Why strategic engagement with South East Asia matters too

China and India, with their rapid economic growth and ambitious national education plans, have a strong appeal for United Kingdom education institutions looking to internationalise. In their shadows, South East Asia (SEA) is sometimes neglected by the UK’s education sector.

Pundits may overlook the fact that SEA, comprising 10 countries with a collective population of 656 million, is the world’s fifth-largest economy. The region’s expanding population is young – 42% of the region is aged under 25 years.

The UK currently receives 26% of the region’s students who are studying in one of the four main English-speaking study destinations, which also include the United States, Australia and Canada.

Almost 40,000 SEA students were studying in the UK in 2019-20 and 83,000 students were enrolled in UK transnational education (TNE) courses, with SEA students representing 19% of all international enrolments on UK TNE programmes.

Research acceleration

The region’s research output is at full throttle. Every country in SEA saw its research output increase in 2020, despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19. Four countries saw growth in research output outpace China over the past five years, with Indonesia and Vietnam in the lead. In more than half of SEA countries, the UK is a top three partner for collaborative research.

New research by the British Council into the impact of cultural appeal on education choices shows that UK education is well-positioned in SEA.

Prospective students rate the UK higher for education than all other aspects of its culture, for example, business or leisure. This is good news. Those who put UK culture top of the list are significantly more likely to name it as their first choice for learning. Education quality, prestige and employability are important criteria for students and parents, with UK universities seen as top choices. Focus groups described the UK as a world leader in education.

Regional challenge

But there’s a fly in the ointment. The research also revealed the UK’s overall cultural appeal is comparatively low in SEA countries, trailing that of Japan and South Korea. Only 6% of people surveyed named the UK as preferred in cultural terms, a fact made more unsettling by the affirmation that cultural appeal is a core influencer in the choice of a study destination.

Therefore, in addition to offering a track record of educational strength, the UK will need to work hard to demonstrate presence in the region, through a commitment to equitable collaboration in research, academia and knowledge exchange, to student mobility and also in trade, culture, sports and media.

In building a ‘Global Britain’, the UK and its education sector would do well to take more than a passing look at the potential of SEA. A post-Brexit UK must create more meaningful international relationships and SEA is fertile ground for this. But competitors such as Australia, the US, Japan and China are circling in ever-increasing numbers.

The UK needs to stay relevant if it is to maintain a high profile in this region, particularly where its cultural profile is weak and competition is growing, not just from other Western countries but also from within SEA and its regional neighbours.

The need to build deeper relationships

So, while perceptions of UK education ride high in SEA, there is little time for complacency. It is within the gift of the UK – with its world-class educational assets – to demonstrate that its cultural offer is vibrant, current and relevant to young people in SEA.

The UK’s International Education Strategy recognises the potential of South East Asia: Indonesia and Vietnam are two of the five initial priority countries and Malaysia is also on the radar. The UK will also work more closely with ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as it becomes an ASEAN Dialogue Partner.

If the UK’s education sector can build deeper and more sustainable relationships within a region that offers so much potential, then the future rewards could be huge.

Engaging with SEA should be no less of a priority for the UK’s education sector than with China or India. It is the world’s fastest growing region with strong links and historical relationships with the UK.

With over half a million UK graduates in SEA, these alumni are the bedrock of SEA’s predisposition to the UK. There is a great opportunity to ensure UK relevance in an increasingly ‘less Western-centric’ world, where the East looks to the West for inspiration far less often.

Jazreel Goh is Director Malaysia at the British Council.