International education in the Asia-Pacific is tremendously exciting because the region’s countries are tremendously exciting at this juncture in world history. Student mobility continues to grow. More than half of all cross-border students are from Asia and mobility within Asia is increasing. China, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and others have ambitious targets for further growth.
What explains this growth? And the equally dynamic growth of other forms of internationalisation, including movement of academics, co-publication in research, transnational education? Without fully exploring the research literature on push-pull factors, I want to put forward three explanations.
First, international mobility, cultural engagement and learning in new sites have an attraction for us that cannot be explained simply in terms of cost-benefit. It is more about possible future benefits, or even just future possibilities, than about immediate rewards. We practise internationalisation whether or not we generate revenue from students. We subsidise internationalisation heavily. We lose money on research collaboration, and staff and student travel, but we keep doing them. For their part, many international students don’t know whether their international degree will truly boost their careers, but they go anyway.
Humans have been mobile since they left Africa. It is an adventure that responds to something deep within us. We not only change our conditions, we feed our imaginations and change ourselves through educational mobility. In the past two decades, communications have shrunk the world further. What’s more, travel is cheaper, the mobility industry has grown, and we have more opportunities for these adventures.
Second, and specifically in relation to academic faculty, since the advent of the internet scientific knowledge has become decisively globalised. Most innovations are now sourced from the world science system, not national systems. To access that knowledge early we need to collaborate across borders, learn from colleagues abroad and share our work with them.
Third the growth in numbers is also a function of the growth of educational participation. Some students are always mobile. The size of the pool from which they come is expanding.
The rapid growth of third level education is a feature of all modern societies with per capita incomes of more than $US10,000 ($14,000), and many with per capita incomes of $5000 to $10,000, such as India and Vietnam.
Between 1970 and the early 90s that growth more or less kept pace with the growth of real gross domestic product. Then something changed. Enrolments began to climb much faster than population and the economy.
Worldwide the gross tertiary enrolment ratio is now increasing at 1 per cent a year, 20 per cent in 20 years. Within a generation half of the age cohort, across the world, will enter some kind of tertiary education. This is a staggering change.
Rapid growth of participation is taking place in countries with different rates of economic growth, different industry configurations and demand for skills, different political systems. What these countries have in common is urbanisation, the movement of people from countryside to city.
Tertiary education is largely provided in cities. The growing urban middle classes aspire to a better life for their children through education; and in cities the drive for betterment through education also spreads below the middle classes.
In higher education the traditional Confucian family commitment to education and respect for scholarship has been combined with the American science university and leavened by European influences, all welded together and propelled along the growth path by focused state policy and investment.
East Asian evolution is distinctive and cannot be adequately understood as a subset of Western paths. The political economy is different — for example, state’s supremacy over finance and industry, in keeping with Chinese tradition. The cultural and educational conditions are different. The family drive for education, universal to all socioeconomic layers, underpins the growth of participation.
The willingness of families to support part of the cost of tuition, including extra schooling, prepares students at a high level, and frees up state resources for investment in infrastructure, research and Western comprehensive universities. The East Asian system model in higher education is able to progress rapidly on three goals at the same time: lifting participation, improving quality and growing research.
East Asian effectiveness is stimulating many other countries to look East, as former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad used to say. However, East Asian higher education systems have yet to create a grounded indigenous “idea of a university”. The system is more East than West. The institution is more West than East.
In terms of Programme for International Student Assessment results, East Asian schooling is outstanding, with a high proportion of high-achieving students and a low proportion of low-achieving students.
However, the chief factor in the PISA performance is not schools but the Confucian tradition in the home. My colleague John Jerrim at the University of London reports on a study of the PISA mathematics performance of second-generation East Asian migrant students in Australia. Their average PISA mathematics score sits between Singapore and Shanghai.
These students attend Australian schools, not East Asian ones, but they are from East Asian heritage families. They do as well in PISA as East Asians in East Asia.
In his study of the global implications of the rise of China, Martin Jacques puts the argument that as China becomes stronger, its distinctive cultural identity will become more apparent.
Indigenous traditions are living, breathing traditions that continue to evolve.
In future the balance will change, between Western elements and indigenous Chinese tradition. Will this happen in the higher education sector?
Simon Marginson is professor of international higher education at the Institute of Education at University College London.