Insights and Analysis

Students from Asia Most Globally Mobile

June 15, 2011

Below is an article from a new book, “Student Mobility and the Internationalization of Higher Education: National Policies and Strategies from Six World Regions,” published by the Institute of International Education. The book was edited by Rajika Bhandari, Raisa Belyavina, and Robert Gutierrez, and can be purchased at

Students from Asia comprise the largest group of globally mobile students around the world (43 percent). Students from China (820,000) represent 25 percent of the global total of international students and over 268,000 Indian students are enrolled in higher education institutions (HEIs) around the world.

Chinese students

As China, India, and other Asian countries implement national policies that create more educational opportunities and as more of their higher education institutions achieve world-class status, it is expected that more international students will be attracted to enroll in degree programs.

After sub-Suharan Africa, Central Asia has one of the highest out-bound mobility ratios in the world: five out of every 100 students from this sub-region study overseas. In contrast, only two out of every 100 students from East Asia and the Pacific study outside their home countries; the ratio is even lower for South and West Asia at 1.5 percent (UNESCO, 2010).

While many countries in the region have experienced “brain drain” in the past, a number of Asian countries have recently emerged as important higher education destinations, attracting large numbers of students not just within the region but also from Europe and North America. The most notable example is China, which in 2008/09 hosted over 238,000 international students. Most international students in China pursue their studies in non-degree programs, and come from neighboring Asian countries, the U.S. and Russia. However, as China, India, and other Asian countries implement national policies that create more educational opportunities and as more of their higher education institutions achieve world-class status, it is expected that more international students will be attracted to enroll in degree programs.

Countries in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand are also actively promoting their universities as host destinations as well as encouraging large numbers of their own students to study abroad. Some countries in Southeast Asia that have traditionally had lower outbound mobility have seen increases in recent years. Nepal and Vietnam are two notable examples of significant growth in studying abroad for higher education, both outside of the region and within it. Japan has experienced the reverse trend, a steep decline in its students studying abroad outside of the region, although significant numbers continue to study in China. In recent years, the Japanese government launched an initiative to increase the incoming international student population to 300,000 over ten years, hoping to nearly triple the current number of international students (132,000 as of May 2009). The efforts to accomplish this goal include encouraging universities to partner with higher education institutions overseas and providing both merit and Japanese government-based scholarships to attract international students.

As the demand for higher education in Asia rises, new types of educational opportunities are being created. After the Middle East, Asia is the largest host region for branch campuses of foreign universities, with Singapore and Malaysia as two prominent examples in Southeast Asia. The growing economies of Southeast Asian countries have also facilitated an expansion of non-degree higher education programs, including skills training and executive education to meet the demands of transitioning from labor to knowledge economies. As new types of education programs become more commonplace, the traditional public higher educational institution is challenged to keep up with the growing needs of the market economy and to compete with the higher education sector.

In recent years, a number of Asian countries have initiated reforms to liberalize the system of higher education. This has resulted in an expansion of the private sector for higher education as well as more partnerships between local and international educational institutions. As Asian countries focus on developing world-class universities and attracting more international students, education quality remains a core challenge and the focal point of educational development in the region. Regional mobility associations are a key component in these efforts. The Asia-Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE), an international non-profit comprised of university representatives dedicated to promoting the internationalization of higher education in the Asia Pacific region, collaborates with University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP), which is comprised of government and non-government representatives of the higher education sector in the Asia/Pacific region. The Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) is a 45-year-old organization that aims to “promote cooperation in education, science and culture in the Southeast Asian region,” emphasizing the importance of intraregional cooperation. Together, these associations are creating momentum for partnerships between Asia and the world and are aiding in the process of internationalization of higher education.

Related locations: China, India, Japan, Nepal, Vietnam
Related programs: Regional and International Relations
Related topics: Education


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