Mobile educational space and imaginative travellers in-situ: A case study of a UK international branch campus

Research highlighted

Jingran Yu (2022) Mobile educational space and imaginative travellers in-situ: A case study of a UK international branch campus in ChinaSocial & Cultural Geography, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2022.2055780

An increased awareness has emerged within academia of how international student mobility (ISM) intensifies differentiation within global educational geographies, consolidating the educational power of certain institutions within specific countries, and consequently entrenching and sometimes even creating socio-spatial inequalities (e.g., Brooks & Waters, 2011; Findlay et al., 2012; Waters, 2012). In contrast, transnational education (TNE), ‘in which the learners are located in a country different from the one where the awarding institution is based’ (Council of Europe, 2002), enables students to receive international education in situ. Instead of the corporeal movement of students, in TNE, it is the education provider that is on the move, incorporating various interdependent movements of educational resources, including teaching materials, knowledge, information, and even staff and institutions. Thus, TNE seems to hold great potential for promoting the reconfiguration of educational geographies through its important role in connecting educational institutions and participants across different places and influencing the (re)distribution of educational resources and power across global space (Leung & Waters, 2013). However, compared to ISM, TNE remains under-researched. The few empirical studies that have explored this topic have concluded that its value has been fundamentally compromised owing to the lack of corporeal mobility (e.g., Waters, 2017, 2018).

This paper challenges the predominant representation of TNE students merely in terms of their corporeal immobility and problematizes the neglect of spatiality and materiality of international branch campuses (IBCs) in extant studies. Based on a case study of a UK international branch campus in China, it incorporates interview narratives and ethnographic observations to reveal the students’ experiences and imaginations, and to delineate the unique texture of the spatiality of the campus. It is worth noticing that IBCs in China are required to take the form of ‘Chinese-Foreign Cooperative Universities’, i.e. ‘joint-venture IBCs’ in the expanded definition provided by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (Garrett et al., 2016). The power balance between the Chinese and foreign partners has profound influences on the spatiality of the campus. In this case study, this power balance between the Chinese and British partners has resulted in the unique layout of the university campus which is roughly divided into two halves: the Academic Area, controlled by the British partner, and the Living Area, where the Chinese partner is mainly in charge. 

In this paper, I present the case-study IBC as an infrastructure of (im)mobilities, which is both locally embedded and transnationally connected. On the one hand, this paper explores how transnational imaginations are enabled by the immobile materiality of the IBC in three dimensions: the material space, the virtual space, and the relational space. On the other hand, informed by the perceived–conceived–lived conceptual triad (Lefebvre, 1991/2014), this paper investigates Chinese students’ imaginative spaces by looking at how they perceive, experience, and conceive various spaces, on the basis of which they develop a sense of (not) belonging. This is where issues emerge around ‘whose space’ it is when the control over space is challenged. IBC space and its imagination, as intended by the TNE institution, may not always coincide with the ideas of the students and their imaginative space. At times, the two may collide. 

As the students embody transnational imaginations and mobilities in situ, they are transformed into what I perceive as imaginative travellers, who never physically travel abroad but whose being and belonging have been constantly informed and negotiated in relation to their everyday transnational experiences. Travelling between two different spaces, the Academic Area and the Living Area, the national and the transnational setting, has become a daily routine for the students, contributing to their embodiment of transnational mobilities in an imaginative form and giving shape to the transnational imaginative space they conceive. Informed by their own predispositions, students have developed transnational spatial imaginations, according to which they make differentiated judgements about the different styles in the material environment they inhabit and develop a sense of (non)belongingness to different cultures through their spatial experiences. In everyday spatial practice, imagined and actual spaces may sometimes reinforce and sometimes negate each other. Students then develop a sense of ‘our’ and ‘their’ space – a sense of belonging and not belonging – in their perceptions, experiences, and conceptions. This may have coloured their perceptions, leading to a value-laden appreciation of the space in the Academic Area as well as their simultaneous dislike of the space in the Living Area.

The findings have teased out the ways in which transnational imaginations are enabled by immobile materiality of the IBC, and how students consequently construct their imaginative space, revealing the dynamic interrelations between imagination, materiality, and (im)mobility in (transnational) educational spaces. As international student mobility (in the sense of corporeal mobility) has intensified, and sometimes even created socio-spatial inequalities in global educational geographies, it is important for scholars to pay attention to the imaginative mobilities enabled by TNE because ‘imagination is an essentially creative act that facilitates people’s ability to move beyond structural imbalances of power and economic constraints’ (Salazar, 2020, p. 773). Indeed, imaginative mobility may not be a substitute for corporeal mobility, but may instead change the very nature of being co-present. Accordingly, our views on the emplacement of education, as either here (domestic education) or there (international education), also need to expand to include educational spaces that can be both here and there, that is, trans-national. Contributing to the early discussions about IBCs as infrastructures of (im)mobility, what is novel in this paper is that it offers detailed depictions of the imaginative process, in which spatial imagination and imaginative space (re)produce each other, and are complicated by the various sources of power at play. Drawing upon thick ethnographic data, this paper offers a unique case study of a Chinese-Foreign Cooperative University in which the power balance between the British and Chinese partners has profound implications on the uneven spatiality of the campus. It is important to pay attention to the ‘unevenness of imagination flows’ (Lipura & Collins, 2020), which is subject to political economy in the wider sociocultural context, in which the mythological ‘West’ is often considered ‘legitimate’ and imbued with much higher symbolic value than ‘the rest’. Students, whom I call ‘imaginative travellers’, have tended to display a proximity to ‘the West’, which is physically distant and where most of them have never been, in contrast to ‘the Chinese’ where they are actually located but from which they are imaginatively distant. This may reinforce the existing symbolic power of the West in the global stratification of knowledge.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Jingran Yu (余婧然),
Xiamen University, China

Dr. Jingran Yu (余婧然) is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Education, Xiamen University, China, and an Honorary Research Associate at the School of Environment, Education and Development (SEED), the University of Manchester, the United Kingdom. She received a doctorate degree in Sociology from the University of Manchester, and won the British Educational Research Association (BERA) 2021 Doctoral Thesis Award for her thesis. Her research interests lie at the intersection of sociology, education, and human geography, with a focus on internationalisation of higher education and socio-spatial (im)moblities. She can be contacted at: or

Managing editor: Lisa(Zhiyun) Bian

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

Transitioning in-between: Chinese Students’ Navigating Experiences in Transnational Higher Education Programmes

Research Highlighted:

Dai, K. (2022). Transitioning ‘In-Between’. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. doi:


by Dr Kun DAI, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

In the past few decades, a growing number of scholars have explored topics related to transitional higher education (TNHE) and other relevant concepts (e.g., neoliberalism, globalisation, internationalisation, and marketisation). According to de Wit (2020), from 2010 to 2020, the number of international students has rapidly increased, and different types of TNHE (e.g., franchise operations, articulation programmes, branch campuses, and online education) have also been developed. The development of TNHE cannot be separated from the influence of globalisation. Higher education has been widely exported and imported between many developing and developed countries. Moreover, with the rapid development of the global economy and ICTs, especially the Internet, different cultures, societies, and countries have more opportunities to connect with others. Such close connections become an essential factor that promotes more in-depth cross-national communications in the field of higher education. However, students’ experiences in TNHE are still under-researched.

This book offers an account of Chinese students’ intercultural learning experiences in China-Australia transnational articulation programmes (TAP), which is one type of TNHEs. While these students learn in programmes that Chinese and Australian partner universities collaboratively operate, differences in educational practices still make them encounter barriers. To deal with cross-system differences, some students indicate a positive sense of agency. However, some of them feel disempowered. Notably, many students develop a sense of in-betweenness through learning in such programmes. Based on the investigation, Kun Dai argues that intercultural learning and adjustment in the transnational higher education context may become more complex than other forms of international education.

This book has eight chapters. The first chapter outlines the background, significance of this study, and research design. In Chapter 2, theoretical concepts/frameworks and empirical literature are discussed, respectively. From Chapters 3 to 6, findings are illustrated. Specifically, Chapter 3 focuses on illustrating students’ motivations and initial concerns in their TAPs. Chapter 4 maps their trajectories of intercultural learning and adjustment, especially as experienced in the Australian context, and compare their experiences in China. In Chapter 5, key factors influencing students’ intercultural learning and adjustment in TAPs is analysed. The author’s reflexive analysis as an “in-betweener” is presented in Chapter 6 to compare his experiences with participants’ journeys. In Chapter 7, Kun Dai systematically discusses the findings and attempt to propose a new conceptual lens to understand different types of “intercultural learning and adjustment” in a cross-cultural context and at a micro-political level. The last chapter, Chapter 8, concludes this book by pointing out the limitations of the reported research and providing future research suggestions.

Author Bio

Dr. Kun Dai is an Assistant Professor based at Department of Educational Administration and Policy, Faculty of Education, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on transnational education, intercultural learning and adjustment, educational policy, and international student mobility. His research outputs have appeared in several peer-reviewed journals, such as Compare, Journal of Studies in International Education, and Higher Education Research & Development. Dr Dai serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of International Students. Email: