Cultural capital and distinction : Malaysian students and recent graduates of UK international tertiary education
Sin, I Lin
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This thesis explores the role of foreign cultural capital, that is, Western knowledge, skills, dispositions and qualifications obtained through various modes of UK international tertiary education in facilitating social reproduction and mobility. The focus is on Malaysian young adults from middle-class backgrounds. It offers a critical exploration of the intricacies and contradictions surrounding the applicability of Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital in explaining occupational and status distinction across different geographical and socio-relational contexts in Malaysia and the UK. Drawing on interviews with three samples of Malaysian students and recent graduates of UK tertiary education, I explored the anticipation and experiences of the rewards and disadvantages of undertaking international education in the UK and Malaysia. I investigated the planned and executed strategies to secure superior employment and status. I studied the intersection of class with age, ethnicity, gender, nationality and religion in structuring educational and occupational choices, practices and experiences. I explored perceptions and feelings of worth that surrounded planned and actual practices of translating cultural capital to economic and social privileges. Studying overseas in an elite UK university was believed to offer the most privileged opportunities to gain better quality education, experience a higher valued culture, lifestyle, social mix and physical landscape in the West and independently embark on a journey of personal growth and self-discovery. Graduates who studied physically in the UK were generally confident of their labour market and status advantages and saw themselves as more knowledgeable and globally exposed than those pursuing UK education in Malaysia. The latter believed that their relative labour market strengths lay in their enhancement and appropriation of more common local cultural capital in the forms of local knowledge, interaction skills and cultural sensitivity. Flexible and moderate personalisation of foreign and local cultural capital embodied in the self, alongside appropriate deployment and adornment of the physical body, provided the solution for the participants to overcome the relative limitations of the knowledge, skills and dispositions acquired through their respective modes of UK studies. Age, ethnicity and gender were perceived and experienced as significant factors shaping inclusion and exclusion in the Malaysian labour market. Nationality and ethnicity were the significant factors for labour market inclusion and exclusion in the UK. There was a general desire to convert enhanced cultural capital into occupational and status opportunities that allowed for work-life balance, personal contentment, religious fulfilment, emotional security and contribution to society. The thesis contributes to problematising the taken-for-granted singularity of cultural capital practices, showing that their associated benefits and shortcomings do not transfer smoothly across different place, situational and interactional contexts. It challenges the assumption that the scarcity and exclusivity of foreign cultural capital bring labour market advantage in the home context and it highlights the functional value of more common local cultural capital. It accounts for instrumentality and deliberateness in capital accumulation strategies as well as casts light on the principles, values and preferences which set limits to strategies of maximising material gains. It pieces together the practices, relations and feelings occurring at different points of the academic and occupational trajectories for the diverse Malaysian foreign student and graduate middle-class. It essentially adds depth and complexity to the investigation of intersecting individual, socio-relational and structural factors that shape perceived possibilities and experienced actualities of middle-class social reproduction and mobility among Malaysian students and graduates of UK international education. The thesis has important policy implications for the development of an equitable opportunity system in Malaysia and the socially responsible marketing and provision of international tertiary education in Malaysia and the UK.