China: lure of homeland ‘no simple choice’ for expat academics

Personal and pragmatic factors often keep Chinese academics in the West

March 11, 2019
Air pollution in China
Source: Getty

Academic freedom concerns may not deter a generation of expatriate Chinese academics from returning to the motherland, lured by lavishly funded recruitment schemes such as the Thousand Talents Plan.

But pragmatic matters such as pricey rents and smog-choked cities might help Western university systems retain Chinese-born doctoral graduates who are a mainstay of their staff.

China experts say that it is too early to tell whether the country’s massive recruitment drive – partly crafted to meet the employment needs of a burgeoning university system, with a reported $222 billion (£168 billion) plunged into higher education last year alone – will strip anglophone institutions of much-needed academics.

The schemes offer incentives such as generous start-up packages, salary top-ups and services to help recruits’ families find their feet. China’s rapidly improving universities attract a constant flow of world-class talent, nestled in what is becoming the epicentre of global economic activity – with relatively modest living costs to boot.

On the downside, China’s academic salaries are generally lower than those in the West. And an onerous publish-or-perish regime means that recruits who do not amass impressive publications can soon find themselves out of work – reflecting the notoriously competitive schooling system inflicted on their children.

Other disincentives include the need to uproot family, abandon friends and navigate a different language and lifestyle. However, such disadvantages can be offset by the principal attraction of schemes such as Thousand Talents – access to state-of-the-art research facilities and the unprecedented collaboration opportunities they generate.

Laurie Pearcey, pro vice-chancellor (international) at UNSW Sydney, said that some municipality-run programmes in China offered green cards and residency incentives that would have been “almost impossible” to find a few years ago. Nevertheless, such schemes were struggling to attract Chinese or foreign-born academics, researchers or innovators.

“One of the big challenges in China, especially in a city like Beijing, is pollution,” Mr Pearcey said. “Some people would ask second questions before rushing to accept what’s an otherwise lucrative package.”

Political scientist Greg McCarthy, who recently completed an appointment as chair of Australian studies at Peking University, said that Antipodean institutions were very dependent on Chinese academics. Since about 2005, they had appointed as many staff from China as from their traditional hunting ground of the UK.

Professor McCarthy said that between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of Chinese doctoral students in Australian universities stayed on as academics, principally in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and in business – disciplines where Australia relies on foreigners to sustain its research capacity. Somewhat similar patterns apply in the UK and the US, said Professor McCarthy, professor of Australian politics at the University of Western Australia.

But Professor McCarthy argued that Australia was at perhaps greater risk of losing native English-speaking humanities academics than Chinese-born STEM specialists. Rampant casualisation in Australian universities was forcing people to look elsewhere for secure posts – and China, with a growing suite of English-taught master’s programmes, was a logical choice.

“They follow that Harvard model of small classes,” he added. “You might have a class of 10 or 15. In China, student fees don’t drive the universities.”

However, crippling housing costs in Beijing and Shanghai are a major problem, he conceded. “It’s a bit like London or Oxford – you can teach there, but you can’t afford to live there.”

Futao Huang, a Chinese-born international education expert at Japan’s Hiroshima University, said that China’s dynamism and research opportunities tended to outweigh disadvantages such as big-city housing costs, air pollution, relatively low pay and academic freedom concerns.

He said that most recruits to China belonged to the “hard sciences”, in which academic freedom was not as central an issue as in the humanities. Conversely, patriotism and the desire to build a “more powerful China” could be strong lures for Chinese expatriates.

Professor Huang said that most Chinese-born academics recruited by their homeland were not required to quit their overseas affiliations, while many Westerners went to China only after retirement – often for fixed terms.

But he himself had not seriously considered returning. “I am too old to be accepted by many good universities, and there is the problem of pension. More importantly, my field is higher education, which is not so attractive for most Chinese universities or research institutes.”

Greg Goodall, head of gene regulation at Adelaide’s Centre for Cancer Biology, has twice been flown to China to investigate setting up joint laboratories, most recently after his election to the Australian Academy of Science. He said that such invitations were routinely extended to new academy members.

Although no deal was struck, Professor Goodall said that the idea had been “of potential interest to me because I have a Chinese-born postdoc. It would have made it easier, had I established a lab, for him to be part of it. He was interested in that possibility.”


Print headline: Not all expats race to answer China's call

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Reader's comments (3)

A Vice-Chancellor told me recently that research at my Australian alma mater 'has benefited disproportionately' from Chinese collaborations, 'They've played a big role in putting us on the map.' And that was before he considered the contribution of Chinese fee-paying students. Academic freedom in China is different to ours but, in the end, no more repressive: they have political correctness, too, and fads and government directives and incentives. But overall, at the graduate level, their range of acceptable discussion and publication is probably broader than ours–and better informed because the left, including the extreme left, is as acceptable as the right.
It is completely untrue to say that there is just as much academic freedom in China as in Australia. There are many no-go areas for discussion and these have grown in recent years as evidenced by academics being fired, universities being reviewed and criticised for having outspoken liberals. Classroom teaching is monitored, texts are being reviewed for having too much 'western' content. The level of all this varies across and within institutions, but it is happening.
Academics thinking of China should look at the foreign joint venture universities like the University of Nottingham Ningbo China where I work. Salaries are competitive with working in the UK and most living costs lower. Support covers areas like housing, home leave and international schooling. More important is that you have greater opportunities for high quality research and teaching good students. Our research support enables faculty members to attend international conferences. While our faculty standards are as high as in the West and ongoing good performance is expected, it's much less hierarchical and 'publish or perish' than in a Chinese university. There are irritations but also great advantages. Air quality is improving and is no longer the conversation topic it used to be, so perceptions can be out of date in many cities.