A number of Asian countries have declared that they want to become higher education hubs in order to develop as knowledge economies. They are setting up facilities and initiating policies to attract foreign students, researchers and faculty as well as branch campuses of foreign institutions, in what amounts to a major change in attitude towards higher education from purely local to regional and international.
Hong Kong used the international stage of the British Council's Going Global conference, held in the city on 11-12 March, to present itself as the latest emerging educational hub in the region.
"Hong Kong is positioning itself to be an educational hub that takes in the rich Pearl River Delta [in Southern China]," said Tony Chan (pictured), President of Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology. "Hong Kong is at the heart of this new Asian prosperity zone."
Referring to ongoing major changes to Hong Kong's university curriculum, Chan said: "A big part of being a hub is that our own higher education must be international in character and quality, turning out students to be effective players in the global economy. This is a good time for overseas students to come."
The conference revealed that other countries also have plans to become hubs for higher education in Asia, making it a more crowded and competitive field than even a few years ago.
Most want to reap what Tony Pollock called 'internationalisation dividends' by attracting overseas staff and students. Pollock is Chief Executive of IDP Education, a major international student placement service which has ambitious plans to expand in Asia.
Among those announcing their intentions were China, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. They must compete with established hubs in Asia such as Malaysia and Singapore, which not only attract overseas students but also reputable institutions from other countries as branch campuses or joint institutions.
"We are seeing some very strong offerings from Malaysia and Singapore," said Pollock. "Singapore has aspirations to be the schoolhouse of Asia, and China is seeing significant increases in foreign students on years gone by."
Malaysia has five foreign branch campuses with more wanting to set up. Among others, Singapore has announced prestigious tie-ups with Yale University in the US and Imperial in the UK, and it hosts a branch campus of the Paris-based INSEAD business school.
Vietnam also said during the conference that it wanted to be a 'hub' to attract foreign students and to learn from overseas universities through knowledge transfer. "A lot of students would like to get an international quality degree," said Mai Trong Nhuang, President of Vietnam National University.
But Vietnam may be a long way off from hub status, as Nhuang acknowledged that it was difficult for developing countries to provide adequate infrastructure to become a hub.
Other hub countries in Asia include South Korea, with a number of US branch campuses in its Incheon Free Zone. Taiwan recently declared that it wanted to become a hub for overseas students, with an eye on the large Chinese-speaking market. Even the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has ambitions to be an Asian higher education hub.
China also plans a big increase in the number of foreign students, from 260,000 now to 500,000 by 2020. Shen Yang, deputy director general of the department of international cooperation and exchanges in China's Ministry of Education, told the conference: "We also want to be an [education] hub."
China is already attracting international universities. Britain's Nottingham University, which has a campus in Ningbo, is setting up its second campus in Shanghai. New York University is signing an agreement with the Shanghai authorities, and universities from Singapore and the UK are operating in Suchow.
But the boldest bid was presented by Sunil Nawaratne, secretary of Sri Lanka's Ministry of Higher Education. He said the country, which he described as "a paradise", expected to set up 10 world-class foreign university campuses in the coming years and ease restrictions on state universities to enrol foreign students, with the aim of having 100,000 foreign students by 2020.
Sri Lanka's incentives to foreign institutions include land subsidies, tax rebates, and tax-free imports of building materials and other equipment.
However Cameron Richards, coordinator of postgraduate research programmes in the Perdana School of Science, Technology and Innovation at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, pointed out the basic dilemma for latecomers such as Hong Kong and Sri Lanka: "How many regional hubs can you have?
Singapore and Malaysia already have a decade-long start. Malaysia has attracted students from Asia and the Middle East since 2002, when US visa policies became stricter in the wake of 9/11.
"We became an education hub by accident. It was not a top-down process, it was bottom up," said Siti Hamisah, a deputy director-general in Malaysia's Department of Higher Education. "Now we have 86,000 foreign students. For a country of 28 million we think that is quite a big number," she said.
Malaysia is also poised to take students and faculty who might otherwise be attracted to Middle-East higher education hubs, if unrest in that region spreads.
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang acknowledged the competition. "Naturally, there is a great deal of competition among cities to attract the right students by providing the best possible learning environment. Each city has its own attributes, while students have their own aspirations and expectations," Tsang said.
But John Cribbin, registrar at the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education, said Hong Kong's policy to establish itself as a hub "has not been thought through". With other prestigious institutions setting up in China, Hong Kong had no significant advantage, he explained. "Our policy may be rhetoric rather than reality."
Many people believe that with student and faculty mobility rising in Asia, there is scope for several regional higher education hubs. "Not everyone in the region is going to be successful in the time frames that are set but they are going to be attractive destinations," said Pollock.
BHUTAN: Future higher education hub of Asia?
CHINA: Ambitious plans to attract foreign students
CHINA: Shanghai reaches out to America's Ivy League
CHINA-UK: New campus for Nottingham in Shanghai
TAIWAN: Bid to attract more overseas students
SOUTH KOREA: Global campus for foreign universities
SRI LANKA: Delayed foreign universities bill imminent
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