September 5, 2014, by Tony Hong

Understanding Chinese Students’ Decision-making in Participating in Higher Education in the UK: A Bourdieusian Perspective

By Jingran Yu,

MSc Culture and Society, Department of Sociology,
London School of Economics and Political Science.

Recent decades have witnessed Chinese students’ widening participation in higher education in the UK, which has raised wide-ranging academic interest in attributing for the causal powers underneath. In addition to existing literature, this short essay intends to provide an analysis based on Bourdieu’s theory with the purpose of a better balance between structure and agency. Based on the data generated from qualitative interviews with Chinese students and consequent discourse analysis, it seems that Chinese students’ decision-making process can be understood with regard to three aspects: motivations for leaving China, motivations for entering the UK, and sociocultural specifics.

Firstly, Chinese students have revealed that they decided to pursue higher education in the UK because they wanted to escape from the ‘rules of the game’ of China. As explained by themselves, the most important factor in Chinese ‘rules of game’ is ‘guanxi’, which can be understood as a form of social capital in Bourdieu’s sense. According to Bourdieu’s theory, individuals are supposed to implement strategies with respect to defining capitals in their field whereby they can preserve or improve their social positions in relation to others. However, instead of attempting to accumulate ‘guanxi’ as the social capital at stake, Chinese students choose to shift between different fields or to enter the global field of higher education where ‘guanxi’ is no longer the resource at stake, at least in their impression. It can be argued that globalization along with the internationalization of higher education is both the cause and the condition: on the one hand, it is owing to the process of globalization that Chinese students are increasingly exposed to global information that may not be in accordance with the rules of their local field whereby their capability of getting accustomed to the local field is undermined; on the other, it is also the process of globalization that enables and facilitates them to shift between different fields conveniently.

Secondly, having decided to study abroad, why Chinese students choose the UK over other destinations has three main reasons: culture, education, and language. They are all manifestations of different states of cultural capital and fundamentally function as symbolic capital. In the aspect of culture, they intend to pursue embodied cultural capital that is the prerequisite of the accumulation of cultural capital. What matters here are a) they choose the UK over China because the culture of the former is a form of dominant culture compared to the latter; b) they choose UK over US because the cultural stereotype of the former signifies ‘disinterestedness’ in contrast to the ‘interestedness’ of the latter, which actually only exist in the mutually defining process of each other as Bourdieu reminded us. In the respect of education, their aims at institutionalized cultural capital in terms of UK diplomas and academic cultural capital referring to academic competency. As for language, they concern about linguistic cultural capital in terms of English competency and authenticity. All of these states of cultural capital are pursued only because they represent for the dominant culture, whereby they actually functions as symbolic capital that is ‘the form that the various species of capital assume when they are perceived and recognized as legitimate’ . In such way, regardless of their initiative in pursuing cultural capital, Chinese students are still considered as sufferers of ‘symbolic violence’ in that they voluntarily participate in the exercise of symbolic power in social reproduction.

Finally, the power of social structure in terms of Asian values and Chinese social context also plays an important role. Collective values and one-child policy make studying abroad a family project in China in which parents would like to invest heavily and their opinion and expectation matter. However, the situation may vary according to a) the volume and composition of capitals they possess; b) the gender of the child, which means expectation of boys can be higher than that of girls and in certain situations girls can be ‘overeducated’.

In conclusion, Chinese students’ decision-making in participating in higher education in the UK is the result of mutual effects of structure and agency.

Posted in Uncategorized