Asian Higher Education Trends

Asia’s spectacular rise in enrollment rates in higher education over the past 20 years has been the subject of many reports. However, this report does not focus on the past to explain this trend. Instead, it looks to the future by examining the different approaches countries are taking to expand their higher education systems for the next generations. On the one hand, higher education systems are growing outwards with the construction of new campuses to enroll more undergraduate students. At the same time, they are reaching upwards with the introduction of more graduate program to ensure a steady supply of qualified professors and researchers. This process of expansion demands innovation in terms of policy and reform and not just greater financial investment. For countries across the region, the aim is not just to accommodate more students. They see higher education as a means to the larger goal of improving the livelihood of individuals and the socio-economic development of their societies.

Distribution of higher education enrolment by programme type, 2011 or most recent year available





Enrolment in higher education has experienced explosive growth across Asia over the last 20 years, the result of high birth rates, increasing school participation rates, and the perceived importance of advanced education in subsequent life opportunities. To accommodate these enrolment increases, higher education systems have had to ‘expand out’ by constructing new universities, hiring new faculty members, and allowing and encouraging the entry of private higher education providers. Faced with escalating demand for instructional staff to serve the expanding number of public universities and the fast-emerging private universities, many countries across the region have needed to ‘expand up’ by introducing graduate programmes to prepare future instructors.

From the perspective of many governments, expanding graduate education has an attractive secondary benefit. Many governments see universities as centers of research that will yield positive economic returns to the country. University research is typically done at the graduate level (Master’s and doctoral). Hence, expanding graduate education is viewed as a means of increasing the economic competitiveness of the country.




As has been the case for the last few years, the most mobile students remain those from Asia, with China, India and South Korea the leading source of international students.4 Almost one in six international students is Chinese, and Asian students account for 53% of all students studying abroad.5 Not all of these students travel far: Japan and Korea have high numbers of international students from neighbouring countries: 81% of international students in Japan and 75% in Korea come from other East Asian countries.6 British students remain much less likely to study abroad than students of other European countries, with 6% percent spending some or all of their time working for a degree in a university overseas


Higher education across much of Asia is a remarkable success story. It enjoys a high level of government support. Leaders understand that higher education is an important ingredient in the economic and social development of their countries. They recognize that the globalization of markets, the interdependency of international financial systems, the expanded role of technology, and high-speed communications have created an enormous need for highly skilled technical, professional, and managerial leaders. They understand that modern economies cannot be managed by only primary and secondary school graduates. Evidence of this support is quite tangible: Enrollments have grown, participation in higher education has diversified, new universities have been created, and universities are experimenting with new forms of instructional delivery.



At the same time, higher education across the region faces a set of interwoven challenges. Many higher education institutions (HEIs) in Asia are coping with explosive enrollment growth; shortages of qualified instructional staff; widespread concern over instructional quality; and, in many cases, severe financial constraints. These issues are interwoven, and their solutions are interdependent. Efforts to address any one problem need to be undertaken with attention to the larger constellation of issues.


East Asia and the Pacific

The East Asia and the Pacific region is expected to exceed enrolments of 100 million students between 2020 and 2021, and to exceed enrolments of 200 million between 2033 and 2034. By 2035, 42% of global enrolments (or 212.9 million enrolments) will be from this region, a sharp contrast to the 25% proportion it attained back in 2000.

China will remain the country in the world with the highest number of studentsenroled in higher education by 2035 (anywhere between 20% and 30% of the world’s total). Other countries projected to have large numbers of enrolments by 2035 are Indonesia (world’s top 10), and Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines (all three in the world’s top 20).

South and West Asia

Interestingly, the region that will stand out in around 20 years is South and West Asia. In 2000 the region had 12 million enrolments – or a share of 12% globally, increasing to 21.4 million enrolments by 2009 (a global share of 13%).

By 2035 it is likely that South and West Asia will have about 125 million enrolments in higher education – a global share of 24%, making it the region with the second highest number of enrolments. In part the growth in importance of this region is associated with the size of its population and its economic development, which is second to East Asia and the Pacific.

India will remain in second place in terms of the number of enrolments. Iran and Bangladesh are expected to be in the world’s top 10, whereas Pakistan is expected to be in the world’s top 20.

The Twelfth Five Year Plan’s recommendation on ‘Higher Education’ from a private sector perspective and suggests strategies for quality improvement in higher education. With the objectives and proposals of the plan as the basis, the report cites that the private sector has played an active role in the growth of the sector. Private institutions now account for 64% of the total number of institutions and 59% of enrollment in the country, as compared to 43% and 33%, respectively, a decade ago. The Indian Government has also given the required thrust to the sector in its Five Year Plans. During the Eleventh Plan period (2007–2012), India achieved a Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) of 17.9%, up from 12.3% at the beginning of the plan period.


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