China is the world’s largest market for international education, while Australia has the world’s highest concentration of international students, the largest group of whom are Chinese. International education ranks as Australia’s third biggest export, and with international competition for Chinese students increasing (in particular from the US), it is imperative for Australia and its universities to remain sensitive to the forces behind Chinese students’ desires to study abroad.
This thesis examines the factors that motivate Chinese students to choose an international education. It uses Bourdieu’s theory of different types of ‘capital’ to argue that the choice to be a consumer of international education is a strategy of social reproduction by middle class Chinese families. Bourdieu’s concept of ‘field’ is applied to understand the unique political, social and economic conditions in China that drive several hundred thousand young people to leave their families every year to live and study abroad. Within this framework, this research aims to identify the major factors that push Chinese students away from the Chinese Higher Education System (CHES) and pull them towards one of three major host countries – Australia, the UK and the US. Through a series of surveys and interviews, data was collected from one cohort of students commencing a 10 month Pathways Program in August 2009 that would prepare them for subsequent undergraduate university studies in the US, UK or Australia.
The findings indicated that the students (and their parents) perceive the CHES as having major deficiencies and that it is unable to provide them with the cultural capital they seek to facilitate social reproduction. Of the three host countries of interest in this study, it was apparent that each was perceived to offer students different endowments of cultural capital. The higher education systems of the US and UK were perceived as having a higher reputation than that of Australia, however studying in Australia was seen as providing students with greater opportunities to live and work there after graduation. This suggests that while a qualification from Australia may not afford the students the same level of academic cachet in the job market (institutionalized cultural capital), the dispositions and habits that can be developed from living and working in Australia post-graduation, are another form of capital (embodied cultural capital) that Chinese families can utilize to create and maintain exclusive social advantages. Indeed, the migration – education nexus can be regarded as a crucial element in social reproduction strategy for an increasing number of Chinese families.
The Australian higher education sector and its stakeholders thus should be aware of all the factors (both push and pull factors) that impact on prospective Chinese international students and give consideration to these in developing future strategies for marketing Australian higher education in a much more internationally competitive environment. Given Australia’s competitive advantages of political stability, geographical proximity and relative safety, there is no reason why Australia’s higher education sector, built on more than a century of public funding, should not continue to attract a significant share of China’s international students. However, this will require consistency of policy towards student immigration, driven by a long term view of Australia’s demographic future, rather than policy on the run driven by the electoral cycle.