Asia’s surprises

Our last blog post dealt with the “educational tsunami” Africa is currently facing. But where does Asia stand by now, after being responsible for most of the doubling of tertiary enrolment worldwide between 2000 and 2015?

Although over half of the new students will still concentrate in this geographical area by 2030, relative growth will be far more modest; what’s more, situations will be very diverse across the region and changes will happen very fast. In several countries, a shrinking student population will cause higher education to be weakened as an economic sector.

As Paxter studies have showed[1], the tertiary enrolment rate primarily depends on a nation’s wealth, as measured by its per capita GDP. As a consequence, the overall number of students depends on both a country’s wealth and number of university-aged young people. So, what happens after a country completes its demographic transition? 

While per capita GDP growth produces a significant rise in the tertiary enrolment rate in low-income countries, in high-income countries this rate tends to reach a ceiling, whose level depends on each country’s culture.

Some Asian countries have already reached the highest tertiary enrolment rate levels. South Korea is one of them, where after peaking at 71% in 2011, student enrolment seems to have stabilised between 67.5% and 68%[2]. The number of available places in each and every tertiary institution, either privately or publicly owned, is indeed set by quotas at government level with the aim of “meeting the social demand”[3]. The South Korean birth rate has been going steadily down and tertiary enrolment has been falling and will continue to fall. To maintain its high-quality level, the government has engaged in restructuring the sector[4], which is largely dominated by private sector actors.

To a lower extent, Japan is also facing a tertiary enrolment decrease, due to the decline in the university-aged population.

This is the case in Singapore as well. Yet, the City-State having positioned itself as a higher education hub, it counts with a great proportion of international students who support the sector. For only 2.2% of the world’s student population pursue higher education overseas[5], according to statistics, turning to international students can nevertheless not be an appropriate answer in bigger countries.

This declining trend in student enrolment is not exclusive to high-income countries: as a matter of fact, some middle-income countries are already there. In Thailand and Malaysia, for example, the birth rate has dropped so fast that the rise in the tertiary enrolment rate caused by per capita GDP growth is not enough to counterbalance the shrinking size of the university-aged population. These examples call for the utmost caution on the part of higher education operators, some of them having made significant investments in these countries already.

So, where will the new Asian students be? In China, economic growth and families investing in education for children that have become scarce are expected to offset the decline in the university-aged population in the coming years, and the higher education sector should continue to grow until 2030. And when it comes to this demographic giant, an increasing trend means huge numbers of new students. The situation is even more surprising in India, where large age groups are meeting strong economic growth: as a result, a third part of the new students worldwide will be Indian by 2030. India is already engaged in a demographic transition process though, as well as other countries that should turn out to be promising markets for higher education in the next 12 years: new students in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Philippines should amount to close to 7 million by 2030.

With its rapid and dramatic demographic transition processes being largely correlated with the rise in the education level of the population, Asia remains the world’s laboratory for demographics, and particularly student demographics. Higher education operators need to be well-informed of the situation in each targeted country, especially when they are considering investing in middle-term projects. Demographic and economic data can sometimes be surprising and turn accepted ideas upside down, making it necessary to go into a detailed analysis of the forecasts.




[3] See

[4] Ibid.


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