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Turning knowledge into profit: Competition to lure foreign students intensifies in our globalized world

The number of students enrolled in educational institutions outside of their country of origin has increased by 150 percent since 1975 and by 53 percent since 1999.


The Asia-Pacific region in particular has seen tremendous increases in student mobility. 

In the past, obtaining a degree from a foreign university was an endeavor requiring wealth, connections, and a strong sense of adventure. The gateways were usually closed to all but a privileged few. In modern years, however, aspiring scholars are increasingly able to pursue studies around the world. 

To identify these trends the Education Research Network in the Asia-Pacific (ERI-Net), established by UNESCO Bangkok, recently convened a “Regional Seminar on the International Mobility of Students.” 

Researchers from Australia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand presented their findings on the emergence of a global trade in educational services, as well as possible repercussions for the region.

Seminar delegates heard of a fiercely competitive market for full fee-paying international students. After years of near-miraculous economic growth in several Asian economies, foreign education has been opened to a far wider population. 

Anatoly Oleksiyenko and fellow researchers from the University of Hong Kong noted that “high quality credentials from reputable institutions abroad are perceived as essential drivers for successful careers in civil, financial or professional services”.

Within sending countries, fears of ‘brain drain’ have risen. Jean Tayag, Director of the Office of Policy, Planning, Research, and Information at the Philippines Commission on Higher Education, noted the “underlying anxiety that study abroad would just be a stepping stone for eventual emigration”.

Recipient countries, meanwhile, have shifted from providing tertiary places as a form of development aid to actively seeking international students as a source of income. Perhaps no country better epitomizes this trend than Australia, whose higher education institutes have been heavily reliant on the foreign student dollar since the Dawkins Reforms slashed government funding for education in the early 1980s. 

Indeed, Australia is far and away the global leader in percentage terms of foreign students in its tertiary population - and despite a relatively small population and limited number of higher education institutes, the country ranks fifth globally in the share of international students. International education is now the third largest export industry in Australia, behind only coal and iron ore. 

However, tougher immigration laws and strengthening currency could threaten Australia’s hold on international students. According to V. Lynn Meek of the University of Melbourne, the Australian Department of Immigration has advised that “student arrivals over the 2013 to 2014 period would be down by 50 per cent on 2010 figures”. Although Mr. Meek believes that this forecast is overly pessimistic, substantial declines are likely. 

As enrolments decrease in Australia, others in the region seek to expand. The University of Hong Kong researchers observed that “internationalization is the prevailing buzzword advocated at various policy and consultation forums… [benchmarked] on the basis of student enrolment, curriculum change and recruitment of foreign faculty”.

Higher education institutes in South Korea, much like their Australian counterparts, have turned to internationalization of higher education for survival. Two decades of falling birth rates have pushed tertiary enrolments down with a 23.2 per cent gap between enrolments and quotas estimated by 2023. 

More than 120 Korean schools now have international programmes taught in English. Although South Korea still has a low ratio of international students (1.3 per cent, compared to the OECD mean of 8.3 in 2008), the ratio has increased by more than one thousand per cent since 2000.

Perhaps the most ambitious expansion plans are those of China. As the largest consumer of education in the world, China accounts for 14.9 per cent of international students in 2008. However, Professor Changjun Yue of Peking University noted that the government plans to attract 500,000 inbound students by 2020, responding to the “powerful need for both foreign talents and Chinese overseas students and scholars”.

These plans have already had a quantifiable impact. From 1999 to 2007, the United States’ share of mobile Chinese students dropped from 38 to 23 percent, signifying the changing dynamics of the overall market. 

The global trade in services for international education has been bolstered by strong demand within the Asia-Pacific region. As Asia-Pacific countries turn their attention to developing supply, both students and society should ultimately benefit from the increasing competition. 

By Seth Leighton