Chinese students at UK universities: transnational education mobilities as a stepping-stone to adulthood 

Research highlighted

Wang, Zhe. (2022). Chinese students at UK universities: transnational education mobilities as a stepping-stone to adulthood. Population, Space and Place. doi:

As the largest group of transnational students studying in the UK, Chinese students have drawn great research attention. Most scholarship analyses transnational Chinese students’ migration either as ‘strategic plans’ to secure employment opportunities and future economic gains, (for example, to gain university credentials and embodied competencies), or as non-strategic distinctive experiences for ‘positional advantage’ (Gu & Schweisfurth, 2015; Ma & Pan, 2015; Xiang & Shen, 2009; Zong & Lu, 2017; Zweig & Yang, 2014). Existing scholarly accounts further stress the political, social and cultural aspects of students’ migration by illustrating how it involves postcolonial discourses (Beech, 2014; Fong, 2011), government policies (Wang, 2021), middle-class habitus (Zhang & Xu, 2020), and Chinese family culture (Tu, 2018a, 2019). This study contributes to existing scholarship by attending to the adulthood transitions of transnational Chinese students studying in UK universities. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 43 transnational Chinese graduates from UK universities, I found that participants regarded their transnational education migration as a stepping-stone to adulthood. 

Recent scholarship draws increasing research attention to the adulthood transitions experienced by students in migration(Robertson, Harris, & Baldassar, 2018). Investigating student migration through a lifecourse perspective, scholars illustrate how mobile youth experience their educational migration as ‘a rite of passage’ to adulthood (Harris, Baldassar, & Robertson, 2020, p. 9). As argued by Madge, Raghuram, & Noxolo (2015, p. 685), ‘student mobility for international study should not simply be thought of as a movement occurring at a discrete point in time, but as an ongoing process inherent to ever-changing mobile lives’. When students move across different locations to study, they experience separation from old social relations and unification with new ones. For example, disconnecting from familial social and cultural contexts and integrating into new social relations are processes that bring about situated experiences of taking adventures, overcoming uncertainties, experimenting, finding oneself, and then becoming an independent adult (Michail & Christou, 2016; O’Reilly, 2006). Moreover, researchers critically point out how this normative understanding of mobile transitions is socially structured by youth’s class positions, governments’ migration policies, and discourses such as cosmopolitanism and individualism (Holdsworth, 2009; Kim, 2013; Thomson & Taylor, 2005; Tse & Waters, 2013). Focusing on the social construction of mobile transitions, researchers thus elaborate on the complexities and unevenness of transnational students’ life transitions (Cairns, 2014; Collins & Shubin, 2017; Martin, 2018). But to date, far too little literature has situated the discussion of Chinese students’ transnational mobilities in their lifecourse. Although Xu (2021) explores the transnational Chinese students’ life events, her article mainly focuses on the interplay between students’ (im)mobilities and their study-to-work transitions. This paper advances existing literature by investigating how transnational Chinese students reflect on their studying experiences at UK universities through a lifecourse transition perspective. 

Framed within the paradigm of mobilities, the findings illustrate how transnational Chinese students interpret their UK study experience as a stepping-stone to adulthood and how their transitions to adulthood are culturally and socially structured. For Chinese students, UK universities are more than a place to study: they are the sites of the creation of social webs where young people rehearse the roles and responsibilities of adulthood in everyday social interactions. Moreover,this paper exemplifies the importance of a cultural lens in the analysis of mobile transitions to adulthood (Arnett, 2007; Jeffrey & McDowell, 2004; Nelson et al., 2013; Punch, 2002; Stockdale, MacLeod, & Philip, 2013). Noticing that Chinese students construct their adulthood in ‘interdependencies, mutual support, and responsibility for others’ instead of ‘separation, self-reliance, and responsibility for the self’, a conventional transition model for western mobile youth, I explain how transnational Chinese students’ transitions to adulthood are structured by collectivism and group-oriented values (Holdsworth, 2009, p. 1861). Finally, this paper stresses the complexities of Chinese youth’s transitions to adulthood by showing how transnational Chinese students’ social class influences their transitions to adulthood.

To conclude, this paper illustrates how transnational education mobilities transform social networks, in which transnational Chinese students rehearse their role as an adult in everyday social interactions, and how the intersection of Confucian collectivism and students’ class background influences their experiences and understandings of transitions to adulthood. Therefore, this article advances existing scholarship on transnational Chinese students by proposing a lifecourse perspective and exemplifies the complexities of mobile youth’s lifecourse transitions by emphasising the cultural and social construction of transnational Chinese students’ adulthood.

Authors’ Bio

Dr. Zhe Wang
University of Oxford

Dr. Zhe Wang is a postdoc researcher working in the Department of Education, University of Oxford. She holds a PhD from the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. She has an interdisciplinary research background, and conducts both qualitative and quantitative research and ethnographic fieldwork. She can be contacted at and she tweets @ZheWang_maggie. Her research interests can be described as:

  • International higher education and student (im)mobilities
  • International higher education and world development
  • Transnational education space
  • International Chinese students
  • Citizenship, urban inclusiveness and social reproduction in China

Managed editor: Zhiyun Bian