Small countries often have the most "open" higher education systems, just as their economies are the most open to international trade, a British Council analyst has said.
Janet Ilieva, head of research for education intelligence, cited Hong Kong, Singapore and the Netherlands as examples of small countries with higher education systems that were open to imports and exports in terms of students, academics and institutions.
But she said that some others with ambitions to join the list, particularly a few Gulf states, were struggling to do so because of "over-regulation" by their governments.
Her comments were made in an interview with Times Higher Education ahead of a conference on International Leadership: Managing Global Universities to be held at the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus next week.
Dr Ilieva is due to present the findings of a study into the openness of higher education in 22 different countries, including a subset of eight countries in Southeast Asia.
Of these, Hong Kong was ranked top, followed by South Korea and Malaysia.
However, Dr Ilieva said that the ranking misrepresented the openness of Singapore (rated seventh in the region), because it looked only at national policy.
In Singapore, she said, the government had handed over responsibility for many policy decisions to the institutions themselves.
"In a country the size of Singapore, with four or five institutions, that's doable, but it would be much harder in a larger country," she said.
"Usually small countries have very open economies, because they depend on imports and exports with the rest of the world, and we are seeing similar patterns now in education, where small countries are much more open to bringing international students in and sending their students out."
Dr Ilieva added that, just as Asian economies are booming in spite of the global financial crisis, the same applies to their university systems.
"Malaysia used to be the UK's top sending country for international students, one of the biggest exporters of students, but now the tables have turned and it hosts twice as many students as it sends out," she said.
"If you look at countries by the ratio of students they send abroad in relation to the number that they host, this ratio is decreasing.
"This shouldn't be seen in isolation from what the governments are doing - in countries such as Hong Kong, South Korea and Malaysia, the governments are creating enabling environments for their institutions to collaborate internationally and to provide transnational education."
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