African university students in China's Hong Kong: motivations and aspirations.

Author:Tsui, Chak-pong Gordon


More than half a century ago, the academic literature on the university destinations of African students began to emerge with particular interest in the case of the United States (Banks, 2006). Yet thus far, studies on African students in Hong Kong are almost non-existent, largely due to its comparatively small population size. The population of international students at The University of Hong Kong, for instance, has a skewed nationality distribution. There is an obvious contrast in population size between the dominant group of Mainland Chinese students and the minority groups of African students and South American students--which constitute less than one percent of the total student population (The University of Hong Kong, 2012a). This under-representation of African students raises an interesting question: What motivates this small but emerging student group to come to this post-colonial Chinese city? This is important given that this initial batch of students may expand networks by sharing experiences and thereby potentially motivating subsequent batches of African students to consider Hong Kong as a destination for their university studies. Considering this issue, this paper will firstly review the relevant bodies of literature. Secondly, it will discuss the methodological tools used to answer the research questions. The third section will examine the results of interviews with ten African students in Hong Kong. Lastly, the key issues and implications for further research will be discussed in-depth.

African Students in China's Hong Kong: The Context

Cooperation between Africa, China, and Hong Kong dates back to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. But the scale and substance of such cooperation have undergone a significant transformation over time (Gillespie, 2001). The early China-led political cooperation helped former colonized African countries to tackle political crisis, namely by claiming that both parties were part of the "Third World" (Gillespie, 2001:20). Tighter Africa-China exchanges have become increasingly based around economic issues, especially in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crises (Bodomo, 2012). But an academic element has also turned out to be prevalent in the Africa-China interactions when the increasing trend of African students studying in China is considered.

Bodomo (2012) expresses that generally Africa could not be fully interpreted as a single entity because some African countries had closer relations to China than others (Bodomo, 2009). In addition, he argues that migration of most of the Africans to Hong Kong is driven by economic incentives, whereas only two out of thirty participants in his research came to Hong Kong with an academic pursuit (Bodomo, 2012).

Meanwhile, the research site (at the ChungKing Mansions on Nathan Road in Hong Kong) has been negatively described as "dangerous/unsafe" (Bodomo, 2006:457) and is often seen as a place where people are obsessed with "drugs/crimes" (Bodomo, 2006:457). Furthermore, the area of African students in Hong Kong is under-researched according to the related academic literatures.

To explain the motivations and aspirations of international students, Mpingganjira (2009) categorizes the factors into academic, personal, and occupational dimensions; and the quality of education abroad, personally by the "want to broaden personal experience" and occupationally by perceiving that "studying abroad can enhance future employment" (p.361). Regarding the ethnoscape of international students, Altbach and Knight observe a "South to North" flow (Altbach and Knight, 2007:28). In this connection, Phelps (2010) adds that many international students are from less developed countries due to the significant differences between the quality of university education provided by the developed countries and the developing counterparts.

As for Africa, there are on average less than six universities in each country (approximately 300 universities across 54 African countries (Teferra & Altbach, 2004)). Teferra and Altbach (2004) argue that African universities are relatively novices in operation and in delivering quality teaching and research, not unrelated to the economic (under)development. Lack of university places and shortage of quality education are the factors that push African students to study abroad.

However, it is not accurate to over-generalize that the overall African higher education system is disadvantaged, given that some countries are doing exceptionally better than others. Notable examples include the Egyptian higher education as one of the oldest in the world, the increasing higher education enrollment rates in Nigeria and South Africa, and the growth of "private higher education" in Kenya (Teferra & Altbach, 2004:31). Moreover, Muuka and Choongo (2009) argue that with the development of solid quality assurance measures (for students, teachers and areas of study), Africa is the continent with the highest potential for growth, particularly in terms of global influence. Yet, these are in initial stages and the outcomes are yet to be determined. Uneven resource distribution in some African universities, including the funding imbalance between undergraduates and postgraduates (for example in law faculties), motivates some postgraduate students to opt for a place in overseas universities, with the UK and the US being the most popular countries (Mwenda, 2009). Furthermore, overseas education is likely to be more beneficial when the students aim for a career in the political field (Constant et al., 2010). Therefore disciplinary consideration and career aspiration are the important factors that shape the ethnoscape of African overseas students' migration.

African students de facto constitute the largest proportion among the international students in the UK (Maringe & Carter, 2007). As the former colonizer of a significant portion of the African continent, the UK is a popular destination of many an African student largely due to the strong linkage and transferability in terms of academic structure, education qualifications and academic culture between the British system and its African counterpart. In the US, African students are however not the dominant group (Aslanbeigui & Montecinos, 1998) although more African students can be found in some departments, for example computer science at graduate level (Hazen & Alberts, 2006). A strong likelihood is observed that most African students will go back to their home countries after graduation (Hazen & Albert, 2006). Regarding the case of Asia, Bodomo (2012) notes the growing number of African students studying in China and most of them study on scholarship or other financial sponsorship. As for Hong Kong, internationalization is a top issue in university agenda (see The University of Hong Kong, 2012b), and research about African students on Hong Kong campuses will add important knowledge to the academic literature and inform university policies. On top of the issues we discussed above, the gender issue of African overseas students is a special point of interest in this topic. According to Maundeni (1999), Africa women are assumed to play the role of family helpers and African female students are often disadvantaged under the dominance of male African students. We will revisit this point when the research sampling and implications are discussed in a latter part of this paper.

Research Questions

Based on the context...

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