Conference or recruitment fair? China’s new hybrid academic events (Xuemeng Cao)

In this post, Xuemeng Cao reflects on conferences held by Chinese universities which combine research dissemination, recruitment and networking.

Outside the main hall of the venue (Xuemeng Cao)
Outside the main hall of the venue (Xuemeng Cao)

Today, many Chinese universities are holding ‘international young scholar forums’. Each forum is held by a single university, and the main purpose of these events is to invite Chinese early career academics who are studying or working overseas, as well as foreign early career academics, to work for Chinese universities after their studies or current contracts. Universities invest a large amount of money in the events, covering all invited attendees’ expenses with regard to transportation and accommodation, and ensuring they receive a warm welcome, so as to attract them to join their university. Recruiting academics with international experience is regarded as a crucial initiative for Chinese universities to participate in the internationalization of China’s higher education system. I have now attended three of these conferences, in my role as a doctoral researcher studying in the UK. In this post I share some of my reflections and analyses regarding this conference phenomenon, particularly based on my most recent experience of one such conference.

Contents of the attendees' pack (Xuemeng Cao)
Contents of the attendees’ pack (Xuemeng Cao)

As with the previous two times, this forum lasted for three days, with the whole first day for registration, which gave attendees flexibility around their arrival time and more time to rest after long flights. What surprised me was that each attendee was allocated an early-career academic from the target department as a contact person who would be in charge of ‘taking care of us’ during our stay, starting from picking us up from the airport and concluding by sending us to the airport again as we departed. During the two hours from the airport to the hotel, I had a great conversation with my contact person, who studied in the South-Central University for Nationalities (the host university) for Bachelor, Master and PhD and then had begun working as an academic there. She told me that the university arranged academic staff rather than administrative staff or postgraduate students as contact persons, because academic staff could provide the invited scholars with more in-depth information about the working context of the university and department, and at the same time the academic staff enjoyed invaluable opportunities to exchange ideas with the invited scholars.

The second day was the day of the main event. The day began like a conference welcome session. In the morning, all invited scholars together with the leaders of university, representatives of departments, and press corps attended the opening ceremony in a lecture theatre, listening to the speeches given by the chancellor and vice chancellor. These speeches mainly focused on introducing the university and the Chinese brain gain policies, and then featured presentations given by three academic staff representatives who had attended the forum last year and then had joined the university.

Relics from the ethnology museum (Xuemeng Cao)
Relics from the ethnology museum (Xuemeng Cao)

After the opening ceremony, less like a conference, we were given a campus tour, taken on a sightseeing trip around the campus, with our one-to-one contact persons as tour guides. A unique scenic spot of the South-Central University for Nationalities is an ethnology museum, where more than 10,000 sets of ethnic cultural relics were displayed from the south of China, including Zhuang, Miao, Li, Tujia, Yao and other ethnic groups. I was impressed by the delicate relics and surprised to know from the museum lecturer that students of this university cover all 56 ethnic groups in China.

In the afternoon, the event moved back into being more like an academic conference, as the invited scholars were taken to the target department for academic interactions. The Department of Education, in which I was located, had invited three scholars in total, with one in preschool education, one in scientific education and me in higher education studies. The sub-forum also included all leaders of the department, some academic staff, and some PhD students. In a form of symposium, each of the three invitees gave presentations separately for 45 minutes, talking about our educational trajectories, current research and career plan. Afterwards, we answered questions from the audience mainly about our research, and had discussions with leaders of the department about how we could develop our academic career if we joined the department.

Academic department of hosting university (Xuemeng Cao)
Academic department of hosting university (Xuemeng Cao)

Again like a conference, there was a closing ceremony. The ceremony was conducted in the morning of the third day, where the most important part was the signing of the letter of preliminary intent of cooperation between the university and scholars. The letter of intent does not have legal benefits, rather, it works as a form of information collection of talent.

As China plays an increasingly important role in the internationalization and globalization of higher education, the International Youth Scholars Forum has gradually become a mainstream talent introduction method. Many Chinese universities hold them once a year, and some universities even hold them twice a year. In addition to the recruitment, Chinese universities also utilise the forum to provide opportunities for their own staff and students to interact with international scholars, seeking out cross-country research collaboration, and promoting their international reputation for academic achievements and unique culture. For the invited scholars, they access first-hand information about policies at national, regional and institutional levels, inspecting the potential working environment, and building connections with potential colleagues. Moreover, the possibility of cooperation also exists among invited scholars.

Taking this forum as an example, 54 invited scholars selected from more than 900 applicants came from 22 countries and 19 disciplines, which allowed great potential for international and interdisciplinary communication and cooperation.

The international young scholar forums held by Chinese universities are quite different from traditional academic conferences, but there are some similarities too.

A traditional academic conference which lasts for three days usually contains dozens of presentations slotted over the entire conference period. However the forums only give one afternoon specifically for the academic research sharing of invitees. The academic value of the forums could be critiqued in terms of the short time for academic focus and the limited number of invited presenters. However, as an invitee, I actually felt my research received more attention than at traditional conferences, since I was given a longer time for the presentation and Q&A, and the audience members in different roles (e.g. department leaders and academic colleagues) contributed insightful thoughts from different perspectives about how my research experience could be connected with my future work if I join the institution. Furthermore, the experience of forum attendance for me, given that I am working on interdisciplinary research, is significant in expanding my network with Chinese international academics based in different regions within and beyond my own area. In addition, the forums with recruitment purpose indeed provided me with employment opportunities and policy-related information which were difficult to access from abroad.

The choice of forum attendance to some degree reflects my interests in the institution or the city of the institution but not necessarily my preference to working there. Like conferences, the fora lead to employment opportunities, but I personally regard the forum as an opportunity to access more direct possibilities for my employment, which is substantially (or at least emotionally) important for me as an overseas-based PhD student to plan the next step of my academic career.

Xuemeng Cao (Emily Henderson)About Xuemeng Cao

Xuemeng Cao is a third-year doctoral researcher at the Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick, funded by China Scholarship Council (CSC). Her PhD research focuses on the employability management of Chinese international students, using the capabilities approach to theorise employability and adopting diary-interview methodology. Xuemeng is also a co-convenor and the blog editor for Academic Mobilities and Immobilities Network (AMIN) at Warwick. Her research interests include higher education, graduate employability, academic (im)mobilities, sino-foreign cooperation in education, internationalization/cross-cultural studies in education. She Tweets as @Gloria_Cao_.


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