Chinese international students in Australia: A study of the transformative potential of education abroad

This longitudinal study of Chinese women students in Australian universities is the first to trace in detail these students’ subjective experience of their journeys from China to Australia and on to their post-graduation destinations. Through in-depth ethnographic research it will reveal how these young women’s time in Australia impacts on their gendered and national-cultural sense of identity. The research project will make a major contribution to scholarly, public and government understandings of a large and under-researched segment of the Australian population, deepen knowledge in areas directly linked to national strategic concerns about Australian education export, and enhance Australia’s engagement with its region.

Assoc. Professor Fran Martin’s project, funded by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, studies the experiences of Chinese women students in Australian universities. From before they departed China through to their postgraduate destinations, it will build a picture of how their time in Australia affects their gendered and national-cultural identity.

Chinese students have become one of the most significant contributors to the Australian economy in recent decades. “I’m seeing more and more of these young people in my classes”, says Assoc. Professor Martin, who is a specialist in contemporary Chinese youth cultures. “I began to wonder what their lives are like when they are in Australia.” There has been much research into the academic experiences of international students but “we don’t have a deep, everyday sense of what it feels like to go through this experience.”

Assoc. Professor Martin’s hypothesis is that living in Australia must affect how women students negotiate two contradictions: one between popular Chinese nationalism and a desire for a more cosmopolitan identity, and the other a tension between seeing themselves as individualised, self-directed subjects and social pressures to reorient their identities toward becoming wives, mothers, and homemakers as they reach their late twenties. Who are these women when they arrive in Australia – and who do they become? Will living overseas encourage them to think differently about gender roles or national identity?

The project was preceded by a pilot study in 2012, began formally in June 2015, and will run for five years. The pilot study of fifteen students proved that a broader study would be possible and insightful. “I did it completely without funding, I worked extra hard for a year”, reflects Assoc. Professor Martin. “All of the women I spoke to in the pilot study were fascinating and inspiring.”

She has now assembled a group of fifty students who attend five universities in Victoria. Most study commerce or business, reflecting the general trend in enrolments of Chinese women. Initial interviews in China explored their hopes and expectations. In Melbourne Assoc. Professor Martin undertakes participant observation through large group activities, organises regular one-on-one or small group meetings, and maintains contact through social media.

Some trends have already begun to emerge. Expressions of nationalism are complex and vary based on context. Students want to engage with Australian culture but recognise this might be difficult. Lasting, meaningful friendships with local students are difficult to develop, which to many Chinese students is a source of significant disappointment. Underpay is endemic. The students are not naïve or unaware of labour laws but they feel limited in their ability to do anything about exploitative employers. Some rent properties from bad landlords who overcharge, over-fill apartments, and erect illegal extensions.

The project will produce a book, and the findings will be significant for state and federal governments. Assoc. Professor Martin will be able to make well-considered recommendations. “I love the opportunity the fellowship gives for research at the right pace”, she says; “time to really look at the data and wait for the implications to come out.”


Culture and Communication


Screen and Cultural Studies

Chief investigators

Assoc. Professor Fran Martin, Future Fellow, School of Culture and Communication, the University of Melbourne.