International Student Mobility in an Era of Globalising and Neoliberlised Higher Education: Contested Landscapes of Global Flows

Jian Wu

Globalising higher education (HE) is seen as a result of globalisation and the neo-liberalisation of the HE sector. Manifestations of globalising HE includes cross-border activity and research collaboration, mobility of students and faculty, and transnational education (e.g., branch campus). The most visible group in globalising HE is Global South students studying in the Global North because of their sheer numbers and positive contributions to the economic health of the host universities and countries. International student mobility (ISM) is traditionally studied using analytical frameworks centred on structure, such as academic capitalism, or on agency, such as acculturative processes. However, these frameworks lose significant analytical value when ISM becomes multidimensional (i.e., involving multiple countries or multiple nations within a country) as they fail to consider the impact of the confluences of many globalising forces at work, such as the role of finance and media.

Drawing on anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s notion of global flow as scapes, this study* conceptualises ISM as various forms of global flow: ethnoscapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, ideoscapes and financescapes. They refer to the landscapes of flows of people, technology, media, ideas and ideologies, and finance, respectively. More importantly, we pay attention to the disjunctures arising from the crisscrossing landscapes of these flows, that is, the ‘chaotic’ rather than the homogenous nature of the interaction and conflicts at the interface of different landscapes. We interviewed 30 PhD students from mainland China who had extensive ‘Western’ education experience — 27 participants had obtained at least one degree from an elite Western university considered a research-intensive flagship university, such as a Russel Group university in the UK or an Ivy League or ‘Public Ivy’ in the US; the other three had at least one term of exchange in the West — before enrolling in a PhD programme at our case university in HK, which is research-intensive and highly ranked in various league tables. We want to understand: 1) in terms of ethnoscape and ideoscape, why these mainland Chinese students relocated to HK for their PhDs during the Covid-19 pandemic and in the immediate aftermath of HK’s year-long social protests and how they perceived the protests; 2) how financescape and techno-mediascape interacted with or influenced ethnoscape and ideoscape in their relocation choice and perception of HK’s social movements.

Our finding shows that the pandemic was the primary push factor for only a few participants. The majority were contemplating going back to China or somewhere near China as most of them had already spent several years overseas, which made them long for home, which to them had an indescribable ‘felt quality’ (the sound, the smell, the touch, and the taste of the hometown food). The pandemic only provided an additional impetus. Yet, as ‘consumers’ of global HE, our participants were keenly aware of the impact of education on their ‘human capital’. Despite their nostalgia for home (i.e., mainland China), they wanted continued ‘investment’ in themselves by doing a PhD degree in HK, where the HE qualification is of higher quality and has broader global recognition. Moreover, the role of financialisation in HE was also evident in our study. One major cornerstone supporting HK’s status as an international education hub is the financial largesse for research and student scholarship from the HK government and its universities. 25 out of 30 participants received generous full scholarship packages from either the HK government or our case university. Many participants who received offers from elite Western universities, including Oxbridge, but failed to secure scholarships, chose to come to HK instead.

Despite their long duration of living in the West and witnessing its ‘messy’ democratic politics first-hand, an overwhelming majority of our participants held negative views about HK social protests because they viewed these protests as running counter to the putative Chinese national interests. In other words, their ideoscape is nationalistic. Their worldview is closely aligned with that of Beijing, echoing the views propagated in Chinese official state media or heavily censored social media. Ironically, one significant contributing factor to this stasis in ideology is the global flow of media. These students transported their social media consumption habits developed in mainland China abroad with their mobility. However, they continue – in many instances– to remain in the ‘Great Firewall of China’ – using the same social media application and consuming state-sanctioned information regardless of their physical locations.

In conclusion, the neoliberalisation of education has changed how students view the value of education, and information technology has made mobility ‘fluid’ by reducing the virtual distance between home and host country. However, the yearning for kinship, community, and relationship remains a robust human trait, regardless of globalisation, neoliberalisation, or the pandemic. Finally, ideas and ideologies can become more fixated because they are endemic to our socialisation process and habits.

* The study referred to in this blog post draws from a paper titled Crisscrossing scapes in the global flow of elite mainland Chinese Students I co-authored with Ling Wang (University of Hong Kong).