Minister of Education and Culture Nadiem Makarim inaugurating the official opening of Monash University, Indonesia, on 14 April. (Photo: Monash University Indonesia Community/ Facebook)

Minister of Education and Culture Nadiem Makarim inaugurating the official opening of Monash University, Indonesia, on 14 April. (Photo: Monash University Indonesia Community/ Facebook)

ASEAN’s Consumers on the Move: Tertiary Education

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ASEAN’s growing consumer market for tertiary education is an encouraging trend that has potential upsides for future regional development. ASEAN’s demand for university qualifications will create opportunities for foreign and local institutions to set up more regional branches.

The recent launch of Monash University Indonesia marked an important milestone for higher education development in Indonesia. For decades, Indonesia’s higher education sector was effectively ‘nationalised’, with government entities in charge of standardisation and accreditation of universities. The move to allow a foreign university to establish an international campus branch signals Jakarta’s full support for international players to start providing quality tertiary educational options for the archipelago’s growing young population.

The presence of foreign universities is not new in Southeast Asia. Before Indonesia, Monash University had established a campus branch in Malaysia in 1998. Another prominent Australian university, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), launched a campus branch in Vietnam in 2000. UK institutions such as the University of Nottingham, the University of Southampton, and Heriot-Watt University also have presences in Southeast Asia, although most of them are concentrated in Malaysia — one of the first countries in the region to fully embrace the internationalisation of higher education

Due to affluence driving demand for higher education, Southeast Asia has seen a proliferation of international campus branches in the region (Table 1). According to a projection by the United Overseas Bank (UOB), 65 per cent of the region’s population is expected to be middle class by 2030, with 60 per cent of this group under the age of 35. Domestic universities might not be fast enough in expanding to accommodate the corresponding increase in demand for quality education, which has risen not only for undergraduate enrolment but also for postgraduate education.

Table 1. Foreign University Branch Campuses in Southeast Asia (selected)

UniversityLocationYear EstablishedCountry of Origin
Monash University MalaysiaSelangor, Malaysia1998Australia
Curtin UniversitySarawak, Malaysia1999Australia
The University of Nottingham MalaysiaKuala Lumpur, Malaysia2000UK
University of Southampton, Malaysia CampusJohor, Malaysia2011UK
Heriot-Watt University MalaysiaPutrajaya, Malaysia2012UK
Xiamen University Malaysia CampusSepang, Malaysia2013China
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT)Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Danang, Vietnam2000Australia
James Cook University SingaporeSingapore2003Australia
INSEAD Asia CampusSingapore2000France
ESSEC International Business School Asia-PacificSingapore2005France
Monash University IndonesiaJakarta, Indonesia2021Australia
Source: Author’s compilation from various reports (non-exhaustive)

In addition to filling the gaps in the provision of higher education in the host country, the presence of foreign universities can open up avenues for international research collaboration, technology transfer, and employment opportunities for locals. In his meeting with the President of Monash University Indonesia, President Joko Widodo expressed hope that the new university would strengthen partnerships with other Indonesian universities, companies, and government institutions, as well as assist Indonesia’s human resource development and digital transformation.

At least prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Southeast Asians were increasingly venturing into the world for their university enrolment. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), Vietnam, the highest contributor of outbound tertiary students among ASEAN countries, recorded a 16 per cent increase in students studying abroad, from 108,301 in 2018 to 126,059 in 2019. Similarly, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines recorded 7-25 per cent increases during the same period.

Table 2. Outbound Flow of Southeast Asian Tertiary Students

Origin Country Number of Outbound Tertiary Students in 2019* Top Three Destinations**
Brunei1,988UK (47.6%) Australia (19.6%) Malaysia (8.1%)
Cambodia6,983Australia (24.9%) Thailand (22.2%) US (10.3%)
Indonesia53,604Australia (25.9%) Malaysia (15.7%) US (14.9%)
Laos8,234Vietnam (83.7%) Thailand (11.5%) Australia (4.0%)
Malaysia59,144Australia (27.2%) UK (23.8%) US (13.0%)
Myanmar12,818Japan (26.0%) Thailand (21.0%) US (14.8%)
Philippines22,709Australia (41.1%) US (14.9%) Canada (7.2%)
Singapore23,456Australia (33.1%) UK (29.0%) US (17.6%)
Thailand32,607Australia (23.5%) UK (19.4%) US (18.5%)
Vietnam126,059Japan (32.2%) US (20.6%) Australia (13.8%)
Sources: * http://data.uis.unesco.org/#
** http://uis.unesco.org/en/uis-student-flow#slideoutmenu

As Table 2 illustrates, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan are the top beneficiaries of Southeast Asia’s growing demand for foreign tertiary education. This trend partially corresponds with the findings on consumer preferences for tertiary education in the State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, which listed the US (25.6%), UK (20.8%), and any EU member state (12.0%) as the top three favourite study destinations among survey respondents. 

Although the US is the top preference for outbound tertiary students in Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam (Table 3), the US is, in fact, not the top study destination for those countries (Table 2). This shows that there are potential accessibility issues such as tougher standardised test and visa requirements, longer travel distances, and higher costs, facing Southeast Asian applicants. Nevertheless, the attractiveness of the US as a study destination is unsurprising, as nine out of the 20 top universities in the QS World University Rankings 2022 are US universities. Demand clearly outstrips the number of available places for aspiring Southeast Asian students, given the competitiveness of the US college admissions process.

ASEAN can leverage on the growing regional consumer demand for quality tertiary education to achieve its vision of regional integration.

Australia is therefore the leading study destination of Cambodian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Filipino, Singaporean, and Thai students (Table 2), despite not being their top preference for tertiary education (Table 3). Australia’s tertiary education branding is effective: its research-oriented universities, generous temporary graduate student visas, and part-time employment allowances during the academic year, as well as close proximity to home make it an attractive and practical study destination choice for many Southeast Asians.

Table 3. Preference for Tertiary Education: ‘Which country would be your first choice if you (or your child) were offered a scholarship to a university?’

Country/RegionTop Three Choices
ASEANUS (25.6%) UK (20.8%) an EU member state (12.0%)
BruneiUK (60.4%) Japan (9.4%) an ASEAN member state (9.4%)
CambodiaChina (34.6%) US (17.3%) an EU member state (12.3%) an ASEAN member state (12.3%)
IndonesiaAn EU member state (19.1%) US (18.3%) UK (11.5%)
LaosJapan (27.3%) US (15.9%) Australia (15.9%) UK (11.4%)
MalaysiaUS (26.7%) UK (20.7%) Australia (13.3%)
MyanmarUS (35.1%) UK (18.6%) Australia (12.9%)
PhilippinesUS (29.5%) an EU member state (19.3%) Japan (14.2%)
SingaporeUS (45.9%) UK (28.4%) an EU member state (8.1%)
ThailandUK (26.5%) US (25.6%) China (13.7%)
VietnamUS (34.0%) an EU member state (18.1%) UK (12.5%)
Source: The State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey Report, ISEAS‑Yusof Ishak Institute

The trend for intra-ASEAN student mobility also looks promising. Vietnam is the top study destination for Laotian students, while Thailand is the second choice for Cambodian, Laotian, and Burmese students. Malaysia is the second and third choice of study destination for Indonesian and Bruneian students respectively (Table 2).

To increase intra-ASEAN student mobility and provide quality tertiary education, the ASEAN University Network (AUN) was established in 1995 to encourage regional higher education institutions to collaborate. So far, the AUN has had only modest achievements. It has facilitated the exchange of information, promoted cooperation among ASEAN scholars and academics, and enhanced research collaboration with ASEAN dialogue partners. However, structural adjustments facilitating regional student exchanges such as allowing seamless credit transfers and joint-degree programmes have not been implemented. Studies have pointed out that the main challenge is not the lack of political support from the regional governments but administrative challenges such as budget constraints and differences in curricula and academic schedules across countries.

ASEAN can leverage on the growing regional consumer demand for quality tertiary education to achieve its vision of regional integration. As ASEAN needs to increase efforts to realise its vision of a single-market regional bloc with freer flows of goods and services, encouraging tertiary education within the region will go some way towards providing ASEAN with the high-quality human capital it needs to sustain the region’s industrial base. A practical first step is to provide much needed integrated and industry-ready education programmes in its universities, and to encourage its youth to partake in them.

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