EdUHK Research on How Habitus Influences the Migration Trajectories of African Students in China

Global flows of international students have diversified in recent years. As a result, the common association of this form of mobility with affluent members of the global middle class increasingly does not hold. About six percent of African tertiary students undertake higher education outside their home country, a higher proportion than in any other region. About half study in Africa; China is the second-largest single host country after France, having hosted 81,562 African students in 2018.

A study by Dr Benjamin Joseph Mulvey, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of International Education (IE), The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK), focused on the migration patterns of African international students in China. The main aim was to establish how international student migration is experienced differentially by students positioned in their home societies in unequal ways. It provided a detailed account of the pre-mobility social backgrounds, overseas experience, and post-study plans of 40 students from 14 African countries, based on data from semi-structured interviews. This enabled a focus on socially-classed differences in pre-mobility habitus, and the mutability of habitus as a consequence of an overseas sojourn. The study revealed that differences in social background in some cases led to distinct trajectories during the sojourn and in terms of post-study plans.

To understand the relationship between study abroad and habitus adjustment, the researchers examined the pre-mobility habitus of students. Students from less advantaged backgrounds tended to reflect on having faced disadvantages and succeeding. There was relatively little evidence of long-term planning for migration, because study abroad was not previously seen as a possibility. In the group of middle-class students, in contrast, studying abroad was always perceived as possible. Many had kinship networks and established study-abroad patterns among their peers.

The study found that pre-mobility habitus was an important factor shaping the trajectories of students’ overseas sojourns. International students from disadvantaged backgrounds tended to be successful academically during their time abroad, as they were able to draw on internal resources developed as a response to a lack of cultural and social capital during childhood and adolescence. These students displayed a strong sense of connection to their home communities, while shunning African students from more privileged backgrounds.

Most students, regardless of their original social background, did not perceive integration in China as possible mainly because of the large cultural gap and racialisation. A profound sense of alienation when initially navigating new social fields in China appeared in most cases to lead to withdrawal from the host society, rather than to attempts to adapt.

In terms of post-graduation plans, a consistent theme among students from disadvantaged backgrounds was giving back to their home communities. The vast majority of middle-class students and graduates, in contrast, planned to move away, some preferring to return home, and some seeking to migrate to third countries for work or further study. A common thread was anxiety about maintaining their middle-class status.

The study was conducted together with Profess Mark Mason at IE of EdUHK. It makes a theoretical contribution to international student migration literature, arguing that the nature of the transformation that takes place among student migrants as a result of studying in China is shaped by the nature of mobility, both spatial and social.

To learn more about the study, please click here.

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The Education University of Hong Kong

Nestled in a scenic mountain range, just one hour from Hong Kong’s business districts, The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK) offers tranquility and world-class scholarship in a vibrant, inclusive community. EdUHK is a publicly funded tertiary institution dedicated to the advancement of teaching and learning through diverse academic and research programmes on teacher education and complementary disciplines, including social sciences and humanities. The University places great emphasis on research capability with the aim of contributing to the advancement of knowledge, scholarship and innovation. EdUHK is committed to creating a sustainable impact on social progress and human betterment and defining the education landscape for not only Hong Kong, but also the Asia Pacific region. Ranked 3rd in Asia and 16th in the world in Education (QS World University Rankings by Subject 2021), EdUHK will continue to make an impact locally, regionally and internationally through high quality research and scholarship. Adopting an Education-plus approach, its primary mission is to lead educational innovation, and to promote and support the strategic development of teaching, teacher education and disciplines complementary to education by preparing outstanding and morally responsible educators and professionals while supporting their lifelong learning. To know more about EdUHK, please visit

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