Globalization and transnational academic mobility: The experiences of Chinese academic returnees
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The purpose of this study was to examine the way US returned academics negotiate their academic identities and professional practices at China's research universities in the context of higher education internationalization. To be specific, it explored how western doctoral education and work experiences affect returnees, and how these returnees reconstruct what it means to be and become a Chinese professor as they renegotiate the existing university rules, cultures, and practices. Second, it examined the complexity of the internationalization of Chinese universities and the role that returnees play in the process. This study went beyond economic accounts of academic mobility and placed the investigation in a broader frame of social and cultural analysis in order to go deep into the everyday experiences of the returning scholars around issues of their sense of identity, as well as their ways of connecting and bringing about changes in their work communities. It shed light on scholarly debates on transnational academic mobility and higher education internationalization in China. This study utilized qualitative methodology to explore the everyday experiences of the returned Chinese scholars. The sample was comprised of 52 US doctoral recipients from different disciplines at five research universities in both east and west China. In-depth interviews were used as the primary method of data collection. Other methods, such as non-participatory observation, informal conversations, and documentary analysis, were also used to complement the interview data. An inductive analysis approach was employed to generate codes, categories, and themes from the raw data. Data interpretation and reporting followed the Standards for Reporting on Empirical Social Science Research in AERA Publications. This study finds that 1) the returnees were motivated to return by China's rapid economic and social development, policy initiatives on mobilizing return moves, and better career opportunities that the improved academic system provided. They also returned for cultural and personal reasons, including social attachment, cultural belonging, self-realization, and family considerations. It suggests that the act of returning is a complex process that involves both personal choices and negotiations of various conditions and regions. 2) The integration of returnees into Chinese universities was not always a linear process, but constrained by the existing university structures and power relations. These include the bureaucracies of university administration, local politics and complicated interpersonal relationships, the problematic evaluation and funding system, and a lack of an efficient administrative system that supports high quality of teaching and research. 3) The returnees were not passively adapting to the structure. Instead, they were strategically drawing upon and using part of their transnational gains and advantages to create a new space for their professional careers and China's higher education innovation. They can be regarded as a driving force for change, either by introducing new teaching and research practices at the operational level, or calling for organizational changes by taking up leadership positions at the institutional level.