International Student Migration in Asia

Mizanur RahmanDr Mizan
Research Fellow, ISAS

In the current era of knowledge-based economies, skilled labour is critical to stay competitive and enjoy sustained growth in the developed countries. However, the pool of skilled labour is shrinking and most industrialised countries cannot afford to rely on a local pool of skilled labour due to technological advancements and the first changing economy that require supply of skilled labour from a wide range of areas in a sustained and substantial way. As a result, international student migration is used as a mechanism to attract skilled labour into the developed countries.

In a report released by OECD in 2010, the OECD countries received between 2 to 2.5 million international students from around the world, which corresponds to about 84 per cent of all students studying abroad. In most of the OECD countries, favourable policy measures are undertaken to invite international students and retain them in their labour markets. International education has indeed emerged as a de facto channel of skilled migration in the developed world. This is taking place largely in the context of “two-step migration”, by which migrants are first invited as international students and then retained as highly-skilled long-term workers in a second step.

However, a dramatic change has taken place at the education frontier in Asia. Like the Western countries, the countries in East and Southeast Asia have also realised the importance of foreign students as a source of future skilled labour and adopted an educationally channelled international labour mobility strategy. More and more Asian students now tend to migrate intra-regionally. A number of countries in Asia are now simultaneously student migration destination and source countries. For instance, two major source countries in Asia – China and India – also host a substantial number of international students from the neighbouring countries. According to one estimate, in 2005, 141,000 foreign students predominantly from Asia went to China for higher education. Japan currently hosts around 141,774 foreign students and students from Asia account for 92 per cent of all foreigners studying in Japan. Japan has set goals of having 300,000 foreign students by the year 2020.

In South Korea, there are currently 80,000 foreign students and the government aims to attract 100,000 foreign students by 2012. In Taiwan, approximately 43,000 foreigners are currently studying and the government is aiming to increase the number of foreign students to 100,000 in the next five years. In Malaysia, there are currently around 80,000 foreign students. The need for foreign students is reported in critical sectors. For instance, according to the Institute of Engineers Malaysia, Malaysia needs 200,000 engineers by 2020 but had only 60,000 as at April 2009. The government is planning to leverage this and attract 150,000 foreign students by 2015. Singapore is one of the top foreign student destination countries globally. There were roughly 95,000 foreign students in 2010 and Singapore’s education blueprint aims to attract 150,000 foreign students by 2015.

In an attempt to increase the stock of foreign students, countries in East and Southeast Asia have made international study more attractive through the liberalisation of student visa procedures, reduction of tuition fees and other costs associated with overseas stay, provision of scholarships and education loans, opening of English-taught programmes in countries like Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan, and permission for part-time work while studying including dependents in some countries. Education and migration policies are clearly facilitating the growth in student migration population throughout the region. The current and targeted enrolments of international students have kept on rising in Asia, making a stronger presence within the international education industry.

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