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Return and non-return of students: current trends and issues

Return to the home country is a common theme in modern migrant narratives; however, the meaning of such a return varies across generations, and the possibility of return strongly depends on the legal status and qualifications of migrants as well as the socioeconomic and political environments of migrants' home countries (Al-Rasheed, 1994; Bolognani, 2007; Sinatti, 2011; Zetter, 1999). For some migrants, their return to their home country is indefinitely postponed, potentially developing into a myth (Sayad, 2006).

For the Chinese students interviewed for this study who arrived in France in the 2000s, a successful return to China is often the goal of their venture because it justifies socioeconomically motivated migration. However, some graduates find realising their dream difficult because a migration journey is characterised by risk and uncertainty.

For over half a century, the return of foreign students to their countries of origin has been a concern for both researchers and policymakers. The question now assumes a special meaning in France, where the government is attempting to integrate foreign students into its general immigration policy (Deneuve, 2001; Heran, 2007; Heran, Aoudai, & Richard, 2002). Discussions on this subject are informed by ethical considerations (Dumitru, 2009), changes in theoretical perspectives, and political orientations. The study of Chinese student mobility must therefore encompass several recent developments.

First, the global flow of Chinese student migration has changed significantly over the last two decades. Since China's opening up in 1978, most Chinese students who have gone overseas to study have decided to stay in the developed world. However, since 2000, the number of students returning to China has been increasing significantly. In the United States, this movement is illustrated by 'a sustained drop in the number of doctoral students from China ... who planned to remain in the United States beginning in the late 1990s' (Saravia & Miranda, 2004, p. 608). In Europe, the number of Chinese graduates returning to their home country has also increased in recent years. This increase in returning Chinese students is partly due to the sharp decrease in job opportunities owing the economic slowdown in the West. In addition, China's surging economy and unprecedented investment in its innovative system have created favourable conditions at home (Hao & Welch, 2012; Welch & Hao, 2013). Further, beyond automatic market regulation, the Chinese state has played an important role in this movement by mobilising discursive, political, and financial resources to motivate highly skilled scientists and professionals to return to China (Jonkers, 2010; Nyiri, 2001, 2002; Welch & Cai, 2011; Welch & Hao, 2013; Zweig, 2006). If the feeling of duty to serve the nation appears prevalent among the Chinese intellectual diaspora (Liu, 2005; Nyiri, 2010; Nyiri & Breidenbach, 2005), the meaning of returning home has radically changed over the last few decades. For the 'sea turtles' of the reform era (Wang, 2005, 2007, 2009), unlike 20 years ago, returning to China no longer means sacrificing one's professional future for the nation and subscribing to a particular ideological position. By joining a prosperous economy at home, returnees may find that their self-interest (whether material or symbolic) and the needs of the nation coincide (Cai, 2012).

Second, this change in the flow of migration raises questions regarding the country of origin and the migrants themselves, particularly regarding capitalising on foreign experiences in the Chinese labour market. In the early years of China's opening, simply returning with a foreign degree was sufficient to ensure a good job. Now, however, with the increasing number of returnees and an increase in graduate unemployment (Lian, 2009; Rocca, 2007), merely having a foreign degree is no longer sufficient. Today's labour market in China is adopting an increasingly mature, discriminating attitude towards recruiting international graduates (Hao & Welch, 2012, p. 243). Overseas-educated graduates have certain advantages with regard to employment compared with their local counterparts, including much better access to a local Hukou1 in a major Chinese city (e.g., Beijing or Shanghai), which accords returnees more freedom than local graduates in their job-seeking efforts. However, returnees are confronted with problems that their local counterparts do not face, such as striking a balance between the knowledge and attributes that they obtained overseas and their home culture and filling the gap between their wage expectations and the expectations of their employers (Ascencio, 2006; Hao & Welch, 2012; Welch & Hao, 2014).

If top-ranking universities' graduates with work experience can cater to employers' needs and can succeed in securing higher positions in the labour force, graduates from less recognised higher education institutions, without professional experience, may have difficulty finding a job (Hao & Welch, 2012; Welch & Hao, 2014). Every day, dramatic stories of young unemployed returnees generate stronger collective disappointment about overseas studies, as illustrated by the popular saying, haigui bian haidai (The sea turtle has become seaweed.). However, recent studies on employability among returnees suggest that a quality international education nevertheless positively influences an individual's career and life in China and that the so-called 'devaluation of the sea turtle' has been greatly exaggerated by the media (Hao & Welch, 2012; Wang, 2012). However, media hype has had a real effect on the decisions of Chinese graduates, as students who follow with the news may be fearful of returning to China.

Third, over the last two decades, a paradigm shift has changed the manner in which international migration studies and student migration are approached in the social sciences. Because of the contribution of transnationalism, scholars now emphasise movement and mobility as well as the connectivity between the country of origin and the host country as developed by migrants (Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton, 1992). In a similar vein, 'transmigrants' maintain significant ties across national borders and live their lives simultaneously in multiple locations (Portes, 2001; Sinatti, 2011). The immigration process is increasingly perceived as circular and reversible rather than as linear and unidirectional. Moreover, the transnational or cosmopolitan character of returning home is emphasised: returning to one's country of origin does not presage the end of migration. A return can be the starting point of new mobility (Baas, 2013; Maillard, 2009; Varrel, 2009). Regarding student migration, the 'brain drain' paradigm that was developed in the 1960s has gradually yielded to new paradigms that are characterised by a 'connexionist' approach. Since the late 1980s, researchers have attempted to explain that brain drain is not always a definite loss for the country of origin by conceptualising new approaches, such as 'brain gain', 'transit brain drain', 'delayed return', and even 'brain mobility'. After all, the shifts in academic approaches to migration are rooted in deeper ideological shifts. The nexus of 'return migration and development' has always been the basis of reasoning regarding academic approaches to returning student migration (de Haas, 2010). Recent views celebrating migrants as grassroots actors of development are partially driven by neoliberal ideologies that emphasise individuals' agency rather than the states' responsibility to solve structural problems of development (de Haas, 2012).

It is interesting to study the ways in which Chinese graduates themselves consider the issues regarding whether to return to China. Although international mobility has become a mundane experience for a growing number of individuals, when they are unsure about the outcomes of mobility in terms of social well-being, they are gripped by disillusion or vague fear. Students thus try to find a safe anchorage (e.g., a geographical, social identity) in our era of 'liquid' modernity (Bauman, 2000). A tension exists between the desire for mobility (be it international or transnational) and the desire for security. Since the 1990s, many studies have observed a 'wait and see' strategy among overseas Chinese students. Instead of a definite return to the country of origin, students are seeking secure status in the host country (e.g., a 'residence card') while exploring opportunities to return to China (Cheng, 2003; Le Bail, 2006, 2009; Liu-Farrer, 2011; Zweig & Chen, 1995; Zweig, Fung, & Han, 2008). In France, naturalised students are actively involved in activities related to China (Cheng, 2002). For such students, the increase in transnational activities can be perceived to result from a collective strategy of risk management in the sense that Chinese students, even if they wish to return to China, prefer to 'play it safe'. By constructing a social space outside China, and by building overseas networks, Chinese students prepare an exit for themselves if their plan to return fails.

Chinese students' decisions regarding the immigration process thus appear to be affected not only by risk and uncertainty but also by material interests, cultural norms, collective representations, and moral obligations. Thus, the concepts of risk and uncertainty can be appropriately included in discussions on the return and non-return of Chinese students in France.

 
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