Developing International Education Hubs in Asia

Facing demographic challenges, or looking to retool and grow their economies, a number of countries across Asia have been competing over the last decade to attract the best students and, in some cases, the best universities from around world to develop as regional higher education hubs in a bid to drive innovation and economic growth.

Singapore is often credited with beginning the Asian education-hub trend with the 2002 launch of its “Global Schoolhouse” initiative, but other countries such as Malaysia have long been active in the transnational education realm and have international campuses and programs with similar histories to those found in Singapore. More recently, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea have announced their regional education hub goals, and have since begun implementation.

The following discussion looks at the varying degrees of success each country in meeting their goals or in implementing their plans.

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Singapore launched its “Global Schoolhouse” initiative in 2002 with a goal of developing the educational offerings available to local and international students, and also as a means of improving the city-state’s human resource base in line with the economic and industrial development efforts of the government’s Economic Development Board [2] (EDB). With the announcement of its Global Schoolhouse initiative, Singapore became a standard bearer for other international education hub initiatives within the region.

At the time of the announcement in 2002, one clearly stated and oft-quoted goal was to have 150,000 international students enrolled in Singapore by 2015. While there are many successes of the Global Schoolhouse initiative to point to, enrollments appear to have come up short, sliding to about 50% of the goal last year.  As of July 2014, there were about 75,000 international student pass holders in Singapore, according to figures from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. The number stood at 84,000 in 2012 with 68 percent enrolled at the tertiary level and 52 percent in public institutions. In 2010, there were more than 90,000 international students in Singapore.

A number of different factors help explain the drop off in enrollments. One is increasing competition from neighbors such as Malaysia, which offer plenty of international degree programs at a much lower cost. A recent survey [3] by HSBC ranked Singapore as the second most expensive place among 15 destinations for foreign undergraduates. A foreigner will spend an average of US$39,229 a year studying in Singapore, second only to Australia, and more expensive that the United States, which averages US$36,564 per year according to the study. This has been exacerbated in recent years by a strong Singapore dollar.

Despite the fall in international enrollments, students in Singapore can choose from a wide and impressive array of educational offerings. Domestic institutions such as the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University rank among the top 100 in the world. Meanwhile, Singapore plays host to 11 foreign branch campuses and has a number of joint degree and departmental partnerships with prestigious international institutions, often lured with generous government start-up loans. It is also home to over 80 international primary and secondary schools, with many more planned to meet demand from a growing number of expat workers.

A Business Focus

Given its position as a regional commercial and financial hub, it is no great surprise that there are plentiful education offerings in business and management fields from leading international and domestic institutions in Singapore. These include:

Major International University Collaborations

The National University of Singapore, already ranked among the best universities in the world, has been elevating its international profile by partnering with prestigious U.S. universities. The Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School [14] opened in 2005 with funding from the Singapore government as part of the NUS system with curriculum patterned after that of the Duke School of Medicine. And, more recently in 2012, the Yale-NUS College [15] was inaugurated, with classes beginning in fall 2013. The college offers four-year, U.S. style liberal arts undergraduate programs as part of the NUS system.

The Singapore Institute of Technology  [16](SIT) was established in 2009 as the country’s fifth public autonomous university-level institution to provide an industry-focused university education for polytechnic leavers. It has partnered with 10 international institutions to offer a broad range of degree programs. After the passage of the SIT Act in 2014, it also began offering its own applied degrees last year. SIT’s international partners are: DigiPen Institute of Technology (game development), University of Liverpool (criminology and security), Culinary Institute of America (culinary arts), Glasgow School of Art (BA), Newcastle University (engineering), Technical University of Munich (IT), Glasgow University (engineering), Trinity College Dublin (health sciences), Manchester University (nursing), Wheelock College (early childhood education).

The Singapore University of Technology and Design [17] (SUTD) was founded as an autonomous public university in 2009 and similar to SIT has partnered with international universities to build its academic offerings. It was established in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Zhejiang University.

LASALLE College of the Arts [18] and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts [19] (NAFA) are private institutions providing post-secondary education in the arts, and offering publicly funded diploma programs in partnership with UK universities.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (SMART [20] Singapore research center, 2007) and Britain’s Imperial College are among other foreign institutions that are collaborating with local Singapore universities to offer joint academic programs.

The University of Newcastle, [21] Australia offers programs through two local partner academies, PSB and BCA. PSB has numerous other Australian and UK partners with which it offers degree programs.

Full-Fledged International Branch Campuses

In addition to international partnership agreements and single-discipline campuses, there are a number of comprehensive international campuses with operations in Singapore.

James Cook University [22] (Australia) has been operating in Singapore since 2003 as a standalone campus offering a full range of programs from bachelor to PhD.

Curtin University [23] (Australia) has operated a standalone campus since 2008 after offering programs in Singapore since 1986. It runs bachelor and master’s programs, in addition to English language programs.

The Technical University of Munich-Asia [24] has a standalone campus through which it offers its own degrees and joint mater’s degrees in partnership with the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University. It also offers bachelor programs through the Singapore Institute of Technology.

Branch Closures

New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts ended operations this year due to financial constraints after opening in 2007. The future of the University of Las Vegas Singapore [25], which opened in 2006, is somewhat unclear, but media reports suggest that it is getting ready to halt enrollments at the end of this year in favor of a new Macau location.

The University of New South Wales closed in 2007 after operating for just one semester. A year before UNSW’s demise, a research partnership with the US-based Johns Hopkins University also ended, reportedly because of disagreements over the level of government subsidies.

Franchise Offerings

In 2013, around 50,000 students studied for a UK transnational education (TNE) qualification in Singapore, largely on a franchised model at local private colleges. Overall, there are more than 1,200 UK qualifications available to study at over 120 private education institutions there. This makes Singapore second in the world after Malaysia for the sheer number of UK TNE qualifications on offer.

Currently there are close to 1,250 degree programs offered in Singapore by foreign providers in collaboration with private providers, and total of more than 3,200 postsecondary programs of all levels.


After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, there was a two- to three-year decline in the number of international students heading to the United States. While overall growth in international enrollments returned in the second half of the decade, many students of Muslim faith, especially from the Middle East who found the United States less welcoming as a study destination, began exploring options in Malaysia due to its cultural affinity as a majority Muslim country.

With many private colleges offering foreign degree programs through transnational provision for a fraction of the cost, Malaysia quickly became a gateway to an affordable foreign education. Spotting an opportunity, the Malaysian government began actively promoting the country as an education destination beginning in the mid-2000s.

According to Malaysian news reports, the Ministry of Higher Education aims to attract at least 200,000 international students to higher education institutions in the country by 2020. In 2012, international enrollments in Malaysia stood at more than 90,000.

In addition to a large number of private Malaysian colleges that offer foreign credentials through franchise, validation and articulation agreements (58,000 students in Malaysia are studying for UK tertiary credentials alone), there are a growing number of international universities with physical operations in the Southeast Asian nation. Some of these are being recruited to two purpose-built education free zones, while others have had operations in Malaysia for well over a decade.

Standalone International Branch Campuses Since 1998

Monash University, Malaysia [26] was the first foreign university to establish a branch campus in Malaysia in 1998, after an invitation by Malaysia’s Ministry of Education to collaborate with Sunway Education Group in the suburbs of the capital Kuala Lumpur. The university enrolls 6,000 students from 70 countries and offers degrees in the areas of arts and social sciences, business, engineering, information technology, medicine and health sciences, and science.

Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak is a comprehensive standalone university that opened in temporary premises in 1999 before moving to a purpose-built campus in the northern suburbs of Sarawak where it enrolls close to 4,500 students. It offers diploma and degree programs up to the doctoral level in commerce, arts, engineering & science and media, culture & communication.

Swinburne University of Technology [27], Sarawak opened its campus a year after Curtin University in 2000. Like Curtin, it came to Malaysia at the invitation of the Sarawak government and operates as a comprehensive standalone institution, offering programs to 2,500 students from the foundation level through to PhD in the areas of business, design, engineering, information and communication technology, computer science.

The University of Nottingham [28] began operations in 2000 and was the first UK institution to set up a campus in Malaysia. It opened a purpose-built campus in Semenyih on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in 2005 and now enrolls 4,500 students from 70 different countries. The University offers 80 programs in 17 schools from the foundation level through to PhD in a broad range of fields.

Scotland’s Herriot-Watt University [29] opened a new purpose-built campus in Putrajaya last year, with space for up to 4,000 students, and an initial enrollment of 500 undergraduate and graduate students. The university will focus on programs in science, engineering, business, mathematics and design.

India’s Manipal University has operated its Melaka Manipal Medical College [30] in Malaysia since 1997 and in 2013 inaugurated Manipal International University [31] in Nilai on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The campus has capacity for 2,000 students and offers degrees at the undergraduate level in business, accounting, engineering and science.

Ireland’s Royal College of Surgeons [32] has been offering undergraduate and graduate medical degrees in partnership with Penang Medical College since 1996.

Other international universities that are slated to open branch campuses in Malaysia include Egypt’s Al-Azhar University [33] and China’s Xiamen University [34]. Xiamen is currently building a campus on the outskirts of Putrajaya. The campus, China’s first internationally, is scheduled for completion by the end of the year and will reportedly have capacity for 10,000 students. According to recent media reports [35], Shanghai Jiao Tong University also has approval to establish a campus, which is slated for a 2018 opening in Sarawak.

Education Free Zones

Strategically located close to the border with Singapore, the 350-acre campus at Educity Iskandar [36] is part of a huge 550,000-acre economic corridor three times the size of neighboring Singapore and comprised of five ‘zones.’ EduCity resides in the Nusajaya Zone and is currently home to six international universities, including three from the UK.

Newcastle University, Medicine Malaysia [37] began operations in 2008, moving to Iskandar in 2011. NUMed is Newcastle University’s first branch campus abroad, offering undergraduate degrees in medicine and biomedical sciences, as well as opportunities for graduate study. The university projects enrollment of 1,000 students by 2017.

The University of Southampton [38] opened in 2012 with a small initial enrollment in shared premises. A standalone campus is slated to open in 2019, with enrollment projected at 1,100 students. The university currently offers undergraduate degrees in a number of engineering fields taught for two years in Malaysia and two years in the UK.

The University of Reading [29] is also in the process of building a new campus in Iskandar, which is readying for completion this fall. It will have an initial intake of 500 students with an eventual capacity of about 2,000. Undergraduate and graduate degrees are being developed to include programs in real estate, construction, finance, law, chemistry and pharmacy.

The Netherlands Maritime Institute of Technology [39] began teaching in 2011 at a temporary campus just outside Iskandar, and moved to its permanent campus at EduCity in 2012. Jointly owned by Dutch and Malaysian partners, NMIT offers diploma, bachelor and master’s programs in transport, shipping, seafaring, maritime and logistics management. The school currently enrolls over 1,500 students.

Raffles University [40], Malaysia is part of a large Southeast Asian private education group, with initial operations out of Singapore and current operations in 12 countries across 31 colleges. In 2012, the Group launched Raffles University Iskandar – its first standalone university – and Raffles American School in Iskandar. The university currently operates from temporary premises, with a permanent campus currently under construction and a targeted capacity of 5,000 students. The university offers undergraduate and graduate degrees focused on business and design.

Malaysia’s Multimedia University [41] began offering a cinematic undergraduate arts degree in cooperation with the University of Southern California from its branch campus in Iskandar in 2014.

The Management Development Institute of Singapore [42] is currently building a campus in EduCity, which it projects will have the capacity to house 10,000 students by 2023. It has been operating from temporary premises in Johor since 2013. The institute offers a range of diploma programs in business, media, IT and tourism.

In addition to the tertiary-level institutions noted above, EduCity is also host to a couple of international secondary schools, including Raffles American School and the UK’s prestigious Marlborough College [43] which is currently in its third year of operations with an enrollment of 750 pupils.

Kuala Lumpur Education City (KLEC), in Malaysia’s most populous city, was launched by the government in 2007 as a 15- to 20-year project that would be privately led. Currently under development, KLEC has two locations planned in the Kuala Lumpur area. One is downtown near the Petronas Towers, and the other is near Putra Jaya, the government center about 15 miles outside of the city.

Envisioned in some reports as a regional education hub and in others as international in scope, it reportedly will bring foreign and local universities together, along with primary and secondary schools, with an expected student population of about 30,000.


In early 2011, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-Jeou stated in a major speech that the country would be moving to establish itself as an international hub for higher education in East Asia. The government is targeting students from mainland China and Southeast Asia in particular, with the aim of internationalizing university campuses and countering the effects of a shrinking college-age population.

A ban on Chinese students attending Taiwan’s universities was lifted in 2010. By 2014, there were close to 6,000 Chinese students attending Taiwanese universities, despite a number of restrictive employment and field-of-study conditions.

Due to demographic pressures brought on by a low national birth rate, Taiwan’s universities have been dealing with the realities of declining enrollments.  This has led to predictions that almost 28 percent of the island’s 164 colleges of higher education could close by 2021 for lack of students. This is one clear motivating factor behind the administration’s drive to recruit more international students. Also cited by President Ma during his 2011 speech at the Commonwealth Economic Forum in Taipei was the desire to bring in tuition revenue and expand the country’s soft power and influence in the world through ‘student ambassadors.’

Citing estimates by international consultancies, he said Taiwan had the potential to attract some 160,000 foreign students, mostly from Chinese-speaking countries or from countries with large Chinese-speaking populations by 2020. This would make up 10 percent of the total student population. There were close to 58,000 foreign students in the island nation at the time of Ma’s 2011 speech. By 2014, that number had risen to over 92,000, representing 59 percent growth in three years, which if maintained would easily meet the government’s 2020 enrollment goal.

International-Student-Enrollment-2007-2014 [44]

Taiwan has become popular as a destination for countries looking to train their educators, with India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam providing government scholarships for academics and teachers to study in Taiwan. Taiwan has  also long been a popular destination for Malaysian students from Chinese-medium schools, attracted in part by a generous Taiwanese scholarship program and the ability to study in Chinese.

The government’s Study in Taiwan [45] website lists a number of initiatives that have been undertaken to attract more international students in recent years. These include:

Legislation Aimed at Luring International Branch Campuses to Free Economic Zones

There are currently no international branch campuses in Taiwan due to laws that restrict their establishment. The government is currently looking to enact legislation that would amend Taiwan’s University Act to allow foreign-owned campuses in new Free Economic Pilot Zones. These campuses, the government hopes, would serve as a draw for increased numbers of foreign students.

Under current laws, foreign institutions can offer degree and professional programs in collaboration with local institutions only. One such example is Chief Academy in Taipei, which offers joint degree programs (1+3) from a number of U.S. universities, including: California State University, San Bernardino; Baruch College; University of Southern Florida; Kent State University; Troy University, University of Tennessee at Martin; the University of New Mexico; Silicon Valley University; and the University of Scranton

Hong Kong

Hong Kong has been working since 2008 to promote itself as an international education hub, based primarily on its strategic location as a gateway to mainland China. Marketing materials used by the government’s higher education promotional agency, Study in Hong Kong [46], note the following benefits of studying in Hong Kong:

To support its goals of becoming a regional hub for international students, Hong Kong doubled quotas for international students (including those from mainland China) at public institutions of education from 10 percent to 20 percent in 2008. The city has also relaxed work-related restrictions to allow international students to take part-time jobs and to stay for up to 12 months after graduation to look for permanent work. And, if they find work, they can now apply for a work permit to stay in Hong Kong. After seven years, they can apply for residency.

The territory has also established a US$160 million scholarship fund, which provides scholarships to top international students of US$10,260 each. This is in addition to a separate PhD fellowships scheme. The territory also points to its ambitions to welcome international institutions to set up campuses.

Majority of ‘International’ Enrollments from the Mainland

However, while the proportion of non-local students enrolling at Hong Kong’s universities grew to 14 percent by the 2011-12 academic year, eight out of 10 came from the mainland. That number has stayed fairly consistent. At the degree level in 2013/14, there were 14,510 (9,000 undergrad) non-local students enrolled in Hong Kong’s universities, double the number in 2007/08, and up from 10,770 in 2011/12. Of the 2013/14 total, almost 11,000 (76%) were from mainland China, 2,100 from other countries in Asia, and just 600 from the rest of the world.

Across all tertiary education sectors, the territory welcomed over 30,000 international students in 2013/14 from more than 70 countries, up from 26,600 in 2012/13 and 9,300 in 2009/10. One of the main challenges the government and local universities face in promoting the city as a study destination comes from a chronic shortage of student accommodation, and a lack of real estate to establish new premises.

International Programs Largely Offered By Local Institutions

Although there are just two foreign branch campuses currently operating in Hong Kong, there are close to 1,200 programs being offered by institutions outside Hong Kong through local institutions and leading to the award of a non-local higher academic or professional qualifications. Total enrollment in these transnational programs is approximately 38,000 or 13 percent of total domestic and international students. Among programs being offered, 69 percent are from the UK, 16 percent from Australia, 8 percent from the U.S. and Canada, 5 percent from mainland China and 2 percent from other countries (Oct 2013). Over 30,000 students alone are studying for a UK qualification in Hong Kong on over 700 programs [47].

Currently, there is just one full-fledged international branch campus in Hong Kong, the Savannah College of Art and Design [48]. The school has been offering a range of BFA and MFA programs specializing in digital media from a converted courthouse since 2010, reportedly [49] attracted to the territory by a 10-year lease deal from the government at a cost of one Hong Kong dollar (restoration costs of US$13 million notwithstanding).

The University of Chicago Booth School of Business offers an EMBA from a temporary campus with a permanent one slated for completion in 2017. The Manchester Business School has been offering a range of MBA and EMBA programs from the East Asia International Centre since 1992, while Canada’s Ivey School of Business at Western University offers EMBA programs at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Upper Iowa University has been running a small campus since 2006, offering BSc programs in management, marketing, psychology and financial management.

South Korea

There are two projects currently under development in South Korea that are vying to become regional hubs for education. On the outskirts of Seoul, developers are working to attract a cluster of international schools and universities to establish campuses in Songdo International Business District as part of a new sustainable city in the Incheon Free Economic Zone [50].

The Incheon Global Campus [51] plans to host 10 universities by 2025, and is currently home to four. Last year, Belgium’s Ghent University [52] and the US’s University of Utah [53] held opening ceremonies. They joined Stony Brook University [54] (2012) from the State University of New York system and George Mason University [55] (2014) as part of the ‘global campus.’

Ghent University, one of Belgium’s top-rated higher education institutions, will cater to some 900 domestic and international undergraduate students, before opening a graduate school in 2018, while the University of Utah will offer classes in psychology, journalism and social welfare to around 270 undergraduate and graduate students. George Mason Korea has capacity for some 2,000 students and currently offers undergraduate programs in economics, global affairs and management. SUNY Stony Brook offers degrees, bachelor through doctorate, in technology-related fields in addition to mechanical engineering. Students attending the Songdo institutions have the opportunity to spend part of their programs at the universities’ main campuses overseas.

In its bid to attract top universities and keep Korean students in the country, regulations on foreign universities in Songdo were eased last year. In addition, the government announced that it would provide subsidies to top universities willing to set up campuses in Songdo. George Mason and SUNY Korea, for example, are operating rent free for their first five years.

Jeju Global Education City [56] is being developed as another educational hub in the Jeju Free International City Development Center on Jeju Island off South Korea’s southern coast. Like Songdo, its main goal is to attract international campuses to reduce the number of Korean students studying abroad, especially for language and secondary school education. Jeju is early in its development but reportedly plans to eventually host up to 15 leading global universities, as well as a number of international private primary and secondary schools.