April 3, 2014 12:00 am JST

Asian countries hoist the 'Students Wanted' sign

AKIKO SUGIMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- Enthusiasm for higher education in Asian countries is growing as more citizens find themselves being able to afford quality schooling for their children. Governments and institutions have noticed, and are competing to attract talented youths brought up in the region or even from overseas by providing access to sophisticated programs. Success, they believe, will have long-term implications for the region's global competitiveness and sustainable growth.

     "In publicly funded universities, enrollment has gone up by almost 10 times" since independence, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in October during a speech at the official opening of University Town, or UTown, at the National University of Singapore. "Our universities are well-respected in Singapore and around the world."

     UTown is 19 hectares filled with residential halls for more than 4,000 students and researchers, buildings for research and teaching, a startup incubation institution. 

First mover

Singapore hopes to attract highly talented students and researchers from all over the world. Doing so, it believes, will ensure sustainable economic growth. The city state has to compensate for its main weaknesses -- its scarcity of natural resources and the economic impact of its rapidly aging population. To do so, it urgently needs to establish itself as a regional education hub. UTown is the focus of this strategy.

     Singapore began pursuing internationalized higher education in 1997, when then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced the goal of making the city the Boston of the East. The following year, Singapore's government launched its world-class university program.

     Singapore sees UTown as a premier university. Under the world-class university program, the island republic forged a strategic partnership to invite reputable institutions from abroad to set up branch campuses or joint institutions. American institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University as well as French business school Insead have set up satellite campuses in UTown.

     The National University of Singapore has also made steady progress in achieving its ambition to become an important part of the global higher education network. The university has seven foreign branches, including ones in Silicon Valley in the U.S. and Bangalore, India. The university's collaborations with Yale University, one of the U.S.'s elite Ivy League schools, led to the Yale-NUS College, which opened in UTown last August.

     Singapore is not alone in Asia in regard to its higher education ambitions.

     The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has established a global reputation for top-notch education and research. The university, where English is used in all classes, has partnerships with China's top institutions, thanks in part to the city's status as a gateway to mainland China. The university also offers business classes as part of its interdisciplinary curriculum. Last year, it joined hands with American and European counterparts to launch a cross-institutional degree program.

Academic hub of Asean

In Southeast Asia, where the 10 nations that make up Asean are to integrate their economies in 2015, governments are trying to develop strategies for becoming regional education hubs. The Thai government has embarked on a generous scholarship scheme as a way to increase the number of foreign students who study there to 100,000 in 2015. Malaysia is seeking to attract students from the Middle East and Africa, not to mention other parts of Asia.

     The 2013-14 World University Rankings, published by Times Higher Education, a London-based magazine, shows the University of Tokyo in the 23rd spot, maintaining its status as the top Asian institution. The National University of Singapore, meanwhile, moved up to 26th from 34th in the 2010-11 ranking.

     The ranking reflects the degree of internationalization of education tackled by each institution. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology moved up from 65th in 2012-13 to 57th in 2013-14 due to its conducting classes in English. Among Japanese universities that once dominated the top tier of Asia's rankings, the University of Tokyo was much less impressive not because it was outshone in research capacity -- as measured by a low number of citations of theses written by the university's researchers -- but because it lags far behind in internationalization.

     Phil Baty, editor of the Times' ranking, warned, "A lower international profile can mean Japanese universities can be less able to attract top international talent, less able to forge research collaborations with the best scholars elsewhere in the world, and will ultimately have less influential research."

Which came first?

There appears to be an enthusiasm gap between Japan and other Asian countries when it comes to internationalizing education.

     According to Unesco's education report for 2010, the total number of students going abroad from the East Asia and Pacific region, including Australia, and from India and other Southwest Asian countries reached approximately 1.35 million, compared with a combined 770,000 received by these regions, which resulted in a net outflow of 582,000 students. For Singapore, it should be noted, experienced a net inflow of more than 28,000 students.

     Many Asian countries have been facing brain drains as young adults succumb to the lure of Western countries. China's net outflow of human capital surpassed 490,000 individuals. To stem the tide of talent leaving their countries, Asian universities are redoubling their internationalization efforts -- trying to attract more foreign students and enhance the quality of education.

     India, an education powerhouse in South Asia, is now working harder to build a quality university in an effort to retain its talented youth. The country currently has 21.8 million students enrolled in tertiary education, with its student population second only to that of China and surpassing that of the U.S., according to the Times' ranking.

     India established an average 10 institutions on a daily basis over the past five years. But building more universities does not guarantee that talented minds will stay home to study. The quality of a school's education is what matters.

     And there is plenty of demand. The 2012 edition of Unesco's Global Education Digest reveals that 177.68 million people around the world had access to higher education in 2010, up nearly 80% from a decade earlier.

     It is no exaggeration to say that most university students who study abroad come from Asia. A survey by the Institute of International Education suggests that the number of foreign students studying at American universities hit an all-time high of around 820,000 in 2013, which represents 4% of the country's total enrollment. Of the number, students from China made up 29%, followed by 12% from India and 9% from South Korea. The number of students from these three countries is roughly half the number of foreign students in the U.S.

     Asian universities face a real test to elevate themselves to the level of their U.S. and European peers. There are plenty of questions to answer, like which came first, the student or the researcher? Asian campuses are trying to hatch more of each -- concurrently.