Study Abroad and Internationalization in China

When I approached this final project, I knew I wanted to do something related to study abroad in China. I began wondering why Chinese students want to study abroad, what their goals are, and what the focus on study abroad is from a Chinese administrator point of view. I knew that in the United States, we are intentional in designing study abroad programs that allow students to grow and develop beyond what they would do at their home campus. We want our students to become more independent; to learn how to handle ambiguous situations; to become less timid in using newly learned skills. What I didn’t know was whether Chinese professionals in higher education had these same goals for study abroad, or whether Chinese students had an interest in a meaningful cultural experience the way American students do.

I started to form a hypothesis that the Chinese study abroad objectives would be more focused on improving English so that students would be more competitive in the job market. I went into the experience thinking this would be the main focus for Chinese students, and that professionals in the field would focus mostly on providing opportunities for their students to study in English-speaking countries. Looking back, I formed this hypothesis using much too narrow of a scope both in considering Chinese interests with study abroad and the scope of international education in China.

Before the trip I interviewed a Chinese student at William and Mary who is earning her master’s degree in higher education administration. Luyao did her undergraduate work in China, and opted to go abroad to pursue further education. I was especially interested to ask Luyao about the goals of study abroad from the Chinese perspective since she works in the Reves Center and is knowledgeable about what American administrators and students hope to get out of study abroad. Luyao said that she studied abroad during the summer after her sophomore year of college in London, where she took an English literature course on multiculturalism, focusing on the immigrant experience. As an English major, Luyao was careful to choose a study abroad location where she could apply the language she had spent years studying. However, there were reasons beyond improving her English: “Internationalization is pushing study abroad to become more common. Our English majors need to study abroad, because what they learn is English and they can get into the culture to put what they learn into the context of the environment. I also think students are becoming more and more interested in foreign cultures, and they can afford it now (unlike the past)” (L. Yan, personal communication, February 18, 2013).

Luyao explained that the goals of study abroad in America are very focused on student development and exposing students to diverse cultures. She then compared these goals with those of Chinese students and administrators involved in study abroad:

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Findings in China

Once we were on the ground in China, I was able to speak with two students at Beijing Normal University about their experience with or perceptions of studying abroad. The first student, Ann, is in the second year of her master’s program for Comparative Education with a focus on science education. I asked if she had had an opportunity to study abroad while she was earning her bachelor’s degree, but Ann explained that she had not been able to because it was too expensive and she did not want to ask her parents for extra money. She further revealed that she would have liked to study abroad for two reasons—to understand another culture and to have a chance to work in an American science lab. Ann noted that the laboratories in the United States are noted for being excellent, and having worked in one is a good credential to have in being competitive on the job market. She clarified that working in an American lab is really an important credential for anyone who wants to be a professor in the natural sciences. While Ann was not able to study abroad herself, she did note that some of her classmates decided to pursue graduate programs in the United States, and she knows six people who are earning a graduate degree abroad.

Another student from Beijing Normal University, Carrie, joined our conversation and explained that she had spent fall of 2012 at the University of Oklahoma. Carrie is earning her master’s degree in higher education, so I was surprised that she had spent a semester abroad since such an amount of time is typically not spent away from the home campus in American graduate education programs. My conversation with Carrie was my first clue that studying abroad in China is more common at the graduate level than it is in the United States. Our focus is largely on undergraduate students spending an extended amount of time abroad, while China has seemingly put this focus on graduate students.


Jess and I with Carrie, a graduate student at Beijing Normal University who spent fall 2012 abroad at Oklahoma State University.

Jess and me with Carrie, a graduate student at Beijing Normal University who spent fall 2012 abroad at Oklahoma State University. (Allred, 2013)


It was interesting to speak with two students at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an during their Sociology of Higher Education class about the opportunities they had to study abroad. These students, Linda and Bob, emphasized that they did not have a chance to study in a foreign country because it was too expensive. This was in contrast to what Luyao mentioned in our interview before the trip to China. However, Luyao went to college in Beijing, which is a much more international city than Xi’an, where I interviewed Linda and Bob.

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Linda and Bob also mentioned that if they had enough financial resources, they would want to go to a foreign country to earn a PhD. This interview helped me broaden my scope in terms of what kinds of international education I was examining from the Chinese perspective. Luyao had mentioned that earning a graduate degree in a foreign country is prestigious and few students are able to do it because of stringent testing and English proficiency requirements; however, Linda and Bob’s comments began to shed light on how much value a foreign degree has for a Chinese student.

At this point in my interviewing, I had had one of my pre-trip assumptions proven inaccurate. From an American higher education background, I assumed that most study abroad was done at the undergraduate level, like it is in the United States, and that students had the most opportunities to spend a semester abroad. Luyao tipped me off that this was incorrect when she explained that exchange programs, which last an entire semester, were the most selective at her undergraduate institution, and thus very few students could go on them. I then spoke with Carrie at Beijing Normal University, who had spent the previous semester abroad in Oklahoma working on her master’s degree in higher education. Linda and Bob explained that while English acquisition was important, they had not had an opportunity to go abroad as undergraduate students (although they mentioned cost as a limiting factor). Ann at Beijing Normal also mentioned the cost as the reason she did not study abroad as an undergraduate, but mentioned that she knew six people currently earning a graduate degree in another country. It seemed at this point that there might be more focus on graduate students either spending some time abroad or earning entire degrees abroad. According to Open Doors data from 2010-2012, the United States hosted 76,830 Chinese graduate students in 2010-11, and 88,429 Chinese graduate students in 2011-12; this 15% increase underscores my observation that there is a large focus in China on students going abroad to earn their graduate degree (Open Doors, 2012). This observation was further validated in my interview with Wei Zhao, the Vice Dean of the School of Education at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’ An.

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Interestingly, Professor Zhao explained that having studied abroad was not necessarily an advantageous credential in every professional field in China. She explained:

For some companies who have some international business, they accept more and more this kind of people. For university, it is also like that; we do like some teachers who study the experience abroad. But for some local company or maybe the government, not really related to the international affairs, they don’t really want this kind of student. (personal communication, March 5, 2013)

It seems that in China, studying abroad is only valuable to an employer if the organization has any sort of international element to its operation. This point was underscored by Peggy Blumenthal, who serves as senior counselor to the president of the International Institute of Education and was quoted in Lekan Oguntoyinbo’s (2012) article:

In careers in the academic or corporate sector the ability to speak English is important…the way education is delivered here—stressing critical thinking, innovation and participation in class are all very important. We hear from Chinese employers and multi-nationals that engineering graduates from Chinese schools are not employable. There it’s mostly rote learning. Professors lecture, students listen and students repeat what [professors] say. This is not the way companies work. (As cited in Oguntoyinbo, 2012, p. 11-12)

After my interview with Professor Zhao, I realized that China’s focus on internationalizing the university is going past just sending students abroad for a semester. Instead, Chinese universities are implementing international elements at the student and professional level, in ways that impact both those who spend time abroad and those who stay in China. From my conversation with Professor Zhao, I learned that the government’s educational reform in 2012 is part of the reason there is an increased emphasis on learning from other cultures and incorporating their best practices. This is evident in both universities and in elementary, middle, and high schools, where the government wants teachers who have been abroad and who can incorporate western styles of teaching that involve the student in his/her own learning.

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It seems that education in China is shifting from an instruction paradigm to a learning paradigm, and the government needs individuals who have experienced the learning paradigm firsthand to be able to incorporate it in China. Barr and Tagg (1995) explain the differences in these two approaches to education: the Instruction Paradigm “mistakes a means for an end” (p. 13) and focuses on providing instruction as the mission of the institution. Conversely, the Learning Paradigm posits that “our mission is not instruction but rather that of producing learning with every student by whatever means work best” (p. 13). Further, Barr and Tagg (1995) note that “the Instruction Paradigm rests on conceptions of teaching that are increasingly recognized as ineffective” (p. 13).  In the Learning Paradigm, lecture loses its “privileged position” (Barr & Tagg, 1995, p. 14), because we see that it is not an effective method to ensure that students actually learn the material; it is only effective to ensure that the material is delivered. This paradigm shift explains the change from pure lecture in Chinese classrooms to more interactive classroom approaches. However, as Professor Zhao explained, most Chinese educators do not know how to implement this new paradigm, and so educators with experience in western classrooms where this paradigm is more regularly used are extremely valuable.

However, as a student at East China Normal University (Novella) explained to me, this paradigm shift is slow because students are still under a lot of pressure to perform well on the college entrance exam (the Gao Kao), and so parents and teachers hesitate to change the methods for fear of long-lasting consequences. A student’s score on the Gao Kao determines where he/she will go to college, what the major will be, and ultimately what kind of job he/she can get since so many hiring decisions hinge on what university the student attended. Thus, many people consider it too big of a risk to teach any way other than exactly to the test, and so the shift in teaching styles is happening mostly at the university level, when the Gao Kao is no longer a looming factor. Novella and Sabrina, students at ECNU, even suggested that the shift is somewhat slow at the university level, but I did observe some teaching methods that align more with the Learning Paradigm and that reminded me of methods used in the United States (such as classroom discussion and students responding to the teacher’s questions). Novella also noted at one point, in regards to English language classes in China, “So that’s a real problem, we call our education “exam-oriented” education. We are towards educational shift, a paradigm shift. We want to change our education from exam-oriented to quality-oriented” (Novella, personal communication, March 8, 2013). For more on the experience of Chinese students learning English under Chinese teaching methods, see Leslie Bohon’s project here.

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The students I spoke with were at East China Normal University were mostly comparative education majors, earning master’s degrees, and they were quite aware of the different teaching methods used in other parts of the world. I conducted this interview with my colleague Leslie Bohon, and we asked about how the professors in the comparative education department incorporated more western styles of teaching. The students were talkative about the differences in eastern and western teaching styles, as well as the requirement that their professors spend time or earn a degree abroad before they can teach comparative education.

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Unfortunately, the video footage of this interview cut off right before one of the students explained that the competitive advantage from earning a degree abroad only goes so far. I asked if a student would have an advantage if he/she earned a degree from an American university that was not so well known in China. The students explained that in that case, the student would not really be more competitive in the job market, and it is overall better to attend a prestigious Chinese university like Tsingua University or Beijing Normal University than to attend a foreign university that is not well known in China or a foreign university that is not highly ranked.


Final Reflections

At the end of the trip, I realized I had been looking at study abroad through too narrow of a lens, and the focus on internationalization in China is larger than just sending students to an English-speaking country for a semester. When I began my interviews, my expectations were heavily colored by my American experience with study abroad programs, and our idea of what is a meaningful program and what we hope our students will gain from it. This is not to say that the American semester abroad is not meaningful—it is, of course, and American students grow a lot during these experiences in lasting ways. I went in expecting the Chinese study abroad model to be essentially the same, and found that it is actually quite different. Instead of focusing mainly on sending students abroad for a semester, there is a mix of sending students abroad and bringing international professors and teaching methods in to Chinese universities. There is also a much greater focus in China on sending graduate students abroad, and in students earning entire graduate degrees at a foreign university. While it is still less than common for Chinese students to earn their graduate degree abroad because of the cost incurred, it is becoming more and more possible for students to do so now than in past years. Internationalization is affecting Chinese education in a big way, and the Chinese are being very creative in finding ways for all students to feel its effects, whether they study out of China and have firsthand experiences or stay home and experience the shift in teaching methods.







Barr, R.B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27(6), 12-25.

Institute of International Education. (2012). Open doors 2012 data [Data file]. Retrieved from

Oguntoyinbo, L. (2012). East-West Cooperative. Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, 29(9), 11-12.