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Asia Pacific: the emerging leader in international higher education

4 min read

G. John Cole

Universities in the Asia-Pacific are experiencing significant enrollment increases, with more international students now choosing the region over traditionally popular destinations such as Europe and the US. Recent global rankings such as Times Higher Education’s (THE) Asia-Pacific University Rankings show regional institutions numbering at 320, up from 243 just two years ago.

Boosts for China, Australia, Taiwan

China has been a particular success story, increasing its regional proportion of schools in the rankings even as its neighbours have flourished. Tsinghua University in Beijing leapt an astonishing 49 places, reflecting an increase in influence and rapid growth in the country.

But if China is the pacesetter of the region, it is only helping to nourish a healthy sense of competition. The universities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Seoul, Sungkyunkwan, Malaya, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Melbourne have all made significant leaps up the league table, as overall representation from the region has grown by 32 per cent.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has just published a report on education exports, showing Australia is going to replace the UK as the world’s second largest market for international education this year. Continued investment and engagement with students, teachers, and administrators has paid off in a US$25-billion industry whose value reaches far beyond its economic impact.

Drawing international talent to the nation’s HE institutions and facilitating their progression into Australian industry contributes to a diverse and vibrant culture, and “builds strong ties around the world,” says Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia.

Taiwan, too, has recorded a 4.5 per cent jump in international registrations in 2018, partly due to its New Southbound Policy, which shifts recruitment emphasis away from China (which, all the same, remains Taiwan’s leading sending market) and towards Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Vietnam and Indonesia have recorded particularly remarkable growth as sending markets for Taiwanese institutions.

The flow of American students to Asia-Pacific has been a phenomenon of recent years which shows no sign of slowing. Westerners recognize the shift in cultural and economic influence between East and West that is set to continue. And Americans, in general, have picked up on the potential for a more comfortable way of life in Asia-Pacific, where they are typically welcomed with increased employment opportunities, better wages, and lower taxes than they have come to expect back home.

But why are students specifically picking Asia-Pacific over more traditional choices such as the USA and Europe?

Why students choose Universities in the Asia-Pacific

1. Quality education

In a list traditionally dominated by US and European schools, THE’s World University Rankings now include globally-renowned institutions such as the National University of Singapore and Tsinghua University.

Tsinghua, for example, is a highly respected university, as reflected in the academic results and the career paths of its alumni, such as China’s President Xi Jinping. The exchange of ideas is warmly encouraged and is fuelled by the diversity of Tsinghua’s students.

2. Diversity and inclusion

A distinct advantage of fostering diversity at an institution is that it is a policy that self-perpetuates. Students talk: a school that gets a name for its international community soon develops a reputation for inclusivity that spreads face-to-face and online.

Students who are ambitious and resourceful enough to travel for study are likely to bring with them habits and drive that become infectious inside and outside of the classroom. Moving abroad is a big leap for a young person, and acclimatizing much harder work in an insular or homogeneous community. Universities that prioritize student welfare, dynamic learning, and a rich extracurricular offering benefit from a cohort who think and speak highly of their study experience.

As global uncertainty increases, diversity and inclusion has become an important topic for educators. In order for international students to truly succeed in a foreign environment, they must feel accepted and included. However, the realities of a turbulent political landscape and growing social tensions internationally mean there is no simple solution to ensure this.

Conferences such as the 2019 Asia-Pacific Association for International Education Conference provide a forum for educators to gather, speak and work together on how to best face these challenges, with Diversity and Inclusivity of Higher Education in the Asia Pacific forming the conference theme in 2019. The current growth experienced within the region cannot be sustained without continued efforts to provide a safe, inclusive and diverse environment for incoming students.

3. Unique cultural experience

The world is getting smaller, so students need to travel further to see something new and experience a different lifestyle. Picking up a language that has little or nothing in common with your own native tongue is a special kind of challenge, whether it is central to a student’s experience or picked up on the side while they pursue an English-language program or even attend an American university, such as NYU in Abu Dhabi or Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

Students might learn new ways of cooking alongside new ways of learning, as one Chinese student reports from New Zealand:

“I am really glad that I came to New Zealand instead of staying in my comfort zone surrounded by people who were the same as me,” says international business major Huixi Yao.

Submerging oneself in an unfamiliar culture during study can have a tremendous personal and professional impact for those who move within the region, such as Huixi Yao and those who arrive from markets such as the States.

“Students who are now studying in the Asia-Pacific region have all sorts of career opportunities,” says Dr Denis Simon, Executive Vice-Chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in China. “As foreign investment to and from China continues to grow, more and more well-informed international people will be needed to staff key positions in marketing, government relations, business strategy, etc.”

As education preferences change, institutions also need to change with them. The student of today is just as motivated to select a school that will offer a unique experience as rankings or reputation. Universities in the Asia-Pacific are excelling by offering both unique appeal and quality education, leading to unprecedented growth in enrollment. Universities that take note of this example and anticipate what today’s students really want, can benefit greatly.

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