Influenced by globalisation at the beginning of the 21st century, Southeast Asia has experienced a remarkable development of student mobility: the number of Southeast Asian students studying abroad is increasing significantly, and the number of international students in Southeast Asia is gradually increasing. While the benefits of student mobility programs are clear, Southeast Asian countries face several challenges when trying to develop them further.
Southeast Asian countries rank among the top 25 countries of origin for international students studying in the United States, including Vietnam (8), Indonesia (19), Thailand (20), and Malaysia (24). By 2011, these four countries, plus the Philippines, accounted for 214,000 students, primarily studying in the US, the UK and Australia.
The increase in student mobility also results from international cooperative education programs via franchising and twinning agreements, and branch campuses between Southeast Asian countries and foreign higher education institutions. There are- currently 25 branch campuses in Southeast Asia: one in Indonesia, six in Malaysia, 13 in Singapore, three in Thailand, and two in Vietnam.
Southeast Asia is not only sending its students abroad, but it has also developed national academic systems to attract foreign students. Owing to their ambition to use English as a medium of instruction in higher education, and relatively low tuition fees and living costs, Southeast Asian countries have gained momentum in the global student market competition. Leading countries such as Singapore and Malaysia have aimed to become regional education hubs; they have also become education exporters. According to the Guardian, Singapore welcomed 52,959 international students from 120 countries in 2014. Similarly, Malaysia had 63,625 international students from 160 nations. Singapore and Malaysia ranked among the top 20 destination countries for international students. The majority of international students studying in Southeast Asia are from Southeast Asia, South Korea, China, and India.
The flow of international students from Western countries to Southeast Asia, though small (approximately 5,000), has also gradually increased in the last few years. These students are primarily American, Australian, and British, and are coming to emerging and developed Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. In addition, Southeast Asia has also experienced an influx of international students from Middle Eastern countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the US adopted a more restrictive visa policy toward applicants from Middle Eastern countries. Consequently, the flow from some Islamic countries into Southeast Asia has gradually increased. Iran accounted for 21.44% of more than 61,000 international students in the Philippines in 2012. In Malaysia, recruiters have widened their market search for international students, actively targeting countries in the Middle East.
The above-mentioned growth of student mobility is proof of the success of governments and higher education institutions in these countries in the internationalised higher education market. However, Southeast Asian countries encounter challenges that hinder them from reaping advantages, and from continuing to develop transnational education programmes.
Periphery. The peripheral status of Southeast Asia in knowledge production is the most significant challenge, and is considered the root of other challenges. In fact, not many Southeast Asian countries have been primary producers of new scientific knowledge and cutting-edge technologies.
Among the list of top 500 research universities listed by the Academic Ranking of World Universities, only two Southeast Asian universities — both from Singapore — have ever appeared on the list.
Since the ranking focuses on research productivity and prestigious awards for outstanding research, this fact reveals that higher education institutions in Southeast Asia are remarkably peripheral in expanding the borders of knowledge and in contributing to knowledge production. The peripheral standing of higher education institutions in Southeast Asia also makes the institutions of the region less attractive for study abroad. For example, Southeast Asian students are less likely to go to other Southeast Asian countries for a degree or even an exchange program. Instead of selecting higher education institutions within the region, many wealthy families from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia attempt to send their children to English-speaking institutions outside the region for an international degree. This is a problem for institutions in Southeast Asia, since they tend to lose the best or the richest students to foreign institutions.
Brain-drain. In the last few decades, statistics show that most students move from East to West and from non-English-speaking countries to English-speaking countries. Also, many successful professors and academic staff currently working in the US, the UK, Australia, or Japan are coming from Southeast Asia. This is brain drain, and though the issue of brain drain varies among Southeast Asian countries, it poses a real challenge for them. The more developed countries in the region, such as Singapore, tend not to lose their best and brightest to Japan or Western countries. However, for other countries with institutions of lower academic quality, the fact that most of their bright students and outstanding academics go to study or work at foreign institutions represents a loss of human and financial resources to create and develop their own reputable universities. A majority of the more able students and productive academics from Vietnam are studying or working outside their home country. For instance, nearly 100% of the brightest high school graduates from the best high schools in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City go abroad for undergraduate education. Similarly, most of the Vietnamese students who achieved medals in the International Mathematical Olympiads are working as academics in developed countries.
English as a Language Barrier. The fact that English is not the official language of instruction and publication in many countries in the region is another obstacle to attracting international students and to participating in the broader scientific community. With the exception of Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand, most universities in the region offer very few courses in English. This is one reason why few international students come to those institutions for exchange programs, let alone a degree. If the effort to provide more courses in English at an acceptable cost is not successful, it is foreseeable that universities where English is not a language of instruction will not become attractive places for a large pool of international students. It is crucial that the countries of Southeast Asia recognise the challenges described in this article.
Clearly, they should frame higher education policies in order to overcome the challenges to reduce negative impacts and improve quality and educational effectiveness. This is a way to improve their level of higher education and increase their contributions to social development.
This article was originally published in International Higher Education, No. 84, Winter 2016.
DUY N. PHAM
Duy N. Pham is a doctoral student in research, educational measurement and psychometrics, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
THU. T. DO
Thu T. Do is a doctoral student in higher education administration, Saint Louis University.