Asia’s higher education market heats up

 —  Article by JLL Staff Reporter
university in Hong Kong with students
Image credit: Shutterstock

As Asia’s middle class continues to grow, more and more people are looking to improve their prospects through a university education.

French university INSEAD has been booming in Singapore and has invested $50 million (US$35 million) into expanding its presence in the country, while ESSEC Business School, also from France, recently spent $40 million on a new campus.

The shift towards Asia as the world’s economic superpower has brought with it significant social changes including an increasing demand for higher education. Yet securing quality facilities in Asia is often a challenge for Western universities.

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in Singapore was forced to close its doors this year after being unable to renew its lease and will shift its operations to Hong Kong – a move that has the silver lining of attracting more Chinese students.

John Mortensen, Regional Director Education and Healthcare Greater China, says: “There is a tremendous demand for international education in China. In 2015 there are 690,000 Chinese students studying abroad according to UNESCO, by far the biggest proportion in the world. There are various reasons: access to better jobs, and the demand for internationally experienced graduates from Chinese multinational companies expanding overseas.”

He has helped international universities navigate the difficult terrain of setting up branch campuses in Asia, working with schools such as Duke University, New York University, University of Pennsylvania and the Juilliard School.

“It is a complex process to establish a branch campus,” Mortensen says. “There is a lot of coordination between Government agencies, local academic partners, developers and consultants required. All international higher education ventures in China are joint ventures by law, and the Government is very involved in every aspect of education in China so establishing a mutual understanding of objectives is critical to the long term success of the venture.”

In the Asia Pacific region, relationships that start as joint programs may result in the establishment of a branch campus. Imperial College London recently embarked on a joint venture with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore to open a medical school, for example.

High standards

Campus architecture is a very important aspect of the student experience, both technically and emotionally, Mortensen emphasizes. “When you are dealing with universities that aspire to be the best in research and development, you have got to maintain very high standards in design quality and construction in order for them to meet international standards for research institutions.

“Campus design can have a positive impact on the attitude of the students. It is an important investment in the unique character of a university,” he adds.

However, terms such as “international standard” can be very subjective and will vary from somebody whose experience has been growing up in China to somebody who has grown up in New York. “It is important to quantify at a very early stage in the development what is required as there is a direct impact on budget and schedule,” says Mortensen

Furthermore, Mortensen believes that establishing a shared understanding about objectives early is key to a successful partnership.

“You are dealing with very different cultures, so gaining an understanding of each other’s objectives is a key prerequisite to success,” he says. “Those objectives can be quite diverse as the agendas can be quite complex.

“The drivers encouraging a university to expand overseas are very different to the demand drivers of the domestic university and factors such as demographic changes, government incentives, pedagogical differences and the authority of the accrediting body all have an influence on the form of the new entity.”

Universities also need to have the autonomy to teach their subjects as they would outside of Asia. “All the universities we deal with have had freedom to select the curriculum to teach, and this has been an important factor in their decision to establish a presence in China,” he adds. “The decision to expand into countries with limited freedom of speech and civil rights needs to be carefully managed with university stakeholders. It has been the cause of controversial conflicts in some universities.”

Opportunities on the horizon

As Asia sees growth in its higher education sector, local universities are also muscling up as worthy competitors to Western institutions.

The Chinese government, for instance, is investing a lot of money in universities to bring them in line with global standards. The investment seems to be paying off, with Peking University coming in at number 48 in the latest world university rankings. China has been very public in its desire to have its top universities ranked in the world’s Top 100 list.

China is also no longer just an export market for higher education students. “There has been an increase in students coming into China,” Mortensen notes.

The country is targeting 500,000 foreign students by 2020, up from the current level of 377,000. Many are coming from South Korea, the US, Thailand, Japan and Russia with numbers increasing by around 10 percent per year.”

However, he argues that top international universities should not be losing sleep just yet. “American Ivy League, and British Oxbridge universities are still the favored destinations for overseas students. Foreign applications now constitute over 30 percent at Oxford and Cambridge and 20 percent of Harvard students are from overseas,” he concludes.

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