Young People and the Reproduction of Disadvantage Through Transnational Higher Education in Hong Kong

by Johanna Waters and Maggi Leung
University of Birmingham; Utrecht University

Sociological Research Online, 17 (3) 6

Received: 9 May 2011     Accepted: 13 Oct 2011    Published: 31 Aug 2012


This paper examines the role of transnational higher education in reproducing local patterns of disadvantage in Hong Kong. Specifically, it considers the expectations and experiences of local students undertaking British degree programmes, drawing on the findings of a recent qualitative research project. In this paper, we argue that through the introduction of so-called 'top-up' programmes, British universities are providing degree-level education to students unable to access local higher education (HE) in Hong Kong through the 'traditional' route. Drawing upon our interviews with students and graduates, we show the immense cultural and social expectations, placed upon young people in Hong Kong, to obtain a university degree, and the role of 'international' education in (partially) offsetting the shortfall in domestic university places. However, we also suggest that these students/graduates are in various ways relatively disadvantaged by these degrees – they often have less cultural capital and social capital on which to draw, and find that their degrees are less valued than their local equivalent. There are broader implications of our findings for understanding the role of transnational educational provision in localised reproduction of (dis)advantage, especially in East Asia.

Keywords: Transnational Higher Education; Young People; Hong Kong; UK Universities; Internationalisation of Education; Non-Local Degrees


1.1 Chloe Lee[1] currently works for a jewellery company in Hong Kong. She graduated with an honours degree in business from a British university in 2008, having studied for one year, full time, at a local Hong Kong higher education institution (HEI). She had no real aspirations to be an ‘international student’ - rather, when she found that all other routes to a university education were closed to her, a British ‘non-local’ programme provided the only available opportunity to become a ‘degree-holder’. A degree, she said, is a necessary prerequisite for almost any ‘desirable’ job in Hong Kong and provides the holder with a measure of social acceptability. Whilst she was pleased with the speed in which she was able to complete the course, and its relative cost, there are, she told us, some downsides to being an international student of this kind, particularly when you compare her experiences to those of students studying at one of Hong Kong’s eight domestic universities for a ‘local’ degree. Chloe is one of thousands of young British-degree-holders living and working in Hong Kong. They are part of a fairly recent expansion (notable within the last decade) of ‘transnational higher education’ in the territory, whereby UK (and other foreign) universities offer degree programmes to local students at home. These are not distance learning programmes, but involve face-to-face teaching (lectures, seminars, tutorials). Students are told that they will graduate with degree certificates identical to those issued in the UK to domestic students.

1.2 Non-local degree provision, such as this, is a key component of a burgeoning and financially lucrative global market in international HE. A number of recent projects undertaken by geographers, sociologists and educationalists have examined the emergence of an international education industry, with a particular focus on students, who form an integral and yet surprisingly under-researched part of this whole ‘internationalisation’ process (Brooks and Waters 2011; Collins 2006, 2008; Findlay 2010; Findlay and King 2010; Hazen and Alberts 2006; Huang and Yeoh 2005; Murphy-Lejeune 2002; Waters 2008). These projects have considered, for example, the role of mobility in shaping international students’ broader education and subsequent employment outcomes, the relationship between overseas study and the accumulation of cultural and social capital, and students’ embodied experiences of living abroad. They have examined, too, the way in which international students are transforming, dramatically, the urban landscapes of their destination countries (Chatterton, 2010; Collins, 2004; Fincher and Shaw, 2009; Smith, 2009).

1.3 And yet, to date, extant work on international students and the internationalisation of education has failed to consider students like Chloe, for whom an ‘international’ education means staying ‘at home,’ and provides the only route into HE. Research on international students has focussed, overwhelmingly, upon internationally mobile students and surprisingly little attention has been given to understanding students’ home contexts – the contexts in which the value of international credentials are usually realised (see Waters 2006a, 2006b). In this paper, we draw on substantive qualitative data (in-depth interviews with students and graduates) to explore the experiences of individuals who have opted to study for a British degree locally, in Hong Kong. We consider how British HEIs fit into the broader provision of higher education/continuing education in Hong Kong, with a particular focus on the accounts of those with direct experience of studying for a UK degree ‘locally’. Although our sample as a whole has included students and graduates at undergraduate, Masters and PhD level, here we focus in particular on a smaller sample (36) of individuals who are either studying for or have graduated with a bachelor’s degree. We do this intentionally, because we wish to highlight the important role that the UK is playing in providing ‘first degrees’ to local students. In addition, the paper speaks to debates around the role that international/transnational higher education can play, and is playing, in the localised reproduction of (dis)advantage (Waters 2006b; Xiang and Shen 2009). There is a need for more nuanced accounts of local context, when understanding the nature and impact of international educational processes.

1.4 The paper begins with a brief overview of recent work on the internationalisation of education, before providing a summary of our key research methods. Turning, then, to our data, we illustrate, first, the ‘type’ of student opting to study for a British degree in Hong Kong. The context for the main discussion is provided in the next section, which describes the importance of higher education in East Asia. With reference to the academic literature on international students, we then examine the claim that a British degree provides students in Hong Kong with a ‘second chance’ at higher education, and describe the advantages that can accrue from this. Our transcripts revealed, however, that often a British degree did not live up to expectations, and in fact fell significantly short of these. Here, we discuss the widespread concern with ‘reduced privileges’. Finally, we consider these findings in relation to debates around the role of international/transnational education in the reproduction of inequalities.

International students and the internationalisation of education

2.1 The research reported in this paper contributes to a growing body of work on the internationalisation of (higher) education. Over the last ten years, researchers working within and across a number of different disciplines/sub-disciplines (education, sociology, anthropology and geography) have come to acknowledge the significance of the process of internationalisation in relation, specifically, to education (Findlay et al. 2006; Hazen and Alberts 2006; Lewis 2005; Robertson 2011; Sidhu 2006; Waters 2008). Formal education is no longer seen to be a national and ‘internally’-driven affair, but represents a global market place, wherein countries and institutions are actively competing for students, and young people and their parents have become involved and informed seekers and consumers of international academic credentials. A substantial industry around international education has consequently emerged, involving large and smaller business interests, intersecting with ‘public’ education institutions (schools, colleges and universities), and blurring the boundaries between the state and the private sector in the management and delivery of international education (Sidhu 2006).

2.2 A great deal of recent work in this area has understandably focussed on internationally-mobile students (Baas 2006; Baláž and Williams 2004; Brooks and Waters 2011; Butcher 2004). Recent figures suggest that there are nearly 3 million tertiary-level international students worldwide (that is, individuals studying for a tertiary-level qualification outside of their home country) (OECD 2009). Whilst international students undoubtedly represent an extremely important aspect of the internationalisation of education, there are other significant and yet lesser-known sides to this process, including the rapid expansion of transnational education (also known as TNE). As noted in a recent report from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2011, p.81): ‘it is difficult to define and measure the transnational education market...research on transnational education is sparse’. They conclude, however, that transnational higher education was worth, in 2008-09, £210.8million to the UK economy. TNE is likely to expand up to 2020, and beyond (BIS 2011b). A recent British Council report on TNE in Hong Kong (2011) states that there were 21,798 students enrolled on ‘non-local’ courses in 2008-09 and that the UK controls a 64.5% share of these.[2] The numbers, then, are significant. We focus here, however, on students’ experiences of TNE and how these are likely to differ from the experiences of internationally mobile students (something that we know very little about).

Research methods

3.1 Our paper draws on the findings of a recent qualitative research project, which has involved 70 in-depth interviews with students and graduates in Hong Kong, 18 interviews with UK educational ‘providers’, and 9 interviews with employers/recruiters in Hong Kong.[3] These data have been collected between 2009 and 2011, with the help of a research assistant, who conducted the interviews with the students and graduates. Students and graduates were recruited through a number of channels, which included an advertisement sent out on our behalf by: the British Council (Hong Kong), several different UK universities, and the Institute of Vocational Education (the Vocational Training Council). The vast majority of interviews with students and graduates were conducted in Cantonese and translated into English.[4] In our sample we attempted to include the whole range of qualifications offered by British universities in Hong Kong, and in the end it comprised: 36 ‘top-up’[5] (i.e. undergraduate) degrees; 22 Master degrees; 2 PhDs; 2 Bachelor of Law degrees (LLB); 10 certificates (i.e. conversion to LLB); and 1 diploma. In total, we examined 73 programmes (3 individuals had studied more than one programme). Out of 70 interviewees, 27 were male and 43 were female, 32 were graduates and 38 were current students. The median age of the graduate sample was 27 and for the student sample this was 24. The majority of our sample was studying/had studied for a degree attached to a local university; a smaller number were studying/had studied at a quasi-government body (such as an institute of the Vocational Training Council). We achieved a good spread of universities in our sample – across the whole sample 15 different UK HEIs and 5 different Hong Kong institutions are represented.

3.2 In this paper, we argue that through the introduction of ‘top-up’ (undergraduate) programmes, British universities[6] are providing degree-level education to students unable to access local higher education (HE) in Hong Kong through the ‘traditional’ route. Drawing upon our interviews with students and graduates, we show the immense cultural and social expectations, placed upon young people in Hong Kong, to obtain a university degree, and the role of ‘international’ education in (partially) offsetting the shortfall in domestic university places.[7] However, we also suggest that these students/graduates are in various ways disadvantaged by these degrees – they often have less cultural capital and social capital on which to draw, and find that their degrees are less valued than their local equivalent. These disadvantages lead, in many cases, to the reproduction of existing class inequalities around education (particularly in relation to access to an international education). There are broader implications of our findings for understanding the role of transnational educational provision in local social reproduction, especially in East Asia.

Who are the students?

4.1 Several recent studies on ‘international education’ would suggest that mobile students (those that go abroad for degree-level study) are invariably privileged (Brooks and Waters, 2011; Findlay and King, 2010; Murphy-Lejeune, 2002; Ong, 1999; Waters, 2008; Xiang and Shen, 2009). Privilege can be measured in various ways, but it usually includes access to different forms of capital (economic, social and cultural) (Bourdieu, 1986) – international mobility is an extremely expensive pursuit, for one, and international students commonly have the support (financial, practical and emotional) of family members. International students would seem, also, to benefit from a familial habitus[8] that values highly education, mobility and travel (Brooks and Waters, 2011; Murphy-Lejeune, 2002). They are far more likely than the student population at large to have parents who themselves have attended university (Findlay and King, 2010).

4.2 In contrast, the students and graduates in our sample do not have a history of attending higher education within their families. Whilst not obviously poor, neither were the individuals in our sample wealthy, expressing concerns over the financial costs associated with different degree courses, with the majority working part-time to fund their studies. Unlike internationally mobile undergraduate students (e.g. Brooks and Waters, 2009; Findlay and King, 2010), our sample did not have a large pot of family money on which they were able to draw for their education, and ‘going overseas’ to study was ‘out of the question’, financially. Many in our sample chose their degree course based on cost considerations. Another interesting and almost universal finding in relation to ‘top-up’ (i.e. undergraduate) degrees was the discourse of ‘failure’ that permeated the transcripts. More will be said of this below; here, suffice it to say that none of the students undertaking UK top-up degrees were ‘successful’ academically. As one Hong Kong ‘provider’ put it: ‘To be frank, these are not the best students. However, they all have a strong motivation to learn and complete the programme, and they all aspire to have a degree qualification’ (Lilly Ho, head administrator for 42 UK top-up degrees in Hong Kong). Therefore, our data would strongly suggest that individuals pursuing such international credentials ‘at home’ (particularly undergraduate qualifications) are a significantly dissimilar cohort from those choosing to travel abroad to obtain the same qualifications. They are international students, but of a qualitatively different kind.

The importance of higher education in East Asia

‘If you do not have a degree, it seems that you cannot quite ‘raise your head’, feeling inferior. Having a degree is to show people that I am normal’ (Nicholas Tse, 27, graduated with a UK top-up degree in 2007).
5.1 Nicholas’s commentary on the significance of a university degree in the context of contemporary Hong Kong reveals a sentiment repeated consistently by our research participants. Not to have a degree is to be a failure – socially, economically and on a deeper emotional, personal level. And yet, the transition from school to a local university in Hong Kong is far from guaranteed – the most recent attainable data from the Education Bureau suggest that only 18 percent of 17 – 20 year olds are offered a full-time place at a domestic university (Education Bureau 2008)[9]. Competition at school-level has been frequently described as ‘hellish’ and ‘extreme’ (Time Magazine 2003).

5.2 This sense of urgency and necessity, attached to degree-level education, was clearly present within our sample. As the following quotations indicate, a degree is regarded as a bare minimum for young people today (‘credential inflation’ in Hong Kong has meant that Masters and even PhDs are becoming increasingly common):

‘I think a degree qualification is essential and so I must study for it’ (Chloe Lee, graduated in 2008 with a UK top-up degree)

‘To us, a degree qualification is a basic’ (Michael Chan, almost completed a UK Masters Degree, part-time)

‘Others may want other things. But for me, I want to complete the race; I want to have a degree’ (Shirley Kwan, almost completed a UK top-up degree, part time)

5.3 These individuals have grown up with the inexorable sense that to obtain anything less than a degree is to ‘fail’ and yet, as we will show below, these students found themselves unable to access one of Hong Kong’s eight public universities. In the next section, we consider the way in which British universities are conceivably offering failing students in Hong Kong a ‘second chance’.

Obtaining a degree: a ‘second chance’?

6.1 Several recent studies on international students have concluded that ‘going abroad’ can provide another opportunity to those who have ‘failed’ within their domestic education system (Brooks and Waters, 2009; Findlay and King, 2010; Waters, 2006; Wiers-Jenssen, 2008). The definition and interpretation of ‘failure’ covers a whole range of circumstances (from failing to move from secondary to tertiary study, to failing to secure a place at a prestigious domestic university, or on a particular, highly specfic course). In their study of the international mobility of British students, for example, Brooks and Waters (2009) concluded that for some individuals aspiring - and failing - to win a place at Oxford or Cambridge, a degree from a world-renowned foreign university (such as Harvard or Yale) offered a ‘second chance’ of success (the next best option for high-achieving students). Our findings similarly point to the salience of a discourse of ‘failure’, although in this particular context failure means something quite different. For all of the students and graduates in our sample, failure has meant the inability to proceed from secondary to tertiary, to (any sort of) higher education in a competitive domestic system. Poor exam results in form 5 (at age 16) precluded, for some young people in our sample, the possibility of A- (advanced) level study. For the rest, poor A-level results similarly prevented them from securing a place at a domestic university, as the following quotations from interviews show:
‘I took A-level exams in form 7, but my results were not as good as expected. It was because I only got an E grade in Chinese, and I could not get into local universities in Hong Kong based on my A-level results’ (Angel Tam graduated in 2005 with a ‘top-up’ degree from a British university).

‘These programmes [are] for the bunch of people who did not perform too well in HKCEE [examination taken at the age of 15], or their results might not take them to [a] local university directly ... When I finished my form 5 – repeated form 5 – the HKCEE result was not too good. I wanted to continue to study, but the results were not good enough to continue to study at sixth form and A (advanced) level, so I considered a higher diploma...The ultimate goal was to complete a degree...I knew that when I finished that programme (the higher diploma) I would be eligible to study the top-up programme’ (Peter Chan graduated with a university ‘top-up’ degree in 2007 from a British university).

6.2 Peter here alludes to one of the options available to students who fail at either HKCEE- or A-level. The vast majority of individuals in our sample had chosen to undertake a higher diploma or an associate degree, rather than enter directly the world of work. Many had attempted to re-sit their HKCEE exams or A-level exams before taking this route. For some individuals whose A-level results were not good enough to secure them a place at a local university directly, an associate degree taken at a local university offered them a glimmer of hope that they might subsequently be able to transfer onto a ‘real’ degree course at that same institution. This rarely happened, however, and so many consequently settled for a British top-up degree instead. As one UK ‘provider’ impressed on us, some of these individuals are ‘good students’ and have fallen victim to the fact that access to local HE places in Hong Kong is so competitive. As Peter, in the above quotation, also reminds us –for all students the ‘ultimate goal’ is to obtain a ‘degree’. As we have already indicated, the social pressures to obtain a degree are immense, but there are also other, more practical (employability) reasons why students are so keen to pursue this option in any way possible. Fiona captures this succinctly:

‘Most jobs, nowadays, would say that they require a degree’ (Fiona Lee, graduated with a British top-up degree in 2006).

6.3 A British top-up degree, then, has certainly allowed students who otherwise would have been denied the chance to be a ‘degree holder’ the benefits of ‘having a degree’ when it comes to job-seeking. All but a few of the students and graduates that we interviewed described the top-up degree as an ‘entry ticket’ – a means of getting their foot in the door. Without it, job advertisements specifying ‘degree holder’ would be immediately shut off to them:

‘The degree might not be good enough, but at least I could have a certificate. If you saw a job with ‘university graduate’ as its requirement, you would be brave enough to send your application. Without this top-up degree we wouldn’t even apply.’ (Hanson Lee, almost finished a one-year top-up degree)

6.4 Thus, for some individuals, their only expectation of the degree course was to acquire the certificate. Once they obtained this, they were satisfied. For others, however, their degree programmes failed utterly to live up to expectations. In the next section we discuss widespread concern with the issue of ‘reduced privileges’.

Not all it’s ‘cracked up’ to be?

7.1 As we have shown, British universities perform an important function in Hong Kong, allowing students who, for various reasons, have been ‘shut out’ of local universities the opportunity to carry on in education and, crucially, to obtain a degree. In this process, they are able to ‘become normal’ in relation to the perceived expectations of Hong Kong society. During interviews, however, students and graduates highlighted some concerns that had arisen with top-up programmes. These concerns, to a certain extent, undermine their quest for normality and, in fact, serve to demonstrate to them that they are in fact (as a consequence of their transnational educational experience) anything but a ‘normal university student’. Here, we will focus on what are known as ‘reduced privileges’, and the effects that these can have upon students’ experiences of higher education and feelings of ‘normality’.

7.2 ‘Reduced privileges’ are an issue only for students undertaking a transnational degree in conjunction with a local university in Hong Kong. Approximately 66 percent of all ‘non-local’ courses currently offered in Hong Kong (totalling 1,162 different courses) are provided through a local HEI – usually the continuing education arm of that university (Hong Kong Education Bureau 2000).[10] Therefore, a significant number of students acquiring international degrees in Hong Kong receive their education attached to a local university. Several of our interviewees told us that they actually chose their British degree course precisely because they believed they would get to experience a local university like a ‘regular’ degree student. Top-up degree courses are ‘sold’ on the basis that graduates will obtain a degree certificate identical to one issued by the foreign university to its own domestic students. Thus, many Hong Kong students would seem to have certain expectations, which they ‘buy into’ when they opt to undertake a non-local top-up degree. The reality, however, has turned out to be quite different for many individuals. Students undertaking British (or other non-local) degree programmes at local HEIs are unable to access the full range of student facilities, compared to those enrolled on a local degree programme. Our interviewees complained of differential access to, for example, computing and library facilities, halls of residence, the Students’ Union, sports facilities, social activities, as well as overseas exchanges and work experience and internship opportunities. The following quotes illustrate what are known locally as ‘reduced privileges’:

‘I did not feel that X University [in Hong Kong] treated us as their real ‘sons and daughters’. Local degree students were their real ‘sons and daughters’. I was like a new immigrant; there was a feeling of hierarchy. Local students could borrow 10 books from the library, but we could only borrow five books. Local students could borrow for 20 days; we could only borrow for 10 days....The resources they gave us were obviously less than the local degree students.’ (Peter Chan graduated with a university ‘top-up’ degree in 2007 from a British university).

‘I felt the good things of those local degree students...I could not have these benefits. Students on the top-up programme were not recognised to be students of Y University [in Hong Kong]. Therefore, I had a feeling of being isolated.’ (Chloe Lee, graduated in 2008 with a UK top-up degree).

7.3 Students attending lectures and seminars at local universities were able to compare their experiences directly with those of other students undertaking ‘regular’ (i.e. not top-up) degree courses. Chloe mentions, here, a feeling of ‘isolation’. Students on top-up degree programmes had very few organised social activities and often spent little time on campus – commonly their seminars were held at another location miles away from the main university. This geographical separation reinforced their feelings of being isolated and, importantly, inferior. As noted above, our interviews revealed other ways in which the hierarchy between local and non-local students is built into the quotidian practices of the local universities, through differential access to various campus-based resources. Ultimately, these seemingly innocuous differences served to remind young people undertaking non-local courses (in this case, UK top-up degrees) that they were ‘different’ from ‘normal’ university students.


8.1 In this paper, we have argued that British universities have a particular role to play in the higher education landscape of contemporary Hong Kong. They are providing degree-level education to students unable to access local higher education in Hong Kong by the ‘traditional’ route (HKCEE to A level study, followed by admission to one of Hong Kong’s eight local universities). There is, we have shown, significant social pressure, placed upon young people in Hong Kong, to obtain a university degree; ‘international’ education in some ways works to alleviate those pressures, partially offsetting a persistent shortfall in domestic university places and allowing students who have ‘failed’ at various stages in their formal education the opportunity to ‘succeed’. And, we suggest, students in possession of a British ‘top-up’ degree are, to a certain extent, able to use their qualifications to apply for more prestigious and exclusive jobs upon graduation. However, this is not the whole picture; the data also show that these students/graduates are in various ways relatively disadvantaged vis-a-vis ‘local’ university students/graduates, by top-up degrees. In particular, the issue of ‘reduced privileges’ has loomed large in students’ and graduates’ perceptions of their experiences of higher education. Compared to other university students, individuals studying for a British top-up degree at a local HEI have reduced access to a range of different activities and resources linked to ‘campus life’, including computing and library facilities, sports facilities, students’ unions, and a myriad of social activities. Whilst on some level these are relatively ‘minor’ concerns, they cumulatively result in strong feelings of inferiority or injustice amongst top-up degree students in Hong Kong, and serve to reproduce already-existing local inequalities around access to higher education.

8.2 In proffering this argument, the paper seeks to make a broader point about international/transnational education – particularly the need for more contextualised and geographically nuanced accounts of the internationalisation process and the ways in which it can function to reproduce patterns of (local) disadvantage. Whilst the provision of transnational education can be seen, on the one hand, to provide opportunities to local students unable to access higher education by any other route, these opportunities are limited, representing in many cases a double-edged sword. TNE can also be seen to reinforce patterns of social inequality and relative societal exclusion around higher education (see Waters 2006b), by marking non-local students as different and inferior.


We would like to thank the ESRC in the UK and the RGC in Hong Kong (RES-000-22-3000) for their financial and logistical support. We are indebted to Yutin Ki, our excellent research assistant, and also to all the interviewees who gave so generously of their time. Two anonymous referees provided very helpful and supportive comments on a draft of this paper. Finally, we would like to thank Rachel Brooks for inviting us to be part of this special issue.


1All names (of individuals, degree courses and institutions) have been changed to preserve anonymity.

2Nothing is currently known about the employment outcomes of these students as these records are not systematically kept by institutions.

3We gratefully acknowledge the generous financial support of the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK (RES-000-22-3000) and the Research Grants Council in Hong Kong (RES-000-22-3000).

4The translation was carried out by our research assistant and double-checked by one of the researchers.

5Non-local undergraduate programmes are known, locally, as ‘top-up’ degrees. These degrees are usually taken after students have completed an ‘associate degree’ or a ‘higher diploma’ at a local institution. One or two-year ‘top-up’ programmes are therefore seen as ‘topping up’ the associate degree or higher diploma qualification to degree-level.

6British universities are presently by far the most significant ‘players’ in the Hong Kong non-local higher education landscape. They provide 68% of all non-local courses in conjunction with a Hong Kong HEI (Australian universities are the next most significant provider, offering 19% of such courses) (Education Bureau 2010).

7We also, of course, acknowledge the economic imperatives attached to British TNE interests in Hong Kong.

8We use the notion of habitus after Bourdieu (1984). Habitus implies the conscious and unconscious socialisation of young people, embedded within a wider ‘classed’ context. Familial habitus merely lays stress on the significant influence of students’ wider families in socialising them into a particular ‘way of being’. The habitus works to ensure the reproduction of class status within the family and wider social group.

9Comparable figures are 25 percent for Singapore (in 2009) (MoE 2010) and 47 percent for the UK (BIS 2011).

10In order to offer their degrees in Hong Kong, British HEIs must link up with one of four types of local educational provider: continuing education arms of local (Hong Kong) HEIs; local ‘public’ (not-for-profit) providers (such as Caritas); quasi-government bodies such as the Vocational Training Council (and its associated Institute of Vocational Education); and private education companies and agencies (Cribbin 2002).


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