Western immigration restrictions boosting intra-Asian mobility

Students looking closer to home for international education, but immigration rules and price points remain barrier

April 30, 2024
A train on the way to the annual Bishwa Ijtema of Muslims
Source: iStock/Noor Hossain

Recent government policy changes, economic growth and the quality of institutional partners are supporting Asia’s growth as an intra-regional hub for student mobility, a conference has heard.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Asia Universities Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Jazreel Goh, Malaysia director at the British Council, said there had been a “clear market shift from traditional East to West travel towards inter-regional” travel, with countries including Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan gaining popularity as study destinations among Chinese students.

“The increased rankings among Asian universities are making it very, very much easier to look at quality partners and to have global expertise here in the region,” she said.

Despite this shift, Western transnational education (TNE) remains popular, with British courses seeing “double-digit growth” at undergraduate level after the pandemic, and the number of students enrolled in higher education courses internationally (535,000) catching up with the number enrolled in the UK (680,000).

“There has also been much volatility in the market share of international students’ enrolment to traditional main English-speaking destination countries, [whereas] TNE is often seen as a means of stabilising student mobility,” Ms Goh said.

“Tightening of student visa regulations in some of the major destination countries combined with increasingly challenging funding environments are pressurising universities and governments to look to TNE as alternative routes.”

This meant, she continued, that there were significant opportunities for international partnerships between institutions to capitalise on Asian students’ demand for studying closer to home.

Indonesia’s director general of higher education, Abdul Haris, spoke about why the country has opened up to more overseas institutions, with Lancaster University and Deakin University partnering to set up a campus in Bandung.

“TNE has an important role in [the] higher education landscape and also national development,” he said, adding that the government wanted to “increase the quality of higher education”, become more competitive globally and prepare students for working internationally.

Speakers at the event discussed the challenges of TNE in Asia, including navigating the multiple regulatory environments of both the host and the home country, as well as, in the case of branch campuses, being prepared to lose money initially.

Others said limited work rights in some Asian countries were also a barrier to enrolling more students from within the region.

“Previously, we did get quite a number of students from the south Asian region, but that’s one of the ones that has not bounced back [after the pandemic] for us,” said Linley Lord, pro vice-chancellor of Curtin University Singapore.

“Some of that is to do with them going places like the UK for work rights, and there are no work rights for international students in Singapore.”

Similarly, Elizabeth Lee, group chief executive at Sunway Education, said: “In Malaysia, we have very strict immigration laws, and it really is not supporting the overall agenda of the Higher Education Ministry or the Education Ministry, for that matter.

“We just need to relax a lot more and allow students to come in to study and, when they finish, why are we sending these talents away? We should allow them to work in our country.”

Asked about India, where regulations were eased last year to allow more foreign institutions to set up, speakers said that, although there was a lot of opportunity there, the mix of state and national regulations made it complex and financial barriers remained.

“It’s very difficult to find a price point to make it viable,” said Matthew Nicholson, pro vice-chancellor of Monash University Indonesia.

Nevertheless, speakers throughout the event were optimistic about the opportunities for TNE and its potential impact across Asia.

“As TNE continues to expand and evolve in the region, it will likely continue to reshape the landscape of higher education in Asia, pushing boundaries and redefining traditional paradigms of cultural identity and national education frameworks in the process,” Ms Goh said.


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