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Universities in Asia: Major Competitors for International Students

Universities in Asia: Major Competitors for International Students main image

Dr. Christina Yan Zhang

As Asian economies continue to boom, in contrast to uncertain economic prospects for European and many other developed countries, it is likely that the next five to ten years could see a major shift in the world of transnational education. Asia could become a strong competitor in the international student market, threatening the dominant role of the US and UK as the largest importers of overseas students.

Based on the latest information from the QS University Rankings: Asia, the top 10 Asian universities which have attracted the largest number of international students are currently based in Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Singapore.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) currently has the highest percentage of international students among the universities assessed in the ranking, with international students making up 37.7% of its student population. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) is only very slightly behind, with 37.4% of its students coming from outside Hong Kong.

More international students choosing Asia

“We have witnessed a very sudden rise of the number of international students to our MSc programs in engineering at HKUST just this current year alone,” says Prof Christopher Chao, associate dean (research & graduate studies). “In the fall of 2013-14, we are going to have more than 70 new international students from over 20 countries.”

Chao continues, “With so many opportunities arising globally, it is no longer essential for students to go to the US, Canada, UK, Europe and Australia. My advice to them is to keep their eyes and options open. With the rise of the Asian economies there are increasingly more top universities in the region and improved career prospects.”

“Hong Kong also has one of the best immigration policies in the world for overseas students. Graduates of a local degree program from overseas countries are guaranteed a visa to stay in Hong Kong after their graduation to look for a job.”

Singaporean institutions National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are also proving highly attractive to international students, respectively attracting 33.5% and 34.2% of their student population from overseas. Malaysia is another major importer of international students.

These leading players in international student recruitment are often Asian universities that have already established a high level of global prestige. Meanwhile the projected growth of Asian economies and the ASEAN Economic Community will only accelerate the rise of Asia’s top universities in the world university rankings, making them more globally visible and attractive to both students and academics.

Indeed, in March 2013 an OECD report predicted that the Chinese economy could grow to overtake that of the US as soon as 2016. With the increasing momentum of Asian universities, who knows what could happen in 30 years’ time? It may be sooner rather than later that top Asian universities start to genuinely challenge the ability of the US Ivy League and the UK Russell Group universities in attracting the best minds from around the world.

'Glocal' students choosing Asian higher education

Meanwhile, current trends suggest that more Asian students will prefer to pursue their studies outside their home country, yet within Asia – the so-called ‘glocal’ education path.

This shouldn’t be difficult to understand. Asian students are largely motivated to study abroad because they want to be educated at the world’s leading universities. But as the QS World University Rankings show, a growing number of Asian universities are acquiring reputations as world leaders. Asian students could stay within Asia, spend less, but still receive a world-class education. What’s not to like?

Also, better employment opportunities may be available closer at home. Post-study job opportunities for overseas students in the US and Europe have become increasingly scarce as a result of sluggish economic growth, increased unemployment and stricter visa regulations. In future, Asian students may be tempted to stay closer to home and benefit from the graduate work opportunities offered up by their booming local economies.

Is ‘brain drain’ in Asia slowing?

‘Brain drain’ has been a major issue for Asian countries in the last century. Many of the most talented Asian students have been attracted by the high-quality education on offer at top universities abroad, and chosen to study outside of Asia. Some are offered competitive packages to work overseas after graduation and then remain abroad more permanently without returning home to contribute to Asia’s long-term economic prosperity.

The rise of Asian universities, combined with the dynamism of local economies, means the flow of talent out of Asia is already slowing down. But on top of this, one of the major challenges for the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will be coming up with initiatives to attract talented people from elsewhere in the world to study and work in the region, taking advantage of the sluggish growth forecast for much of the West in the next 5-10 years. If those measures are effective, Asia could turn its brain drain into a brain gain, further internationalizing its higher education system and enhancing its global standing.

The development of Asian universities – and those in the ASEAN in particular – into genuine world leaders is a work in progress, and there are plenty of challenges to be overcome. But the potential is clear, and the performance of leading Asian institutions in the QS World University Rankings points to clear progress. It seems only a matter of time before Asia’s leading institutions begin to break the US-UK monopoly on the global top 10.

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