Chinese students in France: an experience with mixed feelings

Gloria Sand
Chinese students are one of the largest groups of foreigners in American, Australian and European universities.
Gloria Sand
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Globalization has triggered a remarkable growth in the number of international students enrolling in institutions outside their home countries. China is not excluded, and indeed its growing economy and a rapidly expanding middle class, together with the premium attached to quality education in its culture, have progressively made Chinese students one of the largest groups of foreigners in American, Australian and European universities.

Over the years, Chinese students have started seeing the opportunity of studying abroad as an effective way to access a range of cultural and social resources considered essential to increase their future employment and life options.

Although it is generally argued that an international education experience and regular exposure to an alternative educational, social and working environment could provide opportunities for students to broaden and deepen their views and perceptions of the world, and to use cultural capital gained from international mobility to increase their employability in the global job market, Chinese students' lives in France do not necessarily meet these expectations.

The experiences of Chinese students in France are crucial to untangle whether their exposure to an international environment and an education system that is significantly different from the one they are accustomed to can effectively influence the way they access and understand local values, education system, academic debate and media coverage.

Wherever students choose to live abroad, they need to navigate among different systems of reference and normative requirements to resolve the contradictions encountered in new environments.

The reflection inevitably helps them make value judgments, such as under which environment they prefer to live and how they aspire to start their career based on a personal evaluation on values, sense of belonging, political systems, social norms, economic returns and personal ambitions.

Studies have shown that exposure to alternative values and systems sometimes strengthens the students' identity rather than fostering integration into the new society.

Studies on the experience of Russian students in Switzerland have questioned the challenging dynamics characterizing the experience of international students coming from "controversial" countries in European schools. What has been confirmed so far is that connections between new students and former students are particularly strong, and they contribute to strengthening the roots of Russian students in Switzerland, as the latter usually maintain solid connections with their school.

Also, Russian alumni in Switzerland have shown a clear interest in strengthening transnational networks with young Russian entrepreneurs wishing to invest in or move to Switzerland, progressively transforming themselves into horseback between two systems of status and two spaces of social positions: the national one and the one revolving around the international community of alumni.

Embedded in this dichotomy, they create what Caroline Bertron, doctor of philosophy at Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint Denis, calls an "inter-self of temporary expatriates," which is grounded on students' national origin and their growing connections in the host country.

Similar trends can be identified within Chinese student communities, especially in their recurrent attitude of creating own student networks and developing transnational connections.

Moreover, research on Chinese students is suggesting that even though overseas experience tends to be perceived as mostly positive, studying abroad does not necessarily guarantee career success as many students generally expect. Indeed, beyond the challenges students might encounter all along with their international study experiences, benefits in terms of enhanced mobility capital derived from the same experiences continue to be considered as much higher than costs.

Another source of mismatched expectation and reality is the value of an international diploma. In an article discussing the paradox of mobility for Chinese students in France, Li Yong,  a researcher at Université de Rouen, emphasizes the most recent evolution of Chinese students' perception of the value of their French degree on their return to China.

A diploma that used to be perceived as an advantage in the Chinese labor market has become a "neutral" title, if not a disadvantage. This is happening because while the quality of education of students that have remained in China has progressively increased, and most of them have already found a way to enter the Chinese labor market, Chinese students returning from France seldom have the relevant working experience to add to their curriculum.

According to Li, after seeing their peers already counting on a fairly high and stable position after completing their studies in China, returning students are more and more often going back to France counting on a presumed higher competitiveness in the job market of the country where they have completed their studies.

Over the years, mobility strategies have been deeply affected by the rapid change the Chinese labor market has been recently experiencing. The "trivialization of foreign things" under China's advancing modernization alongside the devaluation of Western diplomas has created additional new sources of concern among Chinese students enrolled in French institutions.

Initial drive and intention are not the only factors affecting Chinese students' professional and life decisions. Those who have moved to France over the last few years tend to find themselves "frozen" in a specific moment of life, unable to settle down with someone, without a personal and stable income to sustain themselves, and this situation might push them to feel more and more under pressure vis-à-vis their families and their peers back in China.

This condition, associated with the widespread awareness of their peers' professional achievements, can explain some of the changes characterizing students' professional choices.

Finally, research has also confirmed that international education does not always open new economic opportunities for Chinese students. Rejecting the assumption that international mobility brings only positive consequences, it is emerging that the mobility capital gained from international education cannot be fully translated to competitiveness and competences in the international job market.

On one hand, the objective competitiveness cannot be taken for granted as the true value of these mobility is sometimes overestimated. On the other hand, the subjective will to use mobility capital in the global job market is limited by the motivation to stay and work abroad as well as the degree of integration in the local community. That is pushing more and more Chinese students completing their education abroad to move back to China right after their diploma to build a more fulfilling career in their home country.

(The author is an independent researcher based in Paris.)

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