Misaligned realities: Dealing with returnee expectations

While traditionally, the trend of student mobility has seen students moving from the East to the English-speaking West, there has been a rising trend of student mobility moving back towards and within the Asian region.

This changing pattern of student mobility may have been the result of the development and growth of a few higher education hubs across Asia like Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan that have internationalised their curriculum, backed by generous funding from their respective governments, to attract international students.

Student mobility is largely driven by students’ various desires to fulfil their idea of the perceived benefits of studying abroad. There is a common belief that studying abroad benefits students by developing their linguistic, cultural, personal and career potential.

When Asian international students return home, some of these returnee students may continue their postgraduate studies at local Asian higher education institutions that have been actively internationalising.

Asian universities are increasingly attractive for students because of their internationalised outlook, but they may not necessarily be able to satisfy returnee students’ expectations and experiences on campus.

Drivers of student mobility within Asia

There are several reasons or aspirations driving Asian returnee students who are attracted to pursue postgraduate education in Asia.

First, universities in Asia are increasingly offering dual or joint masters and PhD programmes in collaboration with an international partner institution. This benefits students who participate in these programmes as they have access to the best resources and experiences of both worlds while being exposed to different academic environments and opportunities for international networking.

In addition, students graduate and receive recognition from both institutions, thus boosting their career opportunities.

Another essential consideration in deciding to pursue postgraduate education in Asia relates to the availability of (competitive) scholarships that ease the financial burden of students, especially for those from developing nations who don’t have financial support from their families.

With these scholarships, students can relocate to another country and have more time to focus on their studies and research work.

Students can also be motivated to relocate within and to Asia because they aspire to collaborate with a prominent scholar in their field of study, who is based in that particular institution. Nowadays, Asian universities are actively recruiting distinguished scholars to boost their international profiles. These ‘superstar scholars’ also attract students because they are known for their successful supervision and mentoring approaches.

Re-entry experiences

After spending a long period abroad in the West, many international students adjust to the ‘culture shock’ of transitioning into their host culture’s academic way of life.

This includes having access to the extensive range of online databases and journal subscriptions provided by their institutions. Comfortable working spaces, high speed internet and longer library operation hours are also among the perks. A few universities also offer support for attending conferences and research.

Students who have become accustomed to the academic norms of their host country live in a ‘bubble’ where they operate according to the standards of that university and often continue to do so when they return to Asia and cross borders within the region. However, holding on to those standards can be problematic.

When Asian international students who have completed their education in, for instance, Australia, Europe or the United States return to Asia for postgraduate studies, they may find themselves feeling underwhelmed once they re-enter an Asian higher education institution that does not provide a comparable level of resources and support to the one they were previously accustomed to.

For example, students may discover that their current institution does not provide the basic infrastructure that is necessary for them to conduct their research with the same workflow as their previous institution.

Instead of being efficient in their work, students now have to deal with issues relating to inadequate working space dedicated to PhD students, poor Wi-Fi connectivity on campus and insufficient access to relevant online databases and library resources.

Students may also encounter difficulties in readjusting to their local academic community due to differences in culture, academic experiences and research interests. Furthermore, the lack of departmental funding for supporting students to travel and attend conferences reduces opportunities for them to build a strong and wide scholarly network.

When students are also expected to produce two publications in highly ranked journals as part of their graduation requirements without these resources and support, they begin to question who truly benefits from these publications.

Different versions of internationalisation

Asian higher education institutions have been participating in the construction of social imaginaries in relation to their internationalisation agenda, as documented in some work published by Ka Ho Mok, Le-Ha Phan and Ravinder Sidhu et al.

Social imaginaries can be broadly understood as a reflection of shared imaginations within a group of people about certain practices that give meaning and legitimacy to their participation in that activity.

As these Asian universities portray themselves to be of an international standing, students who have studied abroad in the West may expect that they will be reasonably on a par with their global counterparts.

However, some Asian universities may be exaggerating their promotional claims to be ‘international’ when they have yet to reach ‘international’ standards in reality.

Thus, returnee students may feel short-changed because their institutions do not meet or deliver their expected global or internationalised standards as promised, which were shaped by their previous study abroad experiences.

These unfulfilled expectations can lead students to become disillusioned with their decision to return to Asia for postgraduate education. Voicing their dissatisfaction puts them at further risk of appearing ‘entitled’ for demanding access to academic and research resources which are considered at a premium in their current institution.

This leads to the question of whether returnee students are a privileged group who have simply failed to acclimatise themselves locally or whether the discourse on internationalised Asian institutions actually matches the empirical reality as experienced by returnee students.

Unintended consequences

Nonetheless, we are not interested in the question of whose internationalisation is better or worse, or with making claims about what quality international education should be. Our focus is on why universities should acknowledge that their process and practice of internationalisation could have unintended results, leaving some students feeling like they have encountered misaligned realities.

Supporting returnee students can help prevent them from becoming ‘disillusioned’ and dropping out. That doesn’t mean that they need to be treated differently, let alone be given privileges over those who have never been abroad.

For Asian universities and students alike, being ‘international’ should not be about having to forego their Asian identity and completely embrace Western values and systems.

Rather, being ‘international’ should be about minimising inequalities and creating the ideal conditions necessary for empowering students to be intellectually and culturally competent at engaging with local and global community affairs.

Brendan Ch’ng is currently a PhD candidate at the faculty of education in the University of Malaya, Malaysia. Irham Irham and Ibro Him are PhD candidates at the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education at Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Brunei. This article is part of a series, “Asian higher education changes: Perspectives from within” initiated by the International and Comparative Education Research Group at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. The first part of this article can be read here.