Far East aims high for international student numbers

International education used to be dominated by Western countries. While the US and the UK are still the leaders in foreign student intake, East Asia is quickly becoming a major player in this sector. China, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan have made huge investments in international education, with the aim of attracting more students from around the world.

China has caught up developmentally in higher education internationalisation compared to its East Asian neighbours, and even surpassed them in many ways. This is connected to the government’s long-term effort to modernise the education system.

As China has rapidly grown in economic importance, countries and institutions have looked for ways to engage educationally with its massive market. This is evident in the rise of joint Chinese-international satellite campuses.

For South Korea, the key to re-branding as a trendy educational spot has stemmed from Hallyu or the ‘Korean Wave’. The ‘Korean Wave’ encompasses Korean music – k-pop – drama and film.

Many in the West may have only recently learned about the Korean Wave via the YouTube sensation Psy, but fans around the world have taken notice for years now, and especially in South East Asian countries.

The Korean government and education institutions have looked to capitalise on this popularity, establishing Hallyu-centred programmes targeted at international students, such as the Catholic University of Korea’s Hallyu Knowledge Centre.

In the case of Japan, the island nation's international cultural popularity grew decades before the Korean Wave. But while this positively affected international student intake and language learning, there has recently been a sense of growing insularity that could result in a drop in international students.

Taiwan too has recently been pushing internationalisation of its higher education. Yet its people are still hesitant to open up to an inundation of mainland Chinese students and this has negatively affected its intake, since Chinese students have been fuelling the international student sector worldwide in recent decades.

Big ambitions

China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan have all used an increasing international student intake as a way to counter an ever-dropping birth rate and to better internationalise higher education systems.

The following chart shows the numbers that China and its neighbours aspire to in terms of international student numbers. It also includes world totals of international students.

Each country examined has set a goal of doubling (at least) its international student intake by 2020. While these goals are lofty, they reflect a growing trend in international student mobility.

In 2011, around 3.3 million students studied outside their home nation, according to a University World News report. This number is estimated to more than double by 2025, up to eight million students, if current trends continue, according to the report's author, Geoff Maslen.

This bodes well for China’s and its East Asian neighbours’ bold aspirations and goals. While it is unclear how realistic these goals are, all four nations are investing heavily in this sector.

And the result could affect the growth of international student numbers in the Western market, which could prove unsustainable in part due to competition from East Asia.


One important factor for the Western lead is English. Right now, English is the de facto language of academia and international education. This is a factor in East Asian tactics for recruiting international students.

China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan have all expanded or created all-English curricula in order to make their higher educational systems more desirable or even accessible to international students. The four nations understand that using English is crucial for their immediate recruitment goals.

Yet this tactic is not sustainable and is less than ideal for these non-English-speaking societies. This explains why the countries have invested heavily in language teaching.

China is making the biggest investment in this category, with its Confucius Institutes. These government-sponsored language (and culture to a lesser degree) institutes were founded in 2004 and have proliferated around the world. In less than a decade, more than 300 of the institutes have been established, with an ultimate goal of 1,000 being set up by 2020.


China is now leading East Asia in sheer numbers of international students due to its amazingly rapid growth since the mid-90s, but the other East Asian countries all seem to be using similar tactics to pursue their goals.

Each country has lofty goals, is using English language programmes and is heavily investing in local language teaching. The region's international education standing will only grow in the coming years.

* Ryan M Allen is a student at Columbia University Teachers College, New York, and was assistant editor of Diplomacy magazine in South Korea.