Returnee status, academic staff rewards and psychological contract fulfilment in China's higher education sector

Jun Gu, Chris Nyland, Xin Fan, Dan Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
10 Downloads (Pure)


Purpose: China's universities have decoupled academic staff rewards and returnee status (scholars with a higher degree or substantial work experience gained outside China). This development possibly poses a threat to returnees' psychological contract fulfilment (PCF), i.e. the extent to which employees perceive their employer has fulfilled their promises or obligations regarding the employment relationship. Drawing on the efficiency–flexibility balance theory, the authors predict Chinese universities would institutionalise human resource management (HRM) practices intended to countervail the decoupling's potentially negative influence. Furthermore, the positive effect of returnee status on PCF would subsequently manifest as higher job satisfaction and lower turnover intention.

Design/methodology/approach: Utilising a mixed-method approach, the authors first undertook a large-scale multi-time field survey of Chinese business school academics from a group of non-elite universities located in Southern China. The authors then conducted a series of in-depth interviews with a subsample of the surveyed cohort, which was then analysed using multivariate regression analyses and machine-aided qualitative content analysis (i.e. NVivo 10).

Findings: The authors find that, despite the decoupling of returnee status and faculty rewards, returnee status is positively associated with PCF. This positive association further manifests as an indirect effect on job satisfaction and a negative indirect effect on turnover intention. The authors also determine that returnees experience higher PCF because universities have revised HRM practices to reward evidenced job activities. Returnees can gain a competitive advantage by using their skills gained overseas.

Originality/value: This study makes four original contributions. First, the authors investigate a neglected yet essential issue, namely, how returnee status relates to PCF in China's universities. Second, the authors enrich the theoretical understanding by introducing the efficiency–flexibility balance theory into the employee PCF literature. Third, the authors provide new insights on how China's universities maximise the effectiveness of academic returnees' talents and skills. Finally, by focusing on non-elite universities, the authors provide insights relevant to a broader faculty population than is available in the existing literature.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1298-1313
Number of pages16
JournalPersonnel Review
Issue number4
Early online date21 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2022


  • China
  • Higher education
  • Psychological contract fulfilment
  • Returnee


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