International Student Mobility in Asia: Where Students Go and Why?
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International student mobility in Asia: Where students go and why?

What's driving the growing trend of Asian student mobility, and how does it compare between regions? Discover the factors influencing students' decisions to study abroad.

International student mobility has been a growing phenomenon in recent decades. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the population of international students increased drastically from 800,000 in 1975 to 4.4 million in 2020. Most students participated in the prevalent westward mobility trend, with the top five destinations (US, UK, Germany, Canada, and Australia) hosting over 40% of the students. Meanwhile, 58% of international students came from Asia. 

In this article, we focus on Asian student mobility and compare the driving forces of two patterns: students choosing universities in other regions (Asian-outward mobility) and within Asia (intra-Asian mobility).

Driving forces of international student mobility

Economic, educational, linguistic, geographical, and technological factors are influential to international student mobility. Economically, students from countries with lower economic development, exemplified by a low GDP per capita, often study abroad to pursue better career prospects. Meanwhile, countries having closer trade relations with their origin countries are also preferred, as more potential job opportunities can be expected. Regarding educational factors, university rankings are impactful on students’ choices. Countries with more universities on world ranking systems are believed to have a higher quality of education and are thus favoured by international students.

Moreover, linguistic and geographical proximity also play a crucial role in their decision-making process. In a digital era, students tend to choose technologically advanced countries for studying abroad. Certain governments also sponsor their young citizens to study in these countries with scholarships, with the intent that they acquire new technical skills and bring this knowledge back home.

What are the driving forces of Asian student mobility?

To understand the effects of these factors on Asian student mobility, we use large secondary data from international organisations, including UNESCO, CEPII, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. For example, we obtain data concerning international students from one country to another from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. In total, we include 74 countries in our analysis. For Asian-outward mobility, we analyse students moving from 26 Asian countries, such as China and India, to 48 countries in other regions. For intra-Asian mobility, we focus on student mobility among the 26 countries. We use negative binomial regression analysis to analyse these data, which puts all potential factors in a model and calculates their correlation with the number of international students.

Based on these data, Asian-outward mobility is mainly driven by the pull factors of the host countries. In other words, advanced technology, better economic development, shared languages, and high-quality education are the primary attraction of host countries to Asian students. Meanwhile, geographical distance does not hinder Asian students from studying in other regions. For these students, the advantageous conditions in the host countries form their primary considerations.

On the other hand, intra-Asian mobility is mostly driven by push factors in the origin countries. That is, unfavourable conditions, such as lower economic development, push students to attend higher education in other Asian countries. At this level, educational and linguistic factors have weaker effects. This implies that the host country’s education quality and language commonality with the students’ home country aren’t the main factors being considered. Rather, economic aspects are key. Anticipating potential job opportunities and career advancements, students are more likely to choose study destinations with robust trade relationships with their home country.

Should Asian governments care about it?

As reported above, while host countries’ attractive conditions primarily drive Asian outward mobility, intra-Asian mobility is mainly pushed by the disadvantageous situations in the origin countries. These differences warn us about the imbalanced dynamics of international student mobility in Asia.

First, we highlight the severe brain drain issue in this region. For ASEAN countries, students participating in outward mobility (93.1%) outnumber their counterparts engaging in mobility between ASEAN countries (6.9%). Moreover, Asian countries are the top sources of international students in many European countries. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports, 59% and 41% of international students in the UK and Germany came from Asia. While most students study in Western countries, Asia faces a crucial brain drain crisis.

Furthermore, intra-Asian mobility also reflects extremely imbalanced patterns. Regional educational hubs are top choices for students in Asia, such as China, Korea, and Japan. Based on the latest data from Japan Student Services Organisation (JASSO), Japan hosted 242,444 international students in 2021, with over 90% coming from other Asian countries. In Korea, Asian students comprised nearly 95% of inbound international students. Meanwhile, for students moving between ASEAN countries, over 80% of them chose Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In this situation, the extent to which countries benefit from intra-Asian mobility differs considerably, as students are highly concentrated in a few destinations.

Way forward!

Considering these observations, we posit that despite the divergence in the Asian-outward and intra-Asian student movement catalysts, the disparities in international student relocation patterns remain consistent. Students generally move towards economically advantageous and technologically advanced countries with well-established higher education systems. Two suggestions are thus made for Asian governments and policymakers. Firstly, as intra-Asian mobility is primarily driven by unfavourable conditions in the countries of origin, Asian governments and regional associations, e.g., ASEAN, must consider the imbalanced nature while developing regional higher education policies. For instance, associations can provide scholarships to encourage ‘horizontal’ and diverse mobility within Asia. In this way, countries may benefit from regional schemes more equally. Secondly, it’s crucial to enhance the overall quality of education and ensure opportunities in this region in order to retain local talents and mitigate the brain drain issue. It may not only mitigate inequalities between countries but also increase the attractiveness of Asian higher education to global talents.

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Journal reference

Huang, Y. H. I., Wu, C. T., Guo, C. Y., & Kang, J. L. (2023). Diversified patterns and future prospects of international student mobility: a multi-level analysis from global and Asian perspectives. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2023.2174083

Yi-Hsuan Irene Huang is a doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. Her research interests include higher education policy and internationalization practices in Asian contexts.