Hong Kong’s allure underscores strengthening Asian education hubs

This summer, the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority released statistics showing a 7% increase in the number of Hong Kong secondary school exam takers receiving the minimum required scores to compete for 15,000 government-subsidised first-year university degree places. The headline of a South China Morning Post story covering the increase in successful exam-takers proclaimed, “Two students for every place at university as competition in Hong Kong tightens.”

In all, of 82,283 students who took the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) exam this year, 28,418 obtained the minimum score, which means that “more than 13,000 students will have to pay more for full-fee private courses, opt for sub-degree programmes or look elsewhere.”

The story highlights not only the serious educational focus in Hong Kong but also begs the question, “Where, if they choose to study elsewhere, will those 13,000 students go?” And more broadly, “Where are post-secondary-aged Asians choosing to study when they study abroad?”

The answer is critical to the entire global international education marketplace for a number of reasons, including:

  • Asian countries represent such a huge proportion of the potentially mobile global student population;
  • Asian countries – especially China and India – have become crucial to the revenue streams of many top Western study abroad destination countries such as the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia;
  • A number of destinations within the region – notably Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore – have been investing heavily in recent years in growing the capacity and quality of their post-secondary institutions in an effort to become regional (and perhaps global) education hubs.

In short, those 13,000 students, and more like them, have an increasing wealth of study options much closer to their homes than Europe or North America, and these destinations may also offer the advantages of being more affordable and more linked to regional job opportunities.

Hong Kong as a regional education hub

Along with intensifying competition among local students for Hong Kong public university spaces, the territory is also attracting a good many more foreign students in recent years, in particular those from the Asian region, despite the recent rise in tuition for international students. A 2012 NAFSA publication entitled “Asia’s Burgeoning Higher Education Hubs” notes that:

“Hong Kong has doubled quotas for non-local students at publicly funded institutions from 10% to 20% since 2008. With about US $160 million in a scholarship fund, the Hong Kong government will offer up to ten scholarships, starting in the 2012/13 academic year, to first-year students from member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as India and Korea, who enroll in publicly funded degree programmes in Hong Kong.”

In addition, Hong Kong has eased its work and immigration policies so that now, international students can work part-time while studying, stay in Hong Kong for a year post-graduation to look for permanent jobs, get work permits upon landing such jobs, and apply for permanent residency after seven years there.

Indeed, the latest QS Asian University Rankings found that fully 37.7% of the student population at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) – ranked #26 in the world – is international students. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), also in 2013’s top 50 according to QS, boasts a 37.4% international proportion of its student population. These international student populations are the largest, proportionately, of the Asian Top 10 ranked by QS.

Said Prof Christopher Chao, associate dean of research and graduate studies at HKUST to QS: “We have witnessed a very sudden rise of the number of international students to our MSc programmes in engineering at HKUST just this current year alone. In the fall of 2013/14, we are going to have more than 70 new international students from over 20 countries.”

Other Asian education hubs on offer

If Hong Kong students can’t get into their own universities, or simply want to study outside Hong Kong, they don’t have to go far for a top-ranked post-secondary education.

Nearby are the National University of Singapore (Singapore): #24 in the world according to the QS rankings; the University of Tokyo (Japan): #32; Kyoto University (Japan): #35; Seoul National University (South Korea): #35; Nanyang Technological University (Singapore): #41; Peking University (China): #46; and Tsinghua University (China): #48. These are just the ones generally ranked in the top 50; for a broader list of top-ranked Asian post-secondary institutes, see here.

In fact, QS explains that a new term, “glocal,” may well shape global student mobility patterns in the coming few decades. They explain:

“Current trends suggest that more Asian students will prefer to pursue their studies outside their home country, yet within Asia – the so-called ‘glocal’ education path … As the QS World University Rankings show, a growing number of Asian universities are acquiring reputations as world leaders. Asian students could stay within Asia, spend less, but still receive a world-class education.

… Also, better employment opportunities may be available closer at home. Post-study job opportunities for overseas students in the US and Europe have become increasingly scarce as a result of sluggish economic growth, increased unemployment and stricter visa regulations. In future, Asian students may be tempted to stay closer to home and benefit from the graduate work opportunities offered up by their booming local economies.”

The “trends” QS refers to include:

  • A 17% increase in the number of Asian universities in their global top 200 during the last five years;
  • The number of Asian institutions in their global top 50 growing from nine to eleven;
  • The fact that Asia boasts five of the world’s top six “young” institutions (universities established since 1963) according to their Top 50 Under 50 ranking.

And perhaps most tellingly:

“As Western governments struggle to maintain funding levels, Asian institutions have rapidly increased their ability to attract the world’s best faculty and students. The rankings show a five-year surge in international students studying at ranked institutions in Asia, from 175,286 to 255,212, while total international faculty has grown from 21,223 to 35,677.”

QS concludes that a significant “glocal” Asian movement would help reverse decades of brain drain in which Asian students travelled to Europe and North America – and then often stayed there to work and immigrate.

What would “glocal” mean to the current top study abroad destinations?

As our recent article on India’s rupee slide and the potential deleterious effects on Indian student enrolments in foreign education institutions highlights, there are always risks in putting all one’s international recruitment eggs in the basket of the most populous countries (e.g., China and India). Yet right now, almost one in two international students in the US is from China, India, or South Korea.

The competitive landscape continues to shift now that China itself is investing so massively in education, and other Asian economies are positioning themselves as quality education providers.

Diversifying across markets is always a sound strategy for the evolving international education marketplace. So too is understanding that institutional and national globalisation is increasingly reciprocal – involving student, research, and faculty exchanges and partnerships (see here for how the EU is recognising this new state of affairs).

A more complicated and competitive global international education landscape seems more than on the horizon; it seems here, or just about. How will it affect your institution’s recruitment strategies?



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