Why is Asia the Future of International Higher Education?

Jan 14, 2014 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

East Asia’s rise to stardom in the world of international higher education can’t exactly be described as meteoric; after all, this implies an eventual descent. Rather, Asian countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong, along with others including South Korea and Malaysia, are aggressively positioning themselves as constellations, AKA “education hubs,” on the increasingly competitive international higher education scene.

“The Education Hub” Concept

While governments and institutions of countries all over the world are attempting global approaches to higher education, many Asian countries effectively transformed these goals into policy over the past decade by establishing themselves as centers of international education specifically designed to accommodate transnational students. In doing so, they challenge the status of conventional leaders, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Consider the case of the United States: a longtime leading destination for international students, the country began to experience a small decline in popularity at the close of the 20th century as shows a research from the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Over the corresponding period of time, the number of students bound for Asia grew from a meager six percent to a more prominent 11 percent. Experts attribute this shift, which can also be seen in European nations, to two factors: the struggling economy and the implementation of stricter student visa regulations.

Following the concept of Europe’s Bologna Process, which was created to promote regional cooperation among higher ed institutions, Asian countries have recently been seeking out cross-border higher education opportunities which represent even greater growth potential.

Singapore Steps Up

Despite collaboration initiatives, and in addition to vying for economic and international higher education dominance, Asian countries are also competing for regional supremacy. Singapore in particular has quickly increased its presence in the Asian international higher education market. While some countries have picked up on the “education hub” concept as a branding mechanism, Singapore has focused on strategic planning, knowledge and innovation. The success of government initiatives including “Global Schoolhouse” and “Singapore Education” has made the country a premiere center for international higher education, and a model for others -- both regionally and globally.

Furthermore, Singapore's government and institutional policymakers aren't unaware of the traditional struggles faced by the country's graduates to attain high-ranking international leadership positions. They are responding to this problem with a reformed educational environment engineered to create future global business leaders from the country's own alumni pool. Read more about studying in Singapore.

Enticing a Future Workforce in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is also revealing itself as a key player, thanks to a government commitment to generating new regional talent. International students are not only welcome as students, but also as eventual members of Hong Kong’s dynamic workforce. Hong Kong offers a uniquely strategic location -- proximity to potential superpower China --which makes it particularly appealing to students looking for an edge in the growing Asian economic market, and who are more than willing to pay top dollar to get an early foot in the door. This makes sense: Hong Kong emerged from the economic shakedown relatively unscathed and maintains both high employment and graduate employment rates. Not to mention its growing status as a global center for entrepreneurship and startups looking to establish a central home base or expand internationally. Read more about studying in Hong Kong.

A Shortcut to Success

The success of Asian countries in entering the higher education market is credited by many to a unique approach which runs counterpoint to that of the traditionally dominant Western countries. While the big three (AKA the U.S., the U.K. and Australia) have typically focused on recruiting international students along with their revenue, entities like Singapore and Hong Kong have instead focused on importing branch campuses of internationally renown institutions. In other words, by partnering with reputable foreign institutions rather than funneling money directly into their own programs, these countries have not only gained legitimacy but also fast tracked their development. Programs such as the dual MBA degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong / University of Texas Austin, the MBA/Masters Fashion Business from IFA Paris / Shanghai / Polimoda Florence, and the dual MBA program from the Chinese University of Hong Kong / HEC Paris are amazing opportunities to graduate from both institutions. This continual push originates from the economic sector, suggesting that the endgame is not entirely about education itself, but also about the resulting workforce boon. Read more about dual degrees here.

Establishing the Foundation

To credit East Asia’s rising prominence in higher education solely to an economic push, however, fails to acknowledge measurable growth at the primary and secondary levels. PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) recently announced the results of its annual global study focused on the academic performance of 15-year-olds and East Asian countries claimed all seven top positions.

Many developed Asian countries now consistently score at the top of international tests with Singapore, in particular, is making waves due to its bilingual system, multiculturalism and proportionately poor immigrant demographic. Its success is credited to the interconnectedness between the country’s economy and education, as well as support for teachers and the promotion of highly competitive higher education programs. In fact, education -- from the earliest years through university -- is runner up only to national defense in terms of government priorities, in addition to being highly prized by the citizens themselves. While the U.S. may have set the original standard, the evolution of East Asian countries may generate substantive educational reform.

It Goes Both Ways

The effectiveness of East Asia’s higher educational strategies strategies, along with their extraordinary potential, has not gone unnoticed by the superpowers that be. In July of 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education published “Is Europe Passe?” which speculated on a forthcoming shift from European to Asian higher education dominance, citing President Obama's educational initiatives in key Asian regions, including China, Indonesia and India. In fact, the Obama administration coined this era as “America’s Pacific Century.”

The absence of European nations from the higher educational agenda, meanwhile, is glaring. Elite institutions, including Yale, Columbia and Washington University, have fallen in line with governmental objectives, focusing their global efforts largely in Asia and negligibly in Europe. While some claim that European universities have been strategically passed over for the prized “strategic partner” designation with the U.S., others insist that these new relationships merely capitalize on opportunities for globalization. It's hardly surprising given that while Europe continues to cut university budgets, Asia has prioritized investing in higher education as a critical part of its development.

Ultimately, the arrangement is mutually attractive: the U.S. government and higher education institutions view Eastern Asia as a land of possibility. Delegations from Eastern Asia, meanwhile, are knocking at their doors in order to broker these arrangements.

An Evolving Educational Horizon

Thanks to its strategic positioning as an upcoming economic power, Eatern Asia has become a coveted study location for students from Europe and the U.S. in search of a heightened understanding of the region. While the push may previously have been to receive students from Asian countries, it now also includes sending Western scholars to that region. They have plenty of top choices from which to choose: according to the 2013-2014 Higher Education World University Rankings, Asian institutions hold 11 of the top 100 spots, with the University of Tokyo (#23), the National University of Singapore (#26) and The University of Hong Kong (#43) leading the pack.

And while there’s no denying Eastern Asia’s newfound star status in international higher education, many agree that facing global imperatives means eventually bypassing bilateral partnerships to instead establish globe-spanning multilateral collaborations. In other words, Asia’s ascent may not be the end result, but a giant step in the 21st century movement toward globalization.

 
Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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