Returning Chinese scholars ‘marginalised’ at home and abroad

Chinese academics coming home from overseas should be seen as a source of new ideas, not sidelined, study says

August 21, 2020
A tourist takes a selfie stick while visiting an ancient palace in China
Source: Getty

Chinese scholars encouraged to return home by the nation’s government face great challenges in balancing the practices they learned in the West and the realities of domestic institutions, according to a new study.

Researchers at the China Institute of Education Policy at Beijing Normal University interviewed 18 returnees at three top Chinese universities, and also observed their interactions in classrooms, laboratories and offices.

Their findings, to be published in the September issue of Higher Education, show that returnees struggle to bridge cultural gaps in how Chinese institutions approach hiring, publishing and networking.

Two major sticking points were “the lack of international academic peer review and tenure track mechanisms”, which presented a “dual dilemma” for returning academics, says the paper, written by Jian Li and Eryong Xue.

It suggests it would be “necessary” for China to incorporate these sorts of practices to match world-class universities overseas. Returnee experiences and feedback could guide Chinese universities in balancing international good practice with local considerations, the paper argues.

The interviewees – who were split evenly between male and female, and between science and the social sciences – had acquired PhDs in the US or Europe, and were now at the associate professor or professor level in China.

They felt that they had to play dual roles, the paper finds. For example, they were expected to publish prolifically in both English- and Chinese-language journals, while also teaching courses. However, they also felt they were not fully recognised either as international scholars or local academics.

One faculty member said that he was “struggling” after having published 39 Chinese and 38 English articles since 2006. He wished to publish more English papers, which have more impact, but his dean required Chinese papers to increase the institution’s “local relevance and influence”.

Another faculty member, in the field of psychology, said that he wanted to publish more English papers to boost his position internationally. “I am dreaming of living in a free academic space where I can communicate with my international academic peers,” he said.

The returnees used strong terminology to describe their experiences. Seven self-mockingly called themselves “abandoned orphans” to describe their “marginalised status in international academic networks and in the Chinese higher education system”. One said that he felt “depressed, lost, hopeless and lonely” upon his return to China several years ago.

Returnees said that it was “not easy” to build academic partnerships with local peers, and expressed “anxiety about the difficulties of finding suitable co-authorship”. They cited some institutions’ lack of subscriptions to international academic publishers and databases, as well as bureaucratic hurdles to attending overseas conferences.  

Marginalisation was felt more strongly in the humanities and social sciences, where departments are smaller and political considerations are greater. Scholars in these fields are “required to commit to the national strategic ideology” and would be encouraged to study “Marxist theoretical concepts” to follow trends set by Chinese academics and publications, the paper says. Scholars who do not take this path could receive less government funding and encounter “resistance to their research outputs because the Chinese state also strictly censors all publications”.

These considerations should be taken into account as institutions seek to be more globally relevant. “Returnee faculty members play an indispensable role in internationalising China’s universities,” the paper concludes.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

I don't see much evidence here of marginalisation. Sure, some individuals will not do as well as they may have expected and will be disgruntled, blaming the 'system' The reality as far as I can see is quite different in STEM. The marginalisation is of those who graduated in China. Universities massively favour hiring graduates of the US especially, as well as the UK, Aus, Canada, Germany, Singapore, anywhere-but-China. The (official) mantra from universities at the moment is 'top 100 world ranked [excl. China except for a handful]', without which your chances are massively diminished and salary will be lower if you do get in. This is not new. There has been an almighty scramble for at least a couple of decades to get some experience abroad. Thus, you will find that a high proportion of faculty (especially under 45) did not graduate in China. In my experience it can be well over 50%. I would also say that the system in China does not promote as much competition between colleagues. There is far less envy than in say the UK or US. Mostly I believe this is cultural, and also because the criteria, whether people agree with them or not, are much more transparent (papers as first or corresponding, citations, IFs of journals, funding, 'titles'). Moreover, people publish predominantly in international journals, usually targeting the top ones because they are an assured ticket to tenure and promotion (as well as cash rewards, although this practise is being brought to an end). I've rarely seen people publish more than the odd paper in a Chinese journal for a couple of decades now. This may change because the Government recently issued new guidelines for universities in which they encourage promotion of Chinese journals. In reality, what will happen is that some of the lesser papers will be sent there while academics will reserve their best work for the international journals, which are and will continue to be favoured by the universities. There is of course some bias as there always is but far less than I've seen elsewhere in the sense that someone cannot get promoted over another with a far superior record. There are all sorts of checks and balances at various levels in the universities to prevent totally egregious decision making with regards to hiring and promotion.
Hello AI Revolt, Thank you very much for your comment. I agree that they are not 'marginalised' in terms of privileges and wages. I think there's an awareness that those returning with Western PhDs would be relatively well paid and have good positions. The paper I quote is more about how they don't really fit in as entirely local or international - which is an experience many "returnees" or overseas Chinese have, not just professors. Thanks for your comment about journal publication. There's been a lot of talk recently about how to best assess academics - whether citation numbers are the most important, whether international ones should count more than domestic ones. And I agree that STEM / non-STEM can be very different. Thanks again for commenting!

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