Internationally mobile students head for Asia

The increasing demand for higher education, coupled with the financial power of a growing middle class in Asia, has fuelled the trend for students to pursue an overseas university education.

Until the mid-1990s, the destinations of choice were English-speaking countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. But, by the beginning of the current decade, China, Singapore and Malaysia were actively competing to become education destinations of choice for foreign students.

Numerous universities, especially from Australia, Britain and the US set up branch campuses or signed collaborative agreements with Asian-based providers. The trend for Asian countries to host internationally mobile students will grow, according to a just released report, The International Mobility of Students in Asia and the Pacific, from UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific regional bureau for education in Bangkok.

Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea are seen as “emerging contenders” in attracting international students, primarily from other Asian countries, the report says. Meanwhile, China is planning to host 300,000 international students by 2020 and a number of other Asian countries are also setting ambitious targets.

“Australia, Hong Kong and other Asian countries are already making strides into the China market,” it says. That trend has become even more pronounced in the last year.

While there is a clear preference for education in Australia, the UK and the US, other factors such as colonial legacies and religious affiliations also play a role in student mobility in the region, as in the case of Iranian students opting for Malaysia, or Malaysian students opting for Indonesia.

Jason Tan, of the National Institute of Education in Singapore, notes in a contribution to the report that there is still “a relatively low level of intra-ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] student flows”, except between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Unbalanced flow

Nonetheless, the 92-page report notes “imbalances in the direction of student flows”, with some such as Hong Kong sending many more students overseas than they receive, while Australia receives many more inward bound students than it sends overseas.

Malaysia is both a big receiver as well as a big sender of students overseas. The majority of its inbound students come from Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Singapore and particularly China. But since the 'Arab Spring' more students have been arriving from Middle Eastern countries.

Compared to some European countries, where the inflow and outflow of students tend to be counterbalanced, “the gap between the number of inbound and outbound students is narrower than that of Asian countries,” the report says.

This could change in future. The number of Malaysian students going overseas has been dwindling as the government reduced sponsorships for study abroad. At the same time, the Malaysian government has encouraged privately-funded students to study locally.

Thailand has also cut back on the number of government scholarship recipients for study overseas, and has halved the number of government officials going overseas to study between 2005 and 2009, the majority to the US and the UK. More Thai officials went to China for study, however, during the same period.

Inward bound

But the bigger change is likely to be attracting inbound students from within the region and outside it. In response to a falling birth rate in South Korea, higher education institutions have focused on attracting foreign students to the country. As a result, inbound foreign student numbers have increased since 2000, “and continue to progress steadily”, the report says.

In addition, the ongoing internationalisation of Korean universities and the establishment of branch campuses, for example in the Incheon Free Economic Zone, will also encourage domestic students to study in Korea rather than go abroad.

More surprisingly, the number of foreign students in the Philippines is rising, with the top consumers being South Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indonesians, Americans and Iranians, as well as increasing numbers from developing countries in Asia and Africa.

The most popular courses for foreign students enrolling in Asian universities are health and allied disciplines, including nursing and medicine, English, education, IT-related courses, engineering, and hotel and restaurant management.

Singapore is not only a popular destination for students from Asia, particularly China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia, but also from Europe, the US and Australia.

The island state’s Economic Development Board has succeeded in attracting a number of “brand name” foreign universities to set up branch campuses to create a hub in Singapore for international students.

“Many Western students consider Singapore to be a comfortable introduction to Asia that provides them with a Western-style curriculum in English at globally ranked institutions,” the report says.

It says that so successful has the Singapore hub become that it is being seen as a threat, not only to neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, which have a similar mission, but also to Anglophone countries which have been the leaders in international student markets.

Singapore provides subsidies, scholarships and loans to reduce study costs to local and foreign students. And, with fairly liberal immigration requirements, it is easier to attract foreign talent to work in Singapore after graduating.

Limited range

Students in a number of Asian countries still consider only a limited range of options. For example, although the ratio of Korean students who study in Japan and the US is “conspicuously high”, Korean students themselves rarely go overseas.

But China has emerged as a destination for Korean students recently, says Kwon Ki-Seok, an assistant professor in the department of global convergence studies at Hanbat National University in South Korea.

Control and regulation of domestic students leaving the country, financing and provision, and the ease of obtaining foreign student visas play a key role in determining student flows, the report says. Government policies on providing scholarships or financial aid for domestic or foreign students are a key factor in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and China.

In the Philippines, only a small number of Filipinos have the financial capacity to consider study abroad. However, the desire to enrol in courses not available locally, or in scarce supply, can affect student decisions to study abroad. Another factor, particularly for some Hong Kong, Thai and Filipino students is the opportunity to stay on in a country after graduation.

A fine balancing act

As Asian countries attract more students from within the region, “they will have to deal with the vexed question of determining how many foreign students to admit in order not to arouse local resentment”, according to the Student Mobility in Asia report.

“This question has already arisen in more established hubs such as the United States and Australia, which have recognised the financial benefits of enrolling large numbers of international students, but which have already tried to grapple with these quotas and rules on staying on after graduation.”

At the same time, “universities will have to make tough decisions on the balance between providing courses that are popular with foreign students and therefore potentially attractive money spinners on the one hand, while on the other maintaining the semblance of a balanced menu of courses that meet economic needs”, the report says.