Historically, Asia has faced a student mobility deficit. As of 2015, Asian countries sent an estimated 2.3 million degree seeking students abroad, and attracted just 928,977 in return. However, this flow may be poised to reverse itself in the relatively near term. Individually and as a group, a handful of Asian powers are trying to strike a balance between outbound and inbound student mobility. They are seeking to transform themselves from being pure senders of international students into top education destinations. A surprising number – including China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia – have set explicit goals for dramatically increasing international recruitment between 2020 and 2025.
If they succeed, some 1.4 million international students will, within less than a decade, circulate intra-regionally rather than globally. These strategies are primarily intra-regional – a fact that is important from at least two perspectives.
- From the Asian standpoint, the potential to alleviate brain drain to the West, a chronic challenge for sending countries is hugely appealing. An intra-regional approach keeps those students close to home, and allows them to foster deep person-to-person ties, and the sort of lasting social capital that ultimately pans out in long-term business opportunities and economic benefits. In 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers updated its long-term economic growth projections, and predicted that power will shift to fast-growing Asia from the advanced Western economies. In the most recent global rankings of the world’s largest economies, 11 Asian countries were expected to enter the top 25 by 2050. This estimate revised 2014 projections, which projected that just 7 Asian countries would make the top 25 by 2050. One of the recognized motives for Asian powers to catch up with traditional study abroad destinations is this type of economic growth.
- From the Western perspective, what’s clear is that significant numbers of students from top sending countries may no longer be in play within just a few years. In all, internationally mobile students from Asia account for an estimated 55 percent of the world total today. China and India are far and away the most dominant senders, but the fact is that, collectively, the region’s developing countries make substantial contributions as well.
Unsurprisingly, China, which has established a goal of attracting some 500,000 international students by 2020, has taken a leadership position in expanding the regional higher education market. Its One Belt and One Road initiative, designed to promote economic development among 60+ Asian and Eurasian nations, will increase student mobility from across the affected region. To date, many of those students have headed directly to China. In 2016, the number of foreign Asian students in China was more than 264,000, a growth rate of 10 percent over the year prior.
Other Asian-Pacific countries are seeking to increase enrollments among students from across the region as well. The Asian Universities Alliance was launched by the end of April. The alliance was established by 15 founding members composed of world-class universities across China, India, Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Kazakhstan, South Korea, UAE, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. The alliance has pledged to consolidate Asia’s presence and expand influence in higher education across that global stage. Apart from increasing intra-Asian mobility, the ultimate goal is to improve the overall regional growth and competitiveness. It is meant to serve not only as an alliance, but also as a resources exchange platform, facilitating more cross-border research activities and exchange programs are expected between these 15 universities and even within the region. The collaborative efforts show their great commitment to sharing values and common interests.