ALMA Reviews Blog: Family-mediated migration infrastructure: Chinese international students and parents navigating (im)mobilities during the COVID-19 pandemic
Yang Hu, Lancaster University, Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University, Mengwei Tu, East China University of Science and Technology
Published in 2020 in Chinese Sociological Review
Over the last three decades, the steadily increasing enrolment of incoming international students has contributed immensely to the economies of the receiving countries, which are first and foremost English-speaking countries in the Global North. Unfortunately, earlier this year the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic put a spanner in the works of this business model. Border closures, internal movement restrictions, social distancing and mandated confinement have severely impacted international students, for whom mobility is essential. How have universities mitigated their huge losses in revenues while balancing the interests of the international students enrolled in those institutions? A study published by three up-and-coming young sociologists, Yang Hu, Cora Lingling Xu and Mengwei Tu, has examined how Chinese international students and their parents decide whether the students should remain abroad or return home during the pandemic – shedding light on group-specific decision-making processes that will influence the future financing models of those universities that have flourished through the patronage of such students.
It comes as little surprise that until recently some universities primarily viewed the international students, who usually have to pay higher fees than domestic students, as “cash cows”, a fortunate counterbalance to the many budget cuts those universities faced from their own governments in the recent past. Many universities made enormous investments to recruit international students, including a willingness to lower admission requirements in order to attract more paying customers, thereby boosting enrolment and revenue. To offer just one example, between 1988 and 2014, the number of international students at Australian universities climbed thirteenfold. According to Alan Gamlen, 5.3 million international students contribute an estimated USD 300 billion per year to the big business of “export education”. On top of their university fees, international students also spend money on all kinds of service providers, including recruiters, translators, counsellors, health insurers, landlords and what not. While enrolled, many students work for restaurants, convenience stores and other service providers, helping to fill the demand for casual unskilled labour. While this business model has worked well for many years, the global Covid-19 pandemic has ruptured the taken-for-granted flows and infrastructures. In fact, many university managers now fear that the pandemic might have damaged the business model beyond repair.
While the Covid-19 pandemic poses enormous difficulties for each and every one of us, it seems that international students are particularly hard hit when it comes to financial hardship, mental health, exploitation and even the risk of homelessness. When the national borders closed and lockdowns were imposed, many students were stranded, unable to return to their families or home countries. Even as university fees and rents remained due, many students lost their student jobs and sources of income, not least because they were excluded from the national policies that provided one-time cash payments and other forms of transitional aid to citizens only. Their societal inclusion evaporated overnight, while xenophobia, verbal abuse and other hate crimes – directed, first and foremost, towards “Asian-looking” people – were on the rise. It is thus fair to say that many international students experienced a double exclusion during the pandemic, from their now unwelcoming host countries as well as from the home countries to which they could not return.
In an article by Yang Hu, Cora Lingling Xu and Mengwei Tu published in the Chinese Sociological Review on Chinese international students in the United Kingdom under the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, the three authors take a closer look at the family-mediated migration infrastructures that that are being developed developed to mitigate the tyranny of closed borders and the prolonged immobilisation. While families and family networks have long been seen as crucial in triggering and constraining transnational migration, they also play important roles in weathering crises. These safety nets are, however, often taken for granted by both states and families members themselves. What makes the Covid-19 pandemic different from other crises and disasters, including earthquakes or hurricanes, is that disaster has struck on all fronts simultaneously. Both parents and students are struggling. And while family-mediated infrastructures are meant to support and sustain family relations across distance, in times of crisis they “could paradoxically strain parent-child relationships” (p.7).
In their empirical data collection the three authors interviewed undergraduate Chinese students (from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau) as well as their parents, both separately and jointly, “to understand how the students and their families navigated whether to remain in the UK and their subsequent (im)mobility experiences”. By including these two sets of interviewees it became possible to decipher the strategies of validating messy and widespread rumours and (mis)information about and within both countries, e. g. regarding food shortages and experiments with creating herd immunity.
The strengths of this contribution are the many fine-grained insights into migratory decision-making, particularly with regard to the choice of whether to remain in the UK or return to China. The authors have succeeded very convincingly in rendering visible the complexity of decision-making, not only because it took their interviewees a while to forge final decisions but also, and maybe more importantly, because certain decisions had to be reversed or adapted along the way – not least because simple tasks, such as buying a ticket, would suddenly take much longer and thus require “intense, real-time and round-the-clock coordination between family members across transnational localities” (p. 22). At times when states are overwhelmed and unable to support the many vulnerable people living in their territories, it is up to the individual families to step in and step up in order to navigate the challenges of immobility and exclusion. While the sample of Hu, Xu and Tu consisted primarily of Chinese international students from relatively affluent families, it became clear that their upper-middle-class privilege was not sufficient to shield them from numerous difficulties. This should provide a strong motivation to now focus as well on non-privileged international students and their responses to the global pandemic in future research. Most importantly, this and other actor-oriented studies that focus on students’ interests, well-being and decision-making should be consulted by the financial managers at those universities currently coming up with rescue plans for their financially strapped institutions.
Reviewed by: Antje Missbach
Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe