TNE and study abroad may perpetuate inequality – Study

Overseas study and transnational education, or TNE, may perpetuate social inequality, according to a paper written by researchers at two universities in China.

The majority of respondents in student surveys suggest that the international and transnational learning experience positively contributes to their career development.

However, most of the graduates from international or transnational higher education institutions come from advantaged family backgrounds, and attained their first job through their social network after their graduation.

The working paper – International and Transnational Learning in Higher Education: A study of students’ career development in China – was written by Ka Ho Mok, Xiao Han and Jin Jiang of Lingnan University and Xiaojun Zhang of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University for the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London, United Kingdom.

Drawing on both student surveys and in-depth interviews, the paper aims to explore how international or transnational higher education affects job searches and career development in China, with particular reference to the perspective of employable skills and contextual influences.

The authors say the number of international mobile students surged to around five million in 2014, up from 2.1 million in 2000, with a 10% increase annually. The OECD predicts it will reach eight million by 2025.

More emphasis on internationalising

To enhance their students’ global competitiveness, governments around the world, not only in Asia but also in traditional magnets for international students, are placing more emphasis on internationalising student learning experiences to foster the global knowledge, skills and languages necessary to perform professionally and socially in international, multicultural environments.

The United States remains the most desirable destination for international students, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Australia. In terms of the source countries or areas, the number of mobile students from the Asia-Pacific region keeps increasing and thus it is ranked as the top region in the world for sending out students for overseas study, the authors say.

The Asian student proportions accounted for 53% of all the mobile students worldwide in 2011, according to the OECD. It is anticipated that India and China will contribute 35% of the global growth in the number of mobile students during the forecast period (from 3.04 million in 2011 to 3.85 million in 2024).

In addition, the most active participants in establishing education hubs are Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, most of which are concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region.

Studies in international and transnational higher education institutions have become more and more popular, and parents and students expect the learning experience has potential to enhance students’ career development. However, it remains debatable whether the experience helps graduates to secure promising positions in the labour market and make their investment in their study worthwhile, the authors say.

“The empirical evidence generated from the present research suggests that the international and transnational learning experience could enhance graduates’ hard knowledge, as well as soft skills and cross-cultural understanding. More importantly, the experience could positively contribute to graduates’ job searches and career development,” the paper says.

“However, most of the graduates in our study come from economically relatively better-off families. The young people from these families were able to capture the opportunity to study in overseas or transnational higher education institutions, and the majority of them obtained their first job through their family’s social networks. The transnational and overseas study may thus perpetuate social inequality.”

The paper cites a QS employer survey in 2011, synthesising more than 10,000 respondents’ perspectives from 116 countries, which confirmed that around 60% of employers prefer the international studying experience during talent recruitment.

Recent studies suggest that university graduates in China and even East Asia experienced challenges in employment during the massification of higher education.

However, the study shows that more than 90% of the respondents in the survey found their jobs within six months of their graduation. In particular, the percentage of undergraduates from a Sino-foreign university was 94%. Only less than 2% of the masters graduates and less than 4% of undergraduates in their sample took more than one year to find their first jobs.

The authors’ findings suggest that the majority of the respondents think the TNE or overseas learning facilitated their career development. In particular, more than 90% of masters graduates from the UK agreed or strongly agreed that their overseas learning experience facilitated their career development.

The high level of satisfaction may stem not just from the academic knowledge acquired but also the career services provided, the authors say. The survey shows that more than 40% of undergraduates and more than 50% of masters graduates occasionally or frequently resorted to career services in their university.

Family background

But the survey also showed that 40% of respondents’ parents have a higher education degree or above. The authors say this means a large proportion of the respondents experiencing international or transnational learning come from well-educated families, and their family is usually relatively well-off.

This may partially explain why they could afford the higher tuition fees and living costs in pursuing TNE or overseas study rather than enrolling in public universities in China.

But the family background does not only affect respondents’ enrolment in overseas universities or their branch campuses, it also has a great impact on their graduate employment, the authors say.

Around 30% of the respondents found their first job through their parents or relatives. The proportion was even higher among interviewees, which also disclosed another compelling phenomenon, the parents or relatives may not be confined as in blood, but also in law, or, potentially in law.

A respondent who shared her experience in employment when she accompanied her boyfriend to his hometown said it seemed reasonable for her boyfriend’s parents or relatives to find a decent job for her, as she left home and thus has no concrete relationship with the local community.

By ‘decent’, she meant with relatively high social status (as in state-owned enterprises) and with an undemanding workload, while the salary is not the first concern.

“We thus argue the employment outcomes or employability exploration should be further expanded to encompass the national environment or tradition. It is more complex than the ‘relative employability’, linking more to the labour market demands and national policy,” the authors argue.

They note also that a large percentage of graduate survey respondents landed their first job through their social network of friends or classmates.

Critically reflecting upon their findings from a sociological perspective, the authors say the research has provided strong empirical evidence to show how international learning experiences contribute positively to graduate employment and job searches.

However, students and families who cannot afford to pay for studying abroad or enrolling on TNE programmes will encounter far more difficulty in job searches and graduate employment.

“The growing popularity of international education has intensified education inequality, leading to the emerging trend of anti-globalism and anti-internationalisation, especially when university graduates without overseas learning or international education face diverse job searches and employment experiences,” they conclude.

“Further research should be conducted to compare graduate employment and job search experience of graduates with local university qualifications and those holding non-local qualifications.”