Subjectivity as the site of struggle: students’ perspectives toward Sino-foreign cooperation universities in the era of discursive conflicts

Research highlighted

Han, X. (2022). Subjectivity as the Site of Struggle: Students’ Perspectives toward Sino-Foreign Cooperation Universities in the Era of Discursive Conflicts. Higher Education. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-022-00840-w

Subjectivity as the site of struggle: students’ perspectives toward sino-foreign cooperation universities in the era of discursive conflicts

As an effective solution both to education surplus in developed countries and the lack of high-quality educational resources in developing ones, the number of international branch campuses (IBCs) has gained rapid growth worldwide. During this process scholars remain suspicious about curriculum design and delivery, faculty and student recruitment, and the suitableness of the imported teaching content to the host country. Wilkins et al. (2012) go further to emphasize not only the efectiveness of teaching and learning, but students’ (subjective) perspective should be taken into account for IBCs’ further development.

However, the traditional analysis of students’ experience is inclined toward the pre-social conception of individuals, locating investigation in a value-free vacuum. When zooming in on international education, it concentrates on students’ other-directed adjustment/acculturation and focuses on the differences among dominant discourses. From the perspective of critical theorists, such efforts have placed agency and constraints into two extremes of continuum rather than examining their interpenetration, the dangers alerted by both Bourdieu and Foucault, as freeing agency from power relationships. The “already formed” view of the person (Olssen et  al., 2004) sidesteps the issue on how people’s subjectivities have been infiltrated and occupied by modern power during its changes from “explicitly overt forms or ‘oppression’” to “more covert forms…imbu[ing] with individuals’ own desires and active participation in the regulation and development of their selves” (Webb, 2011, p. 738). Based on existing critical studies of how neoliberalism realizes governance at a distance by subjectivity production and how individuals resist such politically imposed discourse, this article furthers the study of students’ self-formation and the resulted subjective evaluation toward their enrolled institutions in the era of discursive conflicts. Specifically, it adopts Foucault’s concept of ethics to empirically explore the permanent agonism in the subjectivity constitution of students who are situated between neoliberalism and authoritarianism in Chinese Sino-foreign cooperation universities (SFCUs) and the danger of their sense of lost.

The data reported were collected from in-depth interviews with sophomores and juniors in three selected SFCUs. The analysis was directed by Foucault’s ideas of power, discourse, subject/subjectivity, and critique. Special attention was paid to critique about the normalized neoliberal and authoritarian values prevailed in their enrolled institutions.

Specifically, neoliberal ideas have successfully penetrated individuals minds, demonstrated by the great faith of all the interviewees in the academic standards of the cooperation universities. Students believe SFCUs as the fair sites to “to utilize their powers of consumer choice and control” (Vincent, 1994, p. 263) and the world-class educational resources/good service they received worth the relatively high tuition fees charged. However, while neoliberalism discourse has obviously occupied the dominant position in SFCUs, China’s effort to shape authoritarian subjects has also been rewarded as the interviewees express their desire for clear instruction and direction from authority.

This study highlights the “equivocal nature” of the subject as representing “one of the best aides in coming to terms with the specifcity of power” (Foucault, 1997b, p. 212).Subjectivity is a site where power enacts and resisted/refused; it is ever-developing, instead of being “primarily or always identical to itself” (Foucault, 1997a, p. 290). THNE facilitates this process by providing students the accesses to various discourses (sometimes in conflict). While such developments change subjects’ perception/evaluation towards certain events/environment/experience, it also represents rethinking of the “critical ontology of ourselves”; students become suspicious about the “truth” and always feel “lost” as he submits himself “to ‘an experience…in which what one is oneself is, precisely, in doubt’” (Burchell, 1996, p. 30).

To conclude, Foucault’s observation that “human beings are made subjects” (1982, p. 208) cautions the danger of either taking neoliberal criteria/values for granted to explore international/transnational education experience or focusing on cultural aspects as constraints for students to respond to. From the prism of Foucault, individuals’ values, perceptions, and self-knowledge are “linked to the ways in which [they] are governed” (Dean, 1999, p. 14), simultaneously by others and by themselves: their evaluation/satisfaction is subjectively shaped by (various and conficting) discourse(s) which confne(s) “what will be known” (Mills, 2003, p. 70) and what counts as natural/true. As Foucault further alerts, “nowadays, the struggle…against the submission of subjectivity–is becoming more and more important, even though the struggles against forms of domination and exploitation have not disappeared. Quite the contrary” (1982, p. 213).

Authors’ Bio

Dr. Xiao HAN
Tianjin University

Dr Xiao HAN earned her B.A. (Economics) from Jilin University and Ph.D (Education) from the Education University of Hong Kong. She worked for two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Lingnan University and then took the position of Beiyang associate professor at the School of Education, Tianjin University. Her research is trans-disciplinary-based, focusing on critical policy analysis, international/transnational higher education, and Foucault/Bourdieu studies. Her works have been published in international journals such as Journal of Education Policy, Higher Education, and Policy and Society. Email:

Managing editor: Lisa(Zhiyun) Bian