Returnee academics in China ‘less satisfied’

Chinese returnee academics are often more dissatisfied with their jobs than colleagues who have never studied or worked abroad, according to an analysis.

Based on 2018 data collected as part of the Academic Profession in the Knowledge Society survey, researchers from the Southern University of Science and Technology found that academics with overseas PhD or postdoctoral experience had “significantly lower” satisfaction with their employment and work environment. They also showed “more obvious passive career attitudes” compared with scholars with Chinese experience only.

The study concludes that “longer and deeper overseas academic practice could lower returnee academics’ satisfaction about overall career environment, as well as their income status”.

Chen Ningyang, a researcher at Soochow University who studies the overseas experiences of Chinese students and academics, agreed with that conclusion. “Possible reasons are the differences in material and non-material environment between overseas and domestic academic workplaces, and the negative impacts it might bring,” she said.

“These could be about deficient research materials and facilities, gaps in income and other benefits, and teaching conditions that are not suitable for applying advanced methods of instruction. Non-material environment is about networking culture – guanxi – and publishing resources.”

As growing importance has been attached to domestic academic journals in China, many returnee academics also face the challenge of switching from publishing in English to publishing in Chinese or both languages, Dr Chen added.

Dr Chen’s own research revealed a hiring preference among Chinese institutions, especially more privileged ones, for junior academics with overseas experience. Another study outlined the “privileges” of returnee academics in hiring, salary, funding and promotion decisions. However, there is also evidence about the struggles that returnee academics face in balancing the practices they learned in the West and the realities of domestic institutions.

Miguel Antonio Lim, senior lecturer in education and international development at the University of Manchester, said the experiences of returnee academics differed according to a number of factors.

“For earlier career researchers, some may find a mismatch between pedagogical approaches they became accustomed to or trained in in the ‘Western’ institutions. For postdoctoral researchers, there is intense pressure to publish. This is not, of course, unique to China. But anecdotal evidence suggests a second – or ‘returnee’ – culture shock of returning to China’s research environment after being trained in a foreign research context.”

According to research co-authored by Dr Lim, some academics who try to enter the academic labor markets in the West but return to China think that working in transnational (or Sino-foreign) universities in China can be seen as a “least-worst ” option. Even in these these settings, however, they can have unmet expectations.

The newest study suggests that institutions should introduce induction training that is more friendly to returnee academics. They also call for a “more diversified” talent evaluation system and efforts to make the work atmosphere warmer.

Dr Lim said: “Chinese university leaders have reason to set out priorities and policies according to their local context, but a recognition of the expectations of their returnee staff – particularly the desire for greater autonomy to introduce different forms of pedagogy and to have space to develop independent research agendas – is among the areas which would most likely improve satisfaction.”

“Institutions can improve research facilities and employee benefits by increasing investment,” Dr Chen concluded. “There are lots that can be done to provide better support to returnee academics, such as offering training about academic writing in Chinese and domestic publishing culture. For newly joined returnee academics, institutions should avoid making publishing in key domestic journals a must of work evaluation.

“Understanding is the prerequisite for them to blend in with domestic academia.”

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