The role of Chinese parents in decisions about overseas study

With the People’s Republic of China’s growth in economic prosperity and political influence, the number of students from China choosing to study overseas continues to increase. Of the 3.3 million internationally mobile students, China is the largest source country.

In the 2009-10 academic year, there were more than 127,628 students from China studying in the United States alone. The motivations for Chinese students seeking education abroad include a belief that it will open opportunities for increased wealth and migration.

Hong Kong, with its geographical proximity, high quality of competitively priced education, and shared Confucian cultural heritage, is an attractive option for students from mainland China.

Like other Asian governments, Hong Kong is proactively pursuing international and Chinese students through a range of policy and educational initiatives.

In 2009-10 there were 9,320 non-local students pursuing full-time higher education degrees in Hong Kong, an increase of 200% from 2003-04; and of these, most were students from China. Both the Hong Kong and the Chinese government see these students as a means of brain gain and future socio-political and economic stability and survival.

Need to understand parent and student decisions

To understand the international and cross-border movement of students from China, researchers, marketers and recruiters have focused on the perspectives of these students.

However, in traditional Confucian societies such as China, major decisions related to education and future employment are very much a family, if not a solely parental, affair. Yet we know little about how contemporary families in China make such decisions.

We studied Chinese higher education student perspectives at the level of personal and parent involvement in the decision to study across the border in Hong Kong.

Our findings identified two main types of students: those who initiated the idea of studying in Hong Kong, and those whose parents initiated the idea. In the process of initiation and making decisions, Confucian cultural roles of child and parent were largely followed.

The findings also suggest that although the factors that motivate students and parents to pursue trans-local or cross-border study may be different, all pay homage to Confucian ideals and in so doing ensure greater security for the family and family members.

The students were motivated by the employment and study opportunities offered by cross-border education, the personal experience of visiting the country, the influence of family and friends, and stories by peers who had returned to give school talks.

The influencing factors that ‘pushed’ them to seek cross-border study are consistent with previous studies.

The students viewed mainland Chinese higher education as limited educationally and felt that a degree from Hong Kong or from overseas generally would lead to enhanced language proficiency and the development of networks that would help secure higher paid employment in either China or Hong Kong.

The exclusive nature of cross-border education increases the student’s perceived educative and social status over students who elect to study for a local degree in mainland China. Added to this are perceptions that a local (Chinese) degree may not be as well recognised internationally as a degree obtained from a non-local institution.

Parents, on the other hand, considered the competition for university places, future employment prospects, and the longer-term prospects of immigration as the main motivating factors. The desire for the child to emigrate is consistent with Chinese parent decision-making when it comes to the choice of cross-border study.

Students have a say, but parents decide

No matter who initiated the discussion about cross-border or trans-local study, there was evidence that students did feel they had a say in the decision-making process. This finding is consistent with another study that found that mainland Chinese parents listened more and involved their adolescent children more in family decisions.

However, for the majority of students in this study (65%), the eventual decision on choice of country, programme and-or university was made by the parents.

What the research does not provide is information about the actual family communication processes that occurred during such discussions; that is, the roles played and resources used by individual family members.

Such information is important to an understanding of the influence of culture and cultural change in Chinese family processes brought on by political and social change and increased economic prosperity.

What the study demonstrates is the crucial role parents play in the decision to undertake cross-border higher education study. This role is shaped in part by their financial status, their personal education and their Confucian culture.

Those parents who were more supportive or open to their child’s choices more often came from the wealthier city provinces and-or had personal experience of international study themselves.

Although some parents initiated or took subtle control of the decision-making process, others overtly shaped and manipulated the aspirations of their child according to gender stereotypes and the longer-term needs and values of the family. Such practices are consistent with Confucian traditions and the values associated with filial piety.

Ninety-eight percent of students expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of the decision-making process and-or with the outcome. However, all either obligingly or somewhat reluctantly accepted the decision.

For a small number of participants (15%), the parents were perceived by their child to totally ignore their preferences. This behaviour is consistent with Confucian roles and expectations of the child – respect for family authority and unquestioning obedience to parents.

From a Western perspective, many of the tactics used are consistent with an authoritarian approach to parenting in which parents make decisions and tell their children what to do.

However, discussions with students revealed that they believed their parents were acting in their (adolescent child’s) interests and their behaviour was consistent with being supportive and responsive to their needs.

This is consistent with the tradition of authoritative parenting – parenting that provides rules and guidance with concern for the child but without being overbearing.

Our findings indicate that despite exerting considerable psychological and literal control over aspects of trans-local study decision-making, there was evidence that the cultural traditions were softening, with adolescent children having somewhat greater involvement in the decision-making process though not controlling much of it.

Choosing Hong Kong

The choice of Hong Kong as a trans-local study destination was like all decisions to undertake cross-border study; that is, a literal investment in the family’s survival and future.

In many ways it provided a safe alternative. Its shared Confucian Chinese heritage was seen as an advantage as were the British colonialists’ influences on government infrastructure, including higher education.

It provided a metaphoric bridge to the wider, more prosperous Western world and an escape from the rigidity and closed competitive exam-driven education system in China.

The more open financial, education and immigration systems combined with cost-effective, high-quality higher education and related opportunity were viewed as advantages over study in more distant study locales.

Changes in Hong Kong government immigration legislation are consistent with the factors that influence parent decision-making.

The period of full-time study counts as time accrued toward achieving the seven-year mandatory period to achieve permanent residency. In addition, mainland Chinese students are permitted to remain in Hong Kong following graduation, to seek employment.

An examination of mainland Chinese decision-making about cross-border or trans-local study in Hong Kong provides a unique insight into the influence of Confucianism and the family.

On the one hand, we see the adolescent child, often in contradiction to his or her own desires, adhering to the cultural values, expectations and choices of his or her parents.

On the other hand, we see how parents use their culturally derived status and power to manipulate decisions in order to achieve what they believe is the very best education for their child and in so doing ensure their own and their family’s longer-term status and security.

Some challenges

We found that in Hong Kong, many students from China banded together in groups with other such students, with many of them sharing similar feelings of frustration with family decision-making and the translocation experience.

The students reported that although these groups, often established by host institutions, acted as support, they also fuelled a level of resentment and an ongoing antagonism toward parents.

The perceived level of participation in family decision-making was found to have ongoing effects on student well-being and their approach and attitude toward their studies.

With the support of mainland Chinese group and society members, a kind of subversive non-communicative planning had begun for future work and study. On the surface, the students continued to live their lives in a practical manner, to complete assignments diligently and to maintain a relatively positive attitude.

However, they admitted to suffering high levels of anxiety brought on by ongoing parental pressure, control over decisions and finances, and the fact that they were studying in a locale, a university or programme not of their choosing.

The organisation and functioning of these ethnic enclaves and support groups that readily appear on university campuses is an area worthy of future study.

For some students in this study, 15% (14), there was the added stress that the future security of their families hinged on their achieving certain specific outcomes and that the cost of funding their cross-border study was an ongoing issue for the family.

The pressure to succeed in the shortest amount of time possible was a major concern for this group. This stress led to frequent bouts of sickness and depression.

Differences in academic systems, while a reason stated for pursing trans-local study in Hong Kong, also resulted in challenges for students from China.

Language barriers were noted as a barrier to social inclusion. Hong Kong’s higher education system is largely conducted in English, and the language of the street is a mix of English and Cantonese dialect as compared to Mandarin on the mainland.

The students also experienced issues related to interacting with professors, levels of cultural difference, discrimination and challenges of personal adjustment.

These findings highlight the need for universities in Hong Kong, as elsewhere, to consider the effects of socio-cultural adjustment and acculturation associated with study across borders.

Although not the focus of our study, a myriad of emotions were reported by students, including feelings of isolation and even hostility to peers and family. These feelings were compounded by related decisions made in the home and were fuelled by involvement in organised groups and societies on campuses.

The expectations of parents, as indicated, are intense and can lead to some students imagining a lack of control of their own destiny, emotional distress and, at times, an inability to cope.

Future studies need to examine the establishment, role and outcomes of organised ethnic societies on university campuses.

In recognition of the cultural and social needs and goals of Chinese and all international students and their acculturation processes, there needs to be a closer study of the policies, strategies and services provided to support their inclusion, involvement and integration.

Failure to do so will lead to ongoing confinement and isolation from the wider university community.

The main finding

The study’s main finding, however, concerns the role of the family in mainland China in decision-making about study outside their home country.

When combined, the family decision-making experience and cultural heritage as reflected in the decision-making process were found to inflict significant social and emotional impacts on students and their coping ability while studying trans-locally in Hong Kong.

Such an impact is viewed as having the potential to affect the ongoing success or otherwise of the student’s acculturation into the host culture. As such, universities that recruit and play host to increasing numbers of Chinese and international culturally diverse students need to develop comprehensive international student strategies.

The findings also indicate that traditional Confucian familial values are being somewhat relaxed, with adolescent children having a greater say in the decisions related to cross-border study.

There is then a need to further understand the level of parental influence, and the levels of student (child) involvement, and to monitor the changing roles and influence of traditional familial values and ongoing influences throughout cross-border studies.

Such culturally derived understandings should inform the development of host institution programme and support mechanisms that are more relevant to the student’s unique experiences and problems, and stimulate campus community engagement in and enhancement of intercultural understanding and respect for the international student’s cultural traditions.

* Dr Peter Bodycott is currently an associate professor in the department of international education and lifelong learning at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. His academic work includes specialisations in English as a second language, intercultural education and the internationalisation of higher education. His research interests include international education policy and practice, the internationalisation of higher education, intercultural education, teacher education, life history, personal constructs and ESL-EFL teaching and learning. Dr Ada Lai is a research fellow at the Centre for Compulsory Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on student mobility, the development of education hubs in East and South East Asia and post-school transitions to work.

* This is an edited version of the article, “The Influence and Implications of Chinese Culture in the Decision to Undertake Cross-border Higher Education”, which was originally published in The Journal of Studies in International Education in July.