Asia internationalises in its own backyard

Affordable quality education and job opportunities are encouraging more Asian students to travel closer to home, reports Joyce Lau

August 25, 2021
Participants wait with tubes to ride a giant waterslide in the Central district of Hong Kong
Source: Getty

Browse the full results of the World University Rankings 2022

Download a copy of the World University Rankings 2022 report


Universities in the Eastern half of the world are quickly internationalising, largely off the backs of students and academics in their own region. While migration to the West has not been dented – yet – as a result of strong interest in overseas education in general, intra-Asian mobility is on the rise as the continent develops its own high-quality education options and work opportunities.

In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, half the top 20 institutions with the most international outlook are in Asia (including the Middle East).  

China's two special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macao, punch far above their weight, taking up five of the top 10 spots. This is due to high levels of student mobility, staff recruitment and research collaboration around the region, especially as mainland Chinese and Taiwan students are counted as “non-local” in those two cities.  

The three Middle Eastern destinations in the top 20 – Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – are also recruiting largely from their own region.  

Hugo Horta, associate professor in the social contexts and policies of education at the University of Hong Kong, says that these Arab peninsula countries, alongside Malaysia, have been “making an effort to attract foreign students from neighbouring countries that share the same religion”.

In a global context, student movement is still largely from East to West. Before the pandemic, the top hosting countries of overseas students were the US, the UK, China, Canada and Australia, according to the Institute of International Education’s Project Atlas.

However, the “relative number” of outbound Asian students to Western countries has decreased and the level of intra-Asian mobility has risen, according to Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University. For example, figures from China’s education ministry show that the country recruited 60 per cent of its foreign students from other parts of Asia in 2018.

Over the past decade, Asian governments have launched initiatives and set ambitious targets to attract hundreds of thousands of foreign students – and they have largely succeeded.

Student exchange programme Campus Asia was set up to link China, Japan and South Korea. Mainland China also uses its New Silk Road project, or Belt and Road Initiative, to boost ties along an ancient trade route that connects Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy targets Asia and Australasia. Meanwhile, Malaysia has built multi-campus higher education hubs such as EduCity.

These five states attracted a total of 1.2 million inbound students in 2018, according to an ICEF Monitor report. Almost all those recruits were from within the region; of the top 15 sending countries, 13 were Asian and two were African. The only Western nation that sent any significant numbers of students to Asia was the US.

“Compared with what happened decades ago, there has been more active mobility of both students and scholars between countries within East and South-east Asian countries,” Huang says, citing reasons such as “increased linkage and collaboration in economy and trade”.

“The enhancement of the global academic competitiveness of national higher education systems and research – and the presence in global university ranking tables – are important drivers,” he adds, especially in China, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

Geographic proximity and shared cultural practices are particularly important in a region where higher education can be seen as a vehicle to long-term settlement in a destination country.

“As the largest number of inbound students in the main East and South-east Asian countries all come from the same region, many stay in their hosting countries after graduation. This has increased the number of international faculty in some hosting countries,” Huang says.

Huang’s recent research shows that China has eclipsed the US and the UK as the largest sender of researchers into Japan. And, unlike Western academics who may venture into Japan as professionals, 80 per cent of Chinese academics began life in Japan as students.

Tourists slide on the cableways across the Yellow River, China
Source: 
Getty

The affordability of Asian education also makes it appealing for students in the region. Even the most expensive options – elite schools in Hong Kong and Singapore, or a top medical school in mainland China – are on par with the UK but still far under what US colleges cost. Admission and tuition fees in Japan and South Korea are about £5,000 a year, while universities in Malaysia and Taiwan cost a fraction of that.  

“There is a realisation that one may have an experience abroad without necessarily having to go to other continents and developed countries, where the costs of education and living are higher,” Horta says. “This may be particularly attractive to students from developing countries in Asia, such as Bangladesh or Nepal.”

An affordable education at top-ranked Chinese or Japanese universities that house state-of-the-art labs may sound too good to be true, especially to an Asian student who does not have equivalent facilities or opportunities at home.

However, Covid has dashed many of those dreams, as governments have closed their doors, particularly to poorer neighbours with worse epidemics. Hardly any of the nearly 800,000 foreign students enrolled in Asia’s two largest receiving countries – China and Japan – have had in-person access to campuses since the pandemic began in early 2020.

China has allowed in small cohorts – for example, South Koreans or those enrolled in specific US branch campuses or scholarship schemes. But the bulk of students in South Asia, Africa or Russia have not been able to enter. To make things worse, poor English communications about future plans, patchy online offerings and a lack of flexibility on graduation requirements mean that many degrees and research projects may be abandoned halfway.

There is a similar situation in Japan, where foreign students have lobbied unsuccessfully for a return of crucial financial aid needed to survive what might be a two-year delay to their education. 

For now, Asia’s ambitions for high levels of internationalisation have not yet been achieved. For example, among the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) only 10 per cent of mobile students decide to stay within the Asean region. Other areas, such as India, have been beset by severe Covid outbreaks and still lack significant pathways to internationalisation.

Horta says that traditional Western receiving nations have “much more experience in receiving and accommodating international students from all over the world”. Partly because of that, student mobility will not be an “either/or” situation.

“I am not expecting that intra-Asian student flow will mean a cut of flows to North American, European and Oceanian countries,” he says. “The numbers of students and families interested in this mobility abroad for studying purposes is bound to increase. There will be a strong market for both.”

However, he adds that the sheen of having a degree that is merely “Western” may be dulling, especially as Asian students exercise greater scrutiny and have more choices.

“Some 20 years ago, studying at some US university that nobody [had] heard of would still be of value,” he says. “Nowadays, for one to get the same social and economic recognition, one needs to study at a top US university.”

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com


International pillar

Rank in pillar

World University Rankings position

Institution

Country/region

Pillar score

1

251–300

Macau University of Science and Technology

Macao

99.9

2

=151

City University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

99.7

=3

301–350

Università della Svizzera italiana

Switzerland

99.5

=3

251–300

University of Luxembourg

Luxembourg

99.5

5

201–250

University of Macau

Macao

99.4

6

301–350

Qatar University

Qatar

99.1

=7

=30

University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

98.8

=7

401–500

University of Sharjah

United Arab Emirates

98.8

9

401–500

Hong Kong Baptist University

Hong Kong

98.7

10

=197

University of Geneva

Switzerland

98.6

11

=40

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Switzerland

98.3

12

=127

Maastricht University

Netherlands

98.1

13

15

ETH Zurich

Switzerland

97.9

14

66

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Hong Kong

97.6

15

12

Imperial College London

United Kingdom

97.5

16

201–250

Alfaisal University

Saudi Arabia

97.3

=17

=143

University of Technology Sydney

Australia

97.2

=17

201–250

Queen’s University Belfast

United Kingdom

97.2

=19

91

Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Hong Kong

97.1

=19

=117

Queen Mary University of London

United Kingdom

97.1

21

103

University of Basel

Switzerland

97.0

22

=18

UCL

United Kingdom

96.7

=23

=54

Australian National University

Australia

96.5

=23

351–400

Brunel University London

United Kingdom

96.5

=25

1

University of Oxford

United Kingdom

96.3

=25

301–350

University of Essex

United Kingdom

96.3

27

201–250

Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand

96.2

28

501–600

Lincoln University

New Zealand

96.0

=29

401–500

University of Innsbruck

Austria

95.9

=29

=35

King’s College London

United Kingdom

95.9

=31

=5

University of Cambridge

United Kingdom

95.8

=31

=158

University of Aberdeen

United Kingdom

95.8

33

301–350

University of St Gallen

Switzerland

95.6

=34

=132

The University of Western Australia

Australia

95.5

=34

801-1,000

Near East University

Northern Cyprus

95.5

=34

251–300

Curtin University

Australia

95.5

=34

201–250

University of St Andrews

United Kingdom

95.5

38

=137

University of Vienna

Austria

95.4

39

401–500

University of Waikato

New Zealand

95.3

=40

70

UNSW Sydney

Australia

95.2

=40

=30

University of Edinburgh

United Kingdom

95.2

=40

351–400

City, University of London

United Kingdom

95.2

=43

49

Chinese University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

95.0

=43

=146

Trinity College Dublin

Republic of Ireland

95.0

=45

201–250

RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences

Republic of Ireland

94.9

=45

37

University of British Columbia

Canada

94.9

=47

201–250

University of Wollongong

Australia

94.7

=47

601–800

University of Nicosia

Cyprus

94.7

=49

=137

University of Auckland

New Zealand

94.6

=49

201–250

University of Surrey

United Kingdom

94.6

=49

=122

Lancaster University

United Kingdom

94.6


The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022, which includes metrics on universities’ international outlooks, will be published at 00:01 BST on 2 September. The results will be exclusively revealed at the THE World Academic Summit (1-3 September), which will focus on the interrelationship between universities and the places in which they are located.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Travelling, but not far

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Register
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

From the information that we are provided by institutions across the globe, we rigorously build up our World University Rankings. This is how we assess data on more than 1,600 institutions to produce the tables

26 August

Sponsored

Featured jobs