Now, while China is certainly becoming a research hub, there are some serious reasons to contest the idea that China is actually going to become a more significant player in attracting international students. No doubt, there will be many from belt-and-road countries who will want to go to China to learn the language – that above all has been propelling its international rise to date. But for a whole bunch of domestic political reasons, it can’t open up its quality universities to many overseas students. Equivalent offerings elsewhere, combined with the need to learn Chinese and take the now-mandatory courses in Xi Jinping Thought
reduce the attractiveness of China as a destination.
This most recent article, by Louise Nicol, makes five very specific claims about Asia and the future of higher education, pretty much all of which I would bet against. Let’s look at the claims one by one:
- Asia will become a dominant education hub. No. There are exactly four countries in East Asia with significant drawing potential: Japan, Korea, China, and Malaysia (ok, ok, Singapore, but there are only two key universities). Of these, only China and Malaysia are drawing students from outside Asia in significant numbers. For this claim to be true, you would have to bank on one or more of these countries busting out and it’s pretty hard to imagine it happening in any of them.
- China and others will provide a low-cost alternative for African students. The argument here is basically “China gives a lot of scholarships to African students”. This is true, but it’s not clear that there’s any diplomatic or commercial rationale for China to indefinitely expand its scholarship offerings. China’s economic push into Africa plateaued a few years ago and so it’s not clear what the gain would be. It’s a lot easier to imagine a bigger focus on more local Belt-and-Road partners (in particular, South East Asia and Pakistan).
- Traditional English-speaking destinations will have to look to operate in Asia. China’s not exactly eager for international branch campuses these days, and even 2+2 arrangements are getting harder. India still hasn’t legalized them. Japan doesn’t seem interested, Korea was briefly interested with that new international campus in Incheon, but it seems to have gone quiet lately. On the other end of the continent, most people in the know seem to have think the Gulf States’ moment has passed. So, what’s left? Vietnam, maybe. Indonesia or the Philippines are a stretch and are not currently a significant global market.
- Employability will become the most important differentiating factor for higher education. This is an odd one because the author first makes an appeal to changing domestic policy considerations (developing better employment-related Key Performance Indicators) and then pivots to claim that employability is what international student are after. I think this is a bit dubious; they are not uninterested in this, but employment measurement is complicated and so institutional prestige gets used as a rule-of-thumb instead. Outside of graduate business programs, I have yet seen a marketing campaign for international students centred around employability, and to be honest I don’t expect to. Besides, useful stats on this are scarce. Youth unemployment in the west is at an all-time low, so employability measured by employment rates is not a differentiator because most graduates get a job quickly. What matters is what kind of job you get and by and large that’s going to depend on where your graduates get jobs. The schools that will do well on this measure are those near large western cities where income and wealth are concentrated; institutions that teach international students who then leave and return home will do poorly on this measure because salaries are generally lower in these places.
- Asia will become a jobs hub for the West. Let me quote Nicol directly on this point: “The growth of Asian economies presents unparalleled opportunities for graduates with an international education. This will not just impact on Asian students who have been the drivers of global mobility to date. It will be fundamental to the career and life prospects of all students….[yet] there is little, if any, knowledge in Western universities about the labour market or leading employers in Asia. With many of those employers wanting to fill widening ‘skills gaps’, there will be significant opportunities as the graduate jobs market realigns towards the East.” Nicol is correct about western universities not having much of a grasp on Asian labour markets, but bluntly: so what? This idea that Eastern demand is going to propel Western economies was more plausible in the 2000s and 2010s than it is going to be in the 2020s. Growth in China and Indonesia has been decelerating for over ten years now, India for five. Korean growth rates are not much higher than Canada’s, and Japan has only cracked 1% three times since 2010.
Anyways, put all this together and what you realise is that this article, like most Western articles pontificating on the rise of Asia, are not much more than a collection of statements about ASIA WOW IS IT BIG and OMG CHINA SUCH GROWTH MUCH MONEY.
Best to stay clear of this kind of advice.