Much of the 'internationalisation' that is currently observed in English universities is driven, whether directly or not, by economic and financial rationales associated with a particular neo-liberal discourse of globalisation into which higher education has been subsumed. This is particularly true for the recruitment of international students into English universities. We present a case for the recasting of the higher education internationalisation agenda in terms of Sanderson's existential internationalism. Such an agenda promotes inter-cultural understanding over financial motives and demands a focus on personal engagement with the Cultural Other. We report on the findings of two studies of Chinese students studying at English universities to examine the extent to which their experiences reveal evidence of a context that could support such a personally transformative internationalisation. We find that, far from illustrating the potential for development of genuinely international communities, these students' accounts are commonly of marginalisation, indifference and 'otherisation' that lead instead to social and cultural withdrawal into national groups and a heightened sense of national identity.