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Is Asia ready to be the next higher education superpower?

A high-level trends report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts that, by 2050, the world will see a dramatic shift in global economic power away from advanced economies and toward Asia and a block of faster-growing emerging economies.

The PwC analysis was released in February of this year. A month later, the Institute of International Education (IIE) published Asia: The Next Higher Education Superpower?, the latest book in IIE’s Global Education Research series and a rather stark illustration of how the global playing field for higher education has already begun to move.

The book argues that an extended period of unmatched economic growth in Asia has helped to drive significant social change as well, including the emergence of a large middle class and a greater openness to regional and world markets.

“These dynamics are also reflected in the landscape of higher education,” says Rajika Bhandari, IIE’s Deputy Vice President of Research and Evaluation and the book’s co-editor. “Especially at a time when economic growth in many rapidly developing Asian economies is linked to knowledge production, advanced skills, and the rising demand for higher education.

By 2020, the People’s Republic of China alone will account for 30% of the world’s university graduates between the ages of 25 and 34. India, Asia’s third largest economy, is projected to add 300 million people to its workforce over the next two decades – the equivalent of the entire US population.”

An opening chapter contributed by Kishore Mahbubani and Tan Eng Chye of the National University of Singapore puts it more plainly still: “The 21st century will be the Asian century. This is overdue and inevitable. A surge of investment in higher education is already taking place in Asia, which will accompany the emergence of the Asian century.”

Indeed, governments across the region have significantly stepped up education spending in the face of considerable political and popular pressure to quickly improve their higher education systems. A recent item from University World News highlights that one of the effects of this is that “there has also been a significant mind-shift in Asia that reflects the confidence of those countries and the rise of higher education systems, so that students in Asia no longer see top institutions in Asia as less prestigious.”

Alessia Lefébure is an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a co-editor of Asia: The Next Higher Education Superpower?. “Young people are no longer raised with the idea that there is a dominant West,” she adds. “A global system of multiple poles of attraction is emerging where higher education will not be dominated by the Ivy League.”

A hub of hubs

The determination of a number of Asian countries to establish themselves as regional hubs of education is certainly part of the “multiple polls” story.

Whether this adds up to education superpower status anytime soon is up for debate, but many observers agree that the region’s higher education systems are catching up to more established systems in the West, and are increasingly asserting their ambitions and influence in the region and beyond.

We recently noted, for example, how the increasing quality and capacity of Chinese graduate programmes has begun to impact the enrolment of Chinese students in US graduate schools. Along the same line, improvements within emerging regional hubs, coupled with the ambitions of those countries to increase their enrolments of foreign students, are more noticeably influencing bilateral mobility across Asia today.

China, for example, has drawn increasing numbers of both Indonesia and Korean students in recent years. Data from the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange (CSCSE) indicates that the number of Indonesian students in China has increased by an average of 10% each year since 2010, and that nearly 14,000 Indonesians are currently studying in China.

This is a notable trend in part because Indonesia has long been an important sending market for more traditional study destinations, but also because the country is expected to be a much more significant source of international students in the decades ahead as both its economy and middle class continue to expand.

South Korea, meanwhile, has long been one of the top sending markets in Asia and it has also shown a marked shift in recent years. While the total number of Korean students abroad has declined over the past three years, there are indications of a further shift within this trend that is seeing more Korean students enrolled in China.

“The number of South Koreans studying in China more than doubled to 62,855 in 2012 from 2003,” reports Bloomberg News. “The number of US-bound students grew 50% to 73,351 in the same period.”

The growing importance of China’s economy, and increasing competition in the Korean job market, have both played a part in this trend. But so too, as the following report from the Wall Street Journal reflects, has the proximity and relative affordability of improving education programmes in China.

Affordability is a big feature in Japan’s push to attract more international students as well. While squarely in the developed economy category, the country also has an excess of capacity in its higher education system and an ambitious plan to increase its share of the regional education market.

The Hindu Business Line highlights one example of regional student flows in pointing out: “Japanese universities are going all out to give their American and European counterparts a run for their money in wooing Indian students for higher studies. Their unique selling proposition: Study in a top notch university in Japan for nearly half the cost of studying in the West.”

As in the case of Korea-China student mobility, it is affordability twinned with growing economic ties that seems ready to tip the balance in terms of student choice: “Backing [the recruiting efforts of Japanese universities] are a clutch of top Japanese brands, such as Sony, Canon, Toshiba and Mitsubishi, which are sweetening the offer by promising placements in Japan or in their Indian subsidiaries.”

India has yet to work its way into the top five source countries for Japan. However, the latest data from the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) shows that foreign enrolment in the country grew by 9.5% in 2014, with notable gains from Vietnam (+91.6%) and Nepal (+79.9%) driving much of that growth.

Asian superpower?

As these bilateral examples reflect, the trend toward greater regional mobility that we began to observe in 2012 is especially notable in Asia today.

It is increasingly clear as well that the growing capacity and quality of higher education systems in the region will be one of the big stories in international education going forward.

As IIE President and CEO Allan Goodman has said: “Sheer numbers indicate that progress in Asia is likely to profoundly impact global higher education.”

However, many of the significant education players in the region will remain important sending markets for global destinations, even as they strengthen their institutions and draw greater numbers of foreign students themselves.

This is due in part to the continuing profile and prestige of institutions in more traditional study destinations in the US, UK, and elsewhere, to continuing investment in research and mobility, and to persistent structural advantages, not least of which is the large alumni base of Western institutions in positions of influence and leadership in institutions, governments, and corporations around the world.

More fundamentally, the editors of Asia: The Next Higher Education Superpower? conclude that significant quality gaps between institutions in Asia and the West remain.

“Quality is going to be a real issue for countries moving forward,” says Ms Bhandari.

“The message for Asia or any other aspirant higher education superpower is that other countries and regions are not standing still,” adds Aarhus University’s Miguel Lim in another chapter of the book. “Given the developed regions’ other advantages, [Asia] clearly still has some way to go before it can achieve superpower status.”

That may be. But the remarkable expansion and development of higher education in many Asian markets over the past decade clearly has the attention of more and more of the world’s educators and students, as well it should.

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