East Asian universities are gaining more global recognition for quality. The newest edition of QS World University Rankings includes 26 East Asian schools in its top 100, continuing a trend of steady increases in the number of East Asian universities with this status. The 2020 University Ranking by Academic Performance, which primarily measures research citations, also includes four universities in China, two in Singapore, and one university each in Japan and Korea in the global top 50, with most of the schools improving their ranking from the previous year’s.

Primarily hailing from the regional educational powerhouses of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and China, these East Asian universities also face a long-term crisis that they have yet to begin seriously addressing.

The crisis stems from East Asia’s demographic circumstances. The latest data from the World Bank show that these East Asian countries and regions have an average fertility rate below the replacement level of 2.1, with South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore recording the lowest fertility rates at 1.2 or below. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea also lead the world’s advanced economies with the lowest number of births per 1,000 women, with China not far behind. The data points to a near future in which universities in the region battle for fewer local students to fill their classrooms.


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University students wearing Guy Fawkes masks pose for a photoshoot of a graduation ceremony to support anti-government protests at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, in Hong Kong, China October 30, 2019.

The projected decrease in East Asian students is especially threatening to the region’s lower-ranked universities. Top national universities will continue to draw from the best and the brightest local applicants. They will be attended to by local officials keen to ensure that the universities associated with their country’s international reputation have all the financial and human resources they need. But lower-ranked universities, lacking name recognition and government support, are expected to feel increasing financial difficulties as revenues from tuition decline alongside the number of applicants.

The shrinkage of total student numbers is now hitting a university system that has been relentlessly expanding in the past decades. In 50 years, the number of public and private universities in Taiwan has grown almost 20-fold, while university-level enrollment in China increased from less than 20% in 2005 to more than 50% in 2019 through opening new universities and expanding existing ones. In the face of a declining number of youths, the blistering pace of tertiary education expansion cannot be sustained by just relying on students at home.

As a college education has become both increasingly expensive in English-speaking countries, opportunities for attracting more foreign students from the United States and the United Kingdom certainly exist.

But the Global South is a strong candidate to help sustain higher education in East Asia, too. The United Nations notes that sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has an average fertility rate of 4.6 in 2020, more than twice the replacement rate, and four times that of some East Asian states. At the same time, UNESCO data show that the university enrollment rate in the region is only 12%, suggesting a massive gap between demand for higher education and seats at local universities.


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Undergraduate students pose for photos at an old gate of Tsinghua University, in Beijing, China, June 23, 2020.

Of course, for lower-ranked East Asian universities with little name recognition and experience instructing foreign students, suddenly attracting a large international student body will not be easy. African students studying abroad, for instance, will prefer to be educated in Anglophone or Francophone countries where they will have fewer language barriers. And for many students considering studying abroad, the costs of travel and living in a foreign country are currently prohibitive. Building an international reputation and presence will especially be a time and cost-consuming affair for lower-ranked universities that cannot depend on international rankings and media coverage for free advertising.

But despite these difficulties, for East Asian universities to neglect foreign students is not viable. A few obvious policies could be investing in initiatives to target foreign students, including marketing activities geared for specific countries, scholarships for foreign students, and the hiring of foreign scholars and staff to illustrate the global-mindedness of the school environment. Planning such initiatives now will be essential for East Asian universities to maintain their growth as centers of higher learning.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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