A Sociomaterial Investigation into Chinese International Students’ Navigation of a Doctoral Trajectory During Covid-19

Research highlighted

Xu, X. (2022). A Sociomaterial Investigation into Chinese International Students’ Navigation of a Doctoral Trajectory During COVID-19Journal of Studies in International Education. doi:10.1177/10283153221126247

Despite the growing scholarship on the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, there is a dearth of specific focus on how international doctoral students perceive their navigation of a disrupted study journey from a sociomaterial perspective. It is not yet clear what and how the performative roles played by matter and human forces shape this process of navigation from their emic views. Bearing these gaps in mind, this study recruited a group of Chinese international doctoral students (CIDS) to share their emic perceptions. Specifically, it employed a sociomaterial approach to enabling exploration, with the aim of tackling the relevant lacuna and being a timely contribution to international HE. 

This study adopts a sociomaterial approach to its analysis. In the domain of educational research, an increasing number of scholars corroborate a sociomaterial approach that challenges the subordination of materials to the human subject and foregrounds messy textures woven through hybrid assemblages of objects, discourses, bodies, technologies, etc. Despite discrepancies and convergences, restoring a focus on the more-than-human dynamics, this approach generally challenges the separation logic but supports an interpenetrated entanglement between the human and non-human as a constitutive force of building everyday action and knowledge (Edwards & Fenwick, 2014). Moving away from a view of either downplaying materiality or separating it from the human, this approach adds new insights from a relational and performative perspective.

To facilitate a deep investigation, this study employed a qualitative methodology. Circulated with a purposive snowballing strategy, the recruitment targeted CIDS who were either overseas or in China when an interview took place. The researchers stopped recruiting more participants when the recruitment secured 20 participants, reaching a point of qualitative saturation in relation to the key research questions (Hu et al., 2022). Despite this being a relatively small sample size that ensures neither a good representativeness nor generalizability of the CIDS cohort, it features diversity at several levels, somewhat mitigating limitations intrinsic to qualitative research.  All transcripts were transported into NVivo 12 for a thematic analysis informed by the data and the theoretical underpinnings adopted by the study.

This study brought sociomateriality of international doctoral education to the fore amidst the unprecedented health crisis. Firstly, it problematizes human-centeredness in conceptualizing learning practices that were peculiarly complicated by the precarious socio-historical context. Backdropped the pandemic, some activities, settings and relationships integral to doctoral training were disabled, with learning space morphed, material provision disrupted and extra scrutiny imposed. These destructive forces undeniably contoured the educational experience, serving to exclude, invite, and regulate particular forms of participation (Fenwick, 2014). Secondly, resonating with other studies that disclose how the ripple effects of the pandemic penetrated multiple facets of a study trajectory (Aristovnik, et al., 2020; Xu & Tran, 2021), instigating disruption of learning ecology, intensified racialization and bodily scrutiny, this study offers further insights by revealing how socio-material bricolages were mobilized to address these plights and even transform them into empowering energies. This process is facilitated by interdependencies of humans and material forms. Whereas human actors use and thus transform material objects, things as mediators of practices are also capable of transforming human actions (Brooks & Waters, 2018).  Conversely, material environment also moderates learning behaviors. As a consequence of the myriad interrelationships, new meanings were produced among these hybrid assemblages of materials, ideas, and bodies (Guerrettaz et al., 2021).

In light of the findings, this study offers some insights on internationalization of doctoral education and practical implications for stakeholders to better support international doctoral students in the current dire situation. Firstly, it lends empirical weight to a nuanced conceptualization of university internationalization against new circumstances. For many students stranded in China, they need readjustment relying at least temporarily on technology-enabled learning across geographic boundaries “abroad” while simultaneously remaining at “home”, which falls into the category of internationalization at a distance (Ramanau, 2016; Mittelmeier et al., 2021) that goes beyond the binary of internationalization at home and internationalization abroad. Echoing previous scholarship that endorses an integration of infrastructural resources in situ and opportunities provided through distance learning via this category (Breines et al., 2019; Mittelmeier et al., 2019), this study however contributes distinct subtleties that lay bare how internationalization at a distance is compromised when it is practiced not as a fully-developed educational mechanism but as an expedient response to the sudden and massive rupture following the pandemic. The managerial, technological, operational and mental unpreparedness of temporary readjustment at the institutional and personal levels diminishes doctoral students’ educational quality. This warrants practical implications for facilitating a sustainable doctoral trajectory, during and beyond the current health crisis. At the macro level, innovation of technologies and formalization of the virtual delivery, cooperation and research should be further strengthened (Huang et al., 2022) as internationalization strategies in the interest of local and global common goods (Marginson, 2020). At the micro level, international doctoral students should sharpen their psychological and behavioral responsiveness to future challenges, mobilizing and appropriating possible resources in order not only to survive but also thrive in unpleasant circumstances. As revealed in the study, one possibility is to tap the sociomaterial potential, facilitating human and non-human forces to form assemblages that act together through ongoing coordinating work (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010) to sustain stability of an educational journey. Having said that, we must admit that a fine-grained articulation of these efforts is neither the focus of the current study, nor can be succinctly elaborated in a piece of this length. Focusing on doctoral students solely, this study has not unpacked comparative (dis)similarities with other international student cohorts such as the course-based master students. We as researchers suggest future research attend to this limitation based on a larger pool of student participants with heterogeneous background characteristics. Also, future endeavors are encouraged to shed more light on sociomateriality of international education, which we believe can contribute to the sustainability of internationalization of doctoral education in a post-pandemic world.

Dr Xu’s other Research Highlights entries:

Authors’ Bio

Dr Xing Xu, Sichuan International Studies University

Dr Xing Xu (许幸) is a lecturer at Sichuan International Studies University, China. Her research interests include internationalization of higher education, doctoral students’ evaluation of educational experience, academic mobility, identity construction of doctoral students, and qualitative inquiry. She can be contacted via email: xing.xu@uon.edu.au.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)

Benefits of studying in China: International students from top-tier Chinese universities ‘spill the beans’

Research highlighted 

Singh, J.K.N. (2022). Benefits of studying in China: International students from top-tier Chinese universities ‘spill the beans’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2022.2052822

International education is a fast-changing phenomenon in global higher education. For decades, China has been the ‘sending’ country of international students to English-speaking countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. By the twenty-first century, the role has reversed and China is one of the fastest growing ‘receiving’ countries of international students. In 2018, there were a total of 492,185 international students from 196 countries pursuing their studies in 1,004 higher education institutions; the majority came from Asia (59.95%) followed by Africa (16.57%), Europe (14.96%), America (7.26%) and Oceania (1.27%) (Chinese Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, 2018). Given the exponential growth of international students in China, understanding the advantages of studying there is under-researched. 

Given the expansion of international student numbers, limited scholarly articles have focused on the advantages of studying in China, an emerging international education hub, based on the voices of international students themselves (Jiani 2017; Wen and Hu 2019). To respond to this empirical gap, this paper investigates the benefits of seeking international education in China, based on the lived experiences of international students. The main research question is ‘What are the anticipated benefits of seeking international higher education for international students enrolled at two prestigious universities in China?’ Against this backdrop, 30 semi-structured qualitative interviews with international students from Asia, Africa and Western countries enrolled at two prestigious universities in Beijing and Hubei Province were conducted.

The study results have highlighted three main benefits from studying in China: 1) enrichment of future employment possibilities; 2) mastering Mandarin language; and 3) development of knowledge, skills and experiences. These benefits are not mutually exclusive; they have similar end goals to improve development of students’ home countries (mainly in Asia and Africa).

Employment prospects

The principal benefit of studying in China is employment prospects. Many students wish to stay in China upon graduation for employment purpose. International students are very confident that they will secure jobs in China as opposed to their home or third countries. They view that employment opportunities for them relatively poorer in their home countries.Some reasons include relatively low pay and limited prospects in gaining employment compared to China’s labour market. The growth of China’s economy brings more job opportunities with higher salary packages and requires highly skilled migrants to support that growth. 

On the other side, many students, particularly from Asia and Africa, aspire to contribute to their home countries through employment opportunities. Many mentioned that they wanted to work in Chinese companies, the government sector or even return to their previous, home-country positions. This is because there are a lot of Chinese companies mushrooming in their respective home countries and these students want to contribute to their home countries by emulating China success especially in economy. 

Mandarin language

The second benefit is learning Mandarin. Many students, especially undergraduates, are interested in learning this language. Firstly, students mainly from Asia, Europe and South America believe that Mandarin will an important business/trade language between their home countries and China. Students from Asia and Africa wanted to learn Mandarin because they perceived themselves as future ambassadors or leaders representing their country of origin in future trade dealings and business investments with China. For students majoring in Chinese, it is vital to learn Mandarin in a Chinese university to obtain in-depth assistance from native speakers and educators, as opposed to their home country. They also have the chance to immerse themselves in the Chinese community and understand Chinese culture.

Developing knowledge, skills and experience in China

The third benefit is to develop significant knowledge, skills and experience for their career development. Students, especially undergraduates from Africa, are amazed how rapidly China has grown in terms of economy, management, business and investment (Jiani 2017). Based on this rapid economic development, students wanted to learn the business ‘tricks of the trade’, economic policies, management and investment skills so that they could replicate that learning in their home countries. Singh and Jamil (2021) reported that international students especially from the under-developed nations in Asia and Africa wanted to contribute to their community via application of knowledge, technical and research skills acquired in Malaysia in positions such as university lecturers, researchers and trainers.

An overarching benefit of studying in China, based on international students’ lived experiences, is relating to their personal intrinsic motivations and benefits which is geared towards improving and strengthening their career and employment opportunities through meaningfully contributing to their home country’s social and economic development by gaining employment in the government sector, in Chinese companies in home countries or returning to previous employment. Specifically, in home-country employment, students contribute by applying business/trade educational knowledge, management, investment and soft skills, as well as international educational experiences. Later benefits of international education include employment opportunities in China due its rapid economic development and wide job opportunities, as well as learning Mandarin for future business and trade dealings with China and reconnection to cultural identity. 

Hence, the findings of this study have contributed to the international education literature as the findings have established important nuances of key personalised motivations and benefits of studying in China and therefore extended the modified push-pull theory in relation to economic, social, cultural, career (employment) and educational outcomes that mostly advantage home-country development. These findings are also opposing the framework of pull or push factors that only focused on external factors instead of personalised aspects to gain international education.   


Jiani, M. A. (2017). Why and how international students choose mainland China as a higher education study abroad destination, Higher Education, 74 (4), 563–579. doi:10.1007/s10734-016-0066-0 

Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China (2018). Statistical report on international students in China for 2018. Accessed 19 October 2021. http://en.moe.gov.cn/documents/reports/201904/t20190418_378692.html

Singh, J. K. N. & Jamil, H. (2021). International education and meaningful contributions to society: Exploration of postgraduate international students’ perspectives studying in a Malaysian research university, International Journal of Educational Development, 81. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2020.102331 

Authors’ Bio

Dr Jasvir Kaur Nachatar Singh
La Trobe University

Dr Jasvir Kaur Nachatar Singh is an award-winning Senior Lecturer at the Department of Management and Marketing, La Trobe Business School, La Trobe University, Australia. In 2020, Dr Singh received an international teaching recognition from Advance HE, UK as a Fellow (FHEA). In 2018, Dr Singh received two La Trobe University Teaching Awards and Best Presenter Award at the Global Higher Education Forum, Malaysia. Dr Singh’s research expertise is in higher education with a particular interest exploring international students’ lived experiences of academic success, employability, career aspirations and learning experiences. Dr Singh also explores lived experiences of skilled migrants and international academics. Dr Singh has published numerous articles in high impact journals and has presented at various national and international higher education conferences. In 2021, Dr Singh was appointed as a Research Fellow at the Malaysian National Higher Education Research Institute. She can be contacted at j.nachatarsingh@latrobe.edu.au.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun) Bian