Student mobility needs to be more than just east to west

“Asian students appear to travel within Asia or to western countries, but western students are not yet studying in Asia at the same level”

The flow of students in higher education has historically been from Asia to western nations, with most international students studying in Europe, North America or Australia, writes Loretta O’Donnell, vice provost of Academic Affairs at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. However, this trend has been changing for a number of years and is now more multi-directional.

In 2019 China hosted more international students than both Canada or Australia, with the top five highest intakes coming from South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, India, and the US. Japan also saw an almost 11% increase in international student uptake compared to the previous year, while the UK saw a 2% decrease between 2018 and 2019.

Intraregional mobility in Asia

This indicates more students are deciding to study in Asian nations than ever before. However, Asian students appear to travel within Asia or to western countries, but western students are not yet studying in Asia at the same level. For example, in 2019, the highest number of international students in the UK came from China, with the top three highest intakes of international students in the US coming from China, India, and South Korea.

In response, Asian nations are constantly enhancing the reputation of their universities by investing in research to make themselves more attractive to both domestic and international students. This is because well-resourced universities, whether located in Asia or the west, are magnets for talent.

An example of this is Singapore, which is now known as a research hub and a prestigious destination for international students and a product of decades of calibrated policy. In 1991, Singapore launched a National Technology Plan to develop Singapore into a centre of excellence in science and technology to enhance their national competitiveness in the industrial and services sectors.

This enabled Singapore to efficiently move up the value chain from unskilled labour to skilled labor; technician to engineers; practice-oriented engineers to research and development engineers; and thematic research to blue skies research. Most observers would argue that this national effort has been successful.

In Central Asia, Nazarbayev University enrols increasing numbers of international students for doctoral and master’s programs every year. Students currently represent 55 different nations and the university is also involved in programs via the Asian Universities Alliance, a collection of Asian universities working together to address regional and global challenges in higher education, economics, science, and technology. This will hopefully lead to universities in this region of the world becoming more attractive to students and talent from Asian and western nations.

New directions for student mobility

Another way to promote student mobility other than from east to west involves scholarship schemes, such as The New Colombo Plan which the Australian Government launched in 2014.

This initiative invites Australian students to study and work in the Indo-Pacific, which includes Asian nations, in an attempt to enhance the knowledge of Australians about the region. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website explains that, “by the end of 2020, the New Colombo Plan alumni will have grown to around 40,000 young Australians with experience of living, studying and undertaking work experience in the Indo-Pacific.”

There are a number of reasons why students decide to study abroad in the first place, including to gain knowledge, experience, cultural immersion, language skills, greater job opportunities, global insights, and to become more competitive for local and international jobs.

International education is also a significant investment by families, host universities or national governments. Australia, Canada, the US and the UK traditionally have provided a pipeline of opportunities for graduates to apply for permanent residency and be eligible for dual citizenship, potentially having the best of both worlds.

Whether international students are moving from east to west, west to east, or east to east, well-resourced, research-intensive international education can be transformational for students, their family, their community and the economy.

About the author: Loretta O’Donnell is vice provost of academic affairs at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan. She is responsible for liaising with strategic partners in implementing the mission of the University and sharing the experience with local and regional universities.