What fuels students’ ongoing aspirations to study abroad?

In recent decades, higher education has become increasingly more accessible across the world. With the expansion of local universities, international branch campuses and massive open online courses (MOOCs), students can pursue and earn a qualification from a well-established university without needing to leave their country.

However, the notion of going abroad to study still remains appealing despite the recent COVID-19 pandemic as many students still express interest in travelling abroad to further their studies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated the growth of virtual student mobility programmes, where university students are invited to participate in intercultural and knowledge exchange remotely instead of being physically present in the host country.

Meanwhile, higher education institutions across Asia have already been involved in a long quest to ‘internationalise’ themselves and student mobility has become a key internationalisation strategy to attract talent from neighbouring regions and beyond.

Flying to a foreign land to pursue a degree is undoubtedly an irresistible dream for some, but why are students willing to leave their comfort zone for something foreign and unpredictable?

This question was the topic of a recent discussion we participated in, during which we reminisced about our aspirations for going abroad to study in the past. While our stories might not be particularly unique, they reflect much of what has been previously documented by other scholars on student mobility.

Seeking membership and legitimacy

Regardless of our country of origin, there was a consensus among us that going abroad to study would enable us to be recognised as legitimate members of our own community.

For example, the experience of studying in international branch campuses certainly cannot replicate the experience of studying at the university’s main campus. The programmes delivered at both campuses may be comparable in quality, yet being at the offshore campus may still not make students feel that they truly belong to the community in their university.

“Deep inside, I felt that spending time studying on-site in Australia would give me the credibility to honestly say that I had an authentic Australian education – instead of just feeling like an imposter graduate who had Australian qualifications but had never set foot in Australia,” says Brendan who began his undergraduate studies at an Australian university’s international branch campus in Malaysia.

Moreover, studying at a foreign university not only presents an opportunity to enrich but also to legitimise students’ professional identity by virtue of them having had a first-hand experience of being immersed in the target culture.

“Of course, I could do my postgraduate study in China. But deep in my heart, I felt it would be a great pity if a teacher of English did not have any experience studying in an English-speaking country,” says Meng from China who completed his masters in Australia.

“As an academic, it’s one thing to read something in the literature about higher education in Vietnam and another to have an experience yourself, especially from the inside as an outsider so to speak,” says Jonathan from the Caribbean who was already residing in Vietnam before he began his postgraduate studies there.

The potential for career advancement

Not surprisingly, the motivation to go abroad also stems from the widespread perception that obtaining a qualification from overseas could potentially enhance one’s employability at home, as societal and market demands seem to place greater value on such graduates as they are perceived to be more likely to have developed the essential skills needed for their careers.

“Although not explicitly written in the universities’ recruitment policy, for instance, applicants with Western degrees were more sought after than those with local qualifications,” says Irham from Indonesia.

“I was captivated by the appealing stories from my lecturers and friends who had studied overseas and they too recommended that having an overseas qualification would be highly advantageous for my future career as a teacher or lecturer [of English],” Meng states.

Satisfying curiosity and exposure to diverse cultures

While there are many claims about the advantages of studying in a transnational higher education institution at home, there have been concerns and questions regarding its ability to deliver the same high-quality programmes as the ones offered back at the main campus.

The difficulty for offshore institutions to convince their students that they can provide the same level of quality and student experience as advertised in its ‘mothership’ campus can be a push factor for students to go abroad.

“I also wanted to compare how lectures and tutorials were conducted in Australia and Malaysia, and whether these differences would justify the claim that the quality of education was higher in the main campus than its offshore branches,” says Brendan.

Meanwhile, going abroad to study also provides opportunities for ‘intercultural engagement’ through interacting with a foreign culture in a way that one would not normally have access to back home.

“In my college, there was an English-speaking course which was delivered by foreign teachers. They taught me a lot about ‘Western cultures’. I began to sing English songs, celebrate Western festivals and watch Hollywood movies... Gradually, I had a dream to go abroad and immerse myself in the culture that I had learnt so much about,” says Meng from China.

“My friends who had gone overseas to study talked about the new and exciting experiences that they were having. The more I listened to them, the more curious I became. There was a prevailing perception, for example, that student life on campus in Western countries was far more exciting than in Malaysia due to the progressive values and diverse cultures there,” says Brendan.

Besides that, the genuine quest to enrich oneself through exposure to diverse intellectual traditions can also push some students to travel overseas to study.

For example, Ibro Him from Vietnam shared that he was excited to pursue his masters in the United States as he was passionate to “learn more about other knowledge traditions aside from the ones that I have learnt during my time in Vietnam, Malaysia and Turkey. Travelling for learning also allows me to meet people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and truly widens my horizons.”

What happens next?

We have illustrated that the desire to study abroad can be fuelled by various factors. On the one hand, there is a shared belief that studying abroad is a gateway to experiencing a new life that may be exciting, enriching and enlightening to both the mind and the soul. On the other hand, to some extent such desires may have been subconsciously shaped by external factors that can be difficult to resist.

Higher education institutions across Asia are working towards meeting the demands and desires of the international student market as they internationalise through promoting student mobility.

However, can these institutions ensure and promise that these desires will materialise? More often than not, students who participate in study abroad programmes, whether inter-Asian mobilities or out-of-region mobilities, encounter realities and complexities that do not always coincide with their initial desire to pursue a degree abroad.

In our next article, we will address how our post-study abroad experiences have aligned with or contradicted our desire for an international education. We will also share how our pursuit of postgraduate education in Asian universities after returning from study abroad can be paradoxical and can raise issues about whether Asian universities are empowering or disempowering.

Brendan Ch’ng is currently a PhD candidate at the faculty of education in the University of Malaya, Malaysia. Irham and Ibro Him are PhD candidates at the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education at Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Brunei. This article is part of a series, “Asian Higher Education Changes: Perspectives From Within” initiated by the International and Comparative Education Research Group at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (ICE@UBD). An overview of this series can be read here.