Expanding flexible citizenship: Chinese international school students and global mobilities for higher education

Ma, Y. and Wright, E. (2022), “Expanding flexible citizenship: Chinese international school students and global mobilities for higher education“, Social Transformations in Chinese Societies, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/STICS-05-2022-0010

There is a rich literature on the mobilities of international students for higher education (e.g., Brooks and Waters, 2022). Previous research, however, has focused almost exclusively on students already abroad. It has tended to overlook a significant development in education systems worldwide: the expansion of international schools that serve as a pipeline to overseas higher education for a local base of middle-class families (Bunnell, 2022; Wright et al., 2022). In China, the number of international schools boomed from 22 in 2000 to 1,103 in 2022, with an enrolment of around 406,037 students (ISC Research, 2022). Although international schooling has been historically associated with mobile expatriates, 87 percent of international schools in China cater exclusively or primarily to Chinese citizens (NewSchool Insight, 2019). In this article, we report on interviews with final-year high-school students (n=60) and parents (n=16) from eight international schools in Shenzhen, covering their motivations for overseas higher education, experience with international schooling, self-perceived identities, and imagined futures.

In so doing, we interrogate and expanded on the flexible citizenship framework by illuminating the emergent identities and imagined future mobilities of students from China’s international schools. Flexible citizenship, defined as ‘cultural logics of capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement that induce subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions’ under globalisation (Ong, 1999, p. 6), has been widely applied to understand the identities of Chinese international students (e.g., Fong, 2011, Wu and Tarc, 2021; 2022). From this perspective, Chinese students and their families are mainly portrayed as instrumentalist, investing in Western education to obtain cultural symbols of academic credentials that are convertible to enhanced prospects for imagined futures overseas.

By contrast, we found that the participants chose to pursue not only the symbolic capital of degrees but also a high-quality, open, diverse, critical, and character-building education, i.e., embodied cultural capital cultivation for a globalised world. By aspiring for elite universities in Anglophone societies, they demonstrated a complex understanding of elite degrees as positional goods in a global higher education landscape hegemonised by the West (Marginson, 2008) as well as the core of international education as building intercultural competencies and cosmopolitan dispositions (e.g., Weenink, 2008). Unlike the Chinese international students in previous literature who have been represented as ill-prepared for Western education (e.g., Fong, 2011), international schooling experience appears to have helped our participants feel confidently ready for overseas studies through English proficiency, international curricula, and extracurricular exposures.

International schooling appears to have instilled authentically globally-oriented values in the students. The students in our study regarded themselves as knowledgeable and critical about global issues, respectful of cultural diversity, and responsible for global betterment, thus self-perceived ‘global citizens’. Similar global-oriented logics were missing in the flexible citizenship framework, with its narrow focus on instrumental considerations (Fong, 2011; Ong, 1999). Our participants maintained a strong Chinese identity, which they considered compatible with being ‘global citizens’. On the surface, their Chinese roots may resemble the emotional, cultural, and social attachments’ flexible citizens’ had toward home (Ong, 1999). However, our participants’ confidence in China as a rising global power and willingness to build careers in China set them apart from flexible citizens, whose primary goal was to escape a ‘backward’ China and pursue livelihoods in the developed world. We argue that, even though instrumental thinking and flexibility were at play in our participants’ choice of overseas higher education and imagined futures, the students were becoming global citizens with Chinese roots.

Expanding on our findings, we discusss the changing desire among Chinese families for overseas higher education across three generations: before the Reforms and Opening-up in 1978, from the 1980s to the early 21st century, and in the first two decades of the 21st century. First, before the Reforms and Opening-up in 1978, socialist and patriotic discourses dominated China. People typically formed strong political, social, and emotional bonds to the socialist rule and felt hostile toward the ‘capitalist West’. Under a strict state-planning economy, the urban population were distributed in ‘work units’ that offered accommodation, medical care, children’s education, and other essential life assurances (Bian, 1994). For a vast majority of the population, education played a relatively insignificant role in determining life chances. In this context, overseas education was unwelcome and unnecessary.

Second, from the 1980s to the early 21st century, economic reforms disrupted socialist public institutions such as housing, healthcare, and education and placed Chinese families under increasing social insecurities and self-accountability. An individualised, success-driving ethic began to dominate (Yan, 2013). Education gradually became a vital means to climb the social ladder. Free compulsory education was universalised in the 1980s, and the 1990s witnessed expansions of high school and postsecondary education. The One-Child policy further motivated urban parents to invest in the education of their ‘only hope’. Moreover, as cultural inputs from the outside world (e.g., TV shows, music, literature, food) and developing-versus-developed-world discourses were popularised, many found it hard to shake off the idea of a ‘backward’ China or uncertainty about its future (Fong, 2011, pp. 70-71). A growing desire for ‘the developed world’ motivated families from diverse backgrounds to desire overseas education despite the high costs, especially when they saw little chance to succeed in the national education system. This was the period when both Ong (1999) and Fong (2011) conducted their research that generated and popularised the flexible citizenship framework.

Third, in the first two decades of the 21st century, when our student participants were born and raised, individualisation and competition intensified in Chinese cities. With individual responsibility for educational success and future prosperity, aspirations and anxieties merged to characterise urban Chinese families (Kipnis, 2011). The mass expansion of higher education in China began to be criticised for exacerbating inequalities in access to elite universities, graduate unemployment, and credential inflation (e.g., Mok, 2016). As an alternative, more affluent families demanded overseas education, which contributed to responsive policy relaxations, including international schools’ expansion to cater to local students.

Additionally, the young generation in China has grown up as learners of the English language, active users of the Internet, and consumers of global brands and cultural products. Their global awareness and cultural readiness for overseas studies, therefore, tends to be more developed than previous generations. On the global stage, China increasingly presented itself as a rising power, not only in economic terms, but also through ‘soft power’ initiatives such as ‘One-Belt-and-One-Road’, foreign aid, peace-making missions, contributions to Sustainability Goals, and so on (e.g., Jiang, 2021). Meanwhile, the image of developed countries suffered, for example, through the financial crisis in 2008, political scandals, campus shootings, and, most recently, the perceived mishandling of Covid-19. The prestige of overseas education, especially the elite Western universities, still firmly stands. Nonetheless, overall, we argue that the events of the past twenty years contributed to the international school students’ emergent identities that deviate from traditional accounts of flexible citizenship by combining authentically globally-oriented values with self-confidence regarding their China and their Chinese roots.


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Authors’ bio:

Ewan Wright, Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK)

Ewan Wright is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK). He is also a Research Fellow at the Joseph Lau Luen Hung Charitable Trust Asia Pacific Centre for Leadership and Change. At EdUHK, he is the Programme Leader of the Executive Master of Arts in International Educational Leadership and Change. He is currently conducting a University Grants Committee of Hong Kong-funded project on the proliferation of international schooling in China’s Greater Bay Area. His work has been published in well-regarded journals such as British Educational Research JournalBritish Journal of Sociology of EducationDiscourseGlobalisation, Societies and Education, and Higher Education.

Ying Ma, Fudan University

Ying Ma is an Associate Research Professor at the Institute of Higher Education, Fudan University. She received her PhD from the University of Hong Kong. Her main research interests include student experience of higher education, graduate employment, and international education (schooling). She has published in well-regarded English- and Chinese-language academic journals such as Globalisation, Societies and Education and Tsinghua Journal of Education.

Managing editor: Tong Meng

Gendered experiences at academic conferences: A comparative study of female Chinese STEM PhD students in China and New Zealand

Research highlighted

Yang, L., Smith, J., & Meyer, F. (2022). Gendered experiences at academic conferences: A comparative study of female Chinese STEM PhD students in China and New ZealandInternational Journal of Multidisciplinary Perspectives in Higher Education7(1), 71–97.

It is a well-known phenomenon that women are underrepresented in academia, especially in STEM fields. Although it is reported that the number of female doctoral students engaging in academia has increased in recent years worldwide, women still make up only about one-third of academic researchers in STEM fields in China and New Zealand. They were reported facing implicit biases, gender-based discrimination, and have low psychological well-being in different settings in academia, in labs or at conferences. Academic conferences offer opportunities for PhD students to present their own research, network with others, and pursue opportunities for post-doctoral positions. However, conferences are inevitably gendered spaces. Although there have been prior studies of female PhD students’ conference experiences worldwide, limited prior research has been conducted in Chinese settings.

This small-scale, qualitative study compares the experiences of Chinese students studying in New Zealand and study in China. We draw on Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) model of science identity development which stresses that identity development requires interactions with others and includes three interrelated and overlapping dimensions: competence, performance, and recognition. The formation of science identity is influenced by students’ gender identity and the locations they are studying in. As China and New Zealand are both significant higher education providers in the Asia-Pacific region, but vary in social system, cultural context, and mode of doctoral education, the comparison of Chinese female students’ experience can help isolate gender identity from contextual factors. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to gather data from four domestic female Chinese PhD students in a Chinese university and five international female Chinese PhD students studying in New Zealand.

For female Chinese PhD students both in China and New Zealand, their decisions to pursue a PhD were mostly driven by their aspirations for a career in academia or related industries. They felt a ‘pressure of age’, from both from the job market and their family. ‘Involution’ (内卷 in Chinese), a term that describes the phenomenon in which higher education degree holders compete for entry-level positions in industries and universities, was highlighted by study participants. Our study participants reported pressure to earn their degrees before a certain age (35) to compete for these industry jobs. Also, participants noted that Chinese parents generally see marriage, rather than a career, as a pathway for social mobility for their daughters, putting more emphasis on their daughter’s marriage than academic success. This pressure likely negatively influenced their development of a strong science identity as they felt that their families and society valued a different identity more strongly – that of a wife and mother.

Our sample of PhD students in both China and New Zealand reported that in their experiences, especially in bioscience fields, the gender gap at least in the number of  PhD students seemed to be reducing. However, participants reported that even with a more equal gender distribution, they were acutely aware of a ‘glass ceiling’ that restricts female students from success in STEM research fields. For example, they noted that supervisors had lower expectations of their work, seemed to prefer to take on male PhD students, or did not believe female researchers needed a PhD. In addition, in the sampled Chinese university, participants reported that the resources distributed to female PhD students, including supervision time as well as conference and networking opportunities, were relatively limited compared to those provided to male students. Further, although they faced these inequities, our participants noted ‘a culture of silence’ in which they felt their experiences of gender bias would be viewed as a ‘little drama in their head’ if reported. In contrast, Chinese female doctoral students studying in New Zealand reported better experiences compared to their counterparts in China. They described a gender-balanced, positive, and supportive community of researchers in their STEM fields. However, gender was still acutely felt; one participant in this study drew a blueprint of a post-gendered world:

It would be better if we do not over-focus on the word ‘female’. If a woman has high achievement, like Chinese researcher Tu, Youyou, the media or the public always report her as a ‘female’ scientist. If an actual gender balance is achieved, we would not emphasise her female identity.

In terms of the comparison of their conference participation, study participants reported a noticeable gap in opportunities to attend conferences between those in China and in New Zealand. While the latter had attended both national and international academic conferences in their research field, the former rarely went to conferences regardless of the stage in their PhD. Participants’ attitudes towards conference attendance also varied by the location of their PhD study. Female Chinese PhD students in New Zealand tended to see themselves as ‘presenters’, whereas female Chinese PhD students studying in China tended to define themselves as ‘listeners’ or ‘learners’. Participants in China reported more obstacles to attending conferences, where they reported a lack of faculty support and fraught supervisor-student relationships. In addition, Chinese domestic students felt that they could not dedicate time to attend and present at conferences without falling behind on lab work and writing journal articles.

To conclude, this study found that gender identity perceptions continue to have a strong influence on the development of scientific identities among female Chinese PhD students, regardless of where they opted to complete their PhD studies. The interaction of personal (i.e., the pressure of age) and organizational factors (i.e., the perception of a glass ceiling) compounded the difficulty our study participants studying in China faced in their doctoral education, leading to more psychological and emotional pressure compared to  participants studying in New Zealand. Meanwhile, the absence of psychological support from Chinese universities made our study participants feel more isolated in seeking emotional support during their study than their counterparts studying in New Zealand.

Attending conferences is one key mechanism for the development of a science identity and is often a stepping stone into a career. Understanding the experiences of female PhD students in attending conferences is a first step in making a positive change toward a non-biased and inclusive academic environment that provides equitable opportunities for women in STEM fields. To support women in succeeding in academia, academic institutions and the wider society needs to combat persistent gender biases in order to support female PhD students’ science identity development.

Note: the larger study of New Zealand female PhD students’ conference experience in STEM fields named Small Fish in Big Ponds: Female Doctoral STEM Students’ Conference Experiences and Science Identity Development will be presented in AERA 2022 annual meeting on 25th April in San Diego, United States.



Authors’ Bio

Liuning Yang, the University of Auckland

Liuning Yang is a PhD candidate in the School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice, Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. Liuning’s research include the cultural capital theory of Pierre Bourdieu, educational policy, education equity of rural-urban migrants in China. Email: liuning.yang@auckland.ac.nz

Dr Jo Smith, the University of Auckland

Dr Jo Smith is a Senior Lecturer in education policy and leadership in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. Her research is situated at the intersection of policy and practice and examines the systems that both hinder and help schools and school systems enact reforms aimed at improving outcomes. Email: smith.joanna@auckland.ac.nz

Dr Frauke Meyer, the University of Auckland

Dr Frauke Meyer is a Senior Lecturer in the Master of Educational Leadership program in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. Her research is concerned with school improvement for equity, school leadership, and interpersonal practices to improve equity in outcomes for marginalized learners. She has published and presented her research nationally and internationally in high-ranking journals and at conferences. Email: f.meyer@auckland.ac.nz