts (Archer, DeWitt et al. 2012, Stahl 2017, Xu and Stahl 2021).


Byrd, D. (2019). Uncovering hegemony in higher education: A critical appraisal of the use of “institutional habitus” in empirical scholarship. Review of Educational Research, 89(2), 171-210. 

Han, C., & Tong, Y. (2021). Students at the nexus between the Chinese diaspora and internationalisation of higher education: The role of overseas students in China’s strategy of soft power. British Journal of Educational Studies, 1-20. doi:10.1080/00071005.2021.1935446

Wen, W., & Hu, D. (2019). The emergence of a regional education hub: Rationales of international students’ choice of China as the study destination. Journal of Studies in International Education, 23(3), 303-325. doi:10.1177/1028315318797154.

Authors’ bio:

Dr. Wen Xu, East China Normal University, China

Dr. Wen Xu is a post-doc research fellow at East China Normal University, China. Her research interests focus on language(s) education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, learner identities, and equity/inequality. Considering the worldwide growing upheaval and scepticism around Chinese language education, she writes extensively on how Chinese literacy can be theorised as a pathway towards equity and upward social mobility for Australian students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. She can be contacted via email:

Dr. Garth Stahl, University of Queensland, Australia

Dr. Garth Stahl is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. His research interests focus on the relationship between education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, student identities, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference as well as educational reform.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)