April 2010 issue

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Asia’s honey pot

Within the international education market, there is a growing trend for intra-Asian study, although destinations such as Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong are gradually attracting South Americans and Europeans too. The reasons behind these countries’ appeal are various, but cost, convenience and quality English language and higher education programmes – all delivered in an English and/or bilingual environment – are chief among them. Amy Baker reports.

For many, Singapore is also closer to home, making it easier and cheaper to travel back home during school holidays,” says Dr Steve Lai, Chief Executive Officer at PSB Academy in Singapore, adding, “The international environment of Singapore is yet another attractive factor.”

Lai is summing up some of the reasons that make international students decide to study in the country – his school has taught students from 36 countries to date, with China and Indonesia being the two main markets. Like Lai, Singapore itself is keen to point out its advantages, summarising five of its selling points as “a hub for educational excellence; stable economy; infrastructure and accessibility; a multicultural nation with a high quality of life; and a vibrant city lifestyle”.

Singapore is among some of the more proactive southeast Asian countries that are aggressively positioning themselves as international education destinations, with an appeal that is largely regional but slowly expanding. Along with Malaysia, Singapore dedicates significant resources to securing its status as a regional educational hub, and promotes its Singapore Education brand globally.

Likewise, in Malaysia, the StudyMalaysia brand is well established and there are in fact four Malaysia Education Promotion Centres set up in nearby Asian countries, serving a wide range of potential students who might consider Malaysia for their English language and/or undergraduate/graduate degree programme. The Chinese office serves China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Russia, South Korea and others; the Jakarta office in Indonesia also services Australia and New Zealand; the Dubai-based office is for those in the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries; while the Vietnamese office is for queries emanating from Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and the Philippines.

This gives some indication as to the regional focus to date of international student recruitment efforts. Malaysia’s Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) states on its website: “To transform Malaysia into a centre of educational excellence and to internationalise the higher education sector is a high priority for MOHE.” Efforts have been made to improve the world ranking of Malaysian universities; to have 100,000 international students by 2010; to create more Malaysian Chairs in overseas universities; and to collaborate with world-renowned universities on research and academic matters.

The MOHE details that as well as setting up education promotion centres overseas, Malaysian university branch campuses have been opened in other countries and ‘brand Malaysia’ participation organised at various education roadshows. Within the country, an International Students’ Sports Festival has been organised each year since 2007 as “a platform for students to get together in one spirit of international understanding and friendship” – with last year’s event seeing students from 60 countries taking part.

There are no up-to-date figures available for the number of international students in Malaysia, although last known statistics indicated 65,000 students in the country in 2007, and this figure is expected to have risen closer to the 2010 target of 100,000. In Singapore, a figure of 97,000 students from 120 countries is quoted by Singapore Education (up from 86,000 in 2007).

While Lai believes the international environment of Singapore is attractive to students – an environment that was ranked first in Asia for its quality of life in the Mercer Quality of Living global city ranking 2009, according to Singapore Education – Malaysia promotes itself as a diverse “Mini Asia”, with a very affordable cost of living. The MOHE cites Kuala Lumpur as one of the cheapest cities in the world based on a survey of 71 cities by UBS.

Aiyshah Gwilliam at Elit Language Centre in Kuala Lumpur claims that it is Malaysia’s affordability that certainly attracts students to this English language teaching institution, saying simply “it’s cheap”, when asked what motivates students to enrol in the country. One hundred per cent of the students at Elit Language Centre are from overseas, with students from all over Asia and the Middle East likely to enrol. “We offer English language courses from elementary through to advanced and Ielts. Also Business English when numbers allow,” she says.

Another contender jostling for reputation within Asia is Hong Kong, which, like Singapore, has shared history with the UK and a bilingual tradition. It has begun a significant reform of its education system that will eventually see a new four-year undergraduate degree structure launched in 2012.

Michael Suen, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education, stated that the reforms were intended to help maintain Hong Kong’s position as “Asia’s World City”. He said, “We must be well equipped to exploit the rapid changes of the world economy and to play a part in China’s development as a key world power. The new academic structure for senior and tertiary education, as part of our education reform, is implemented in part to respond to this need.” He added that as well as enhancing “lifelong learning and whole-person development, we also seek to nurture biliteracy and trilingualism among our young people”.

Comptence in languages – particularly English – seems to be a focus of the New Academic Structure, as is multiculturalism. Suen noted that a whole range of approaches will be adopted to increase students’ motivation and confidence in language learning when at university; language level requirements in Chinese and English will be increased for the new HKDSE exam (taken from 2012 upon leaving school and to progress into higher education) and a scholarship system to encourage more high level English language teachers is being introduced.

He added, “As our international intake is expanding, I appeal to our institutions to... [provide] students with more opportunities or activities to interact with staff and students from different ethnic backgrounds. This will enhance students’ cross-cultural understanding and their motivation for language learning, thus equipping them well for the challenges of globalisation.”

At Q Language in central Hong Kong, School Director, Stuart McCutcheon Barrett, echoes Suen’s endorsement of Hong Kong as Asia’s World City. “It is also the finance hub of the region and many students come to study here as a ‘stepping stone’ into future employment in one of the many international companies with offices here,” he explains.

Q Language specialises in English language training for internationals and 95 per cent of the clientele hails from overseas, with Japanese, Korean, Russian, Thai, Indonesian, Mongolian and Italian students just some of the diverse nationalities represented. “Over the last three years, our intake of international students has grown 80 per cent and we are now almost exclusively attended by non-local students,” he says. “These new arrivals have come from as far away as Russia, South America and Africa.”

McCutcheon Barrett believes Hong Kong will grow in appeal among internationals, given that the government is now promoting itself as an education destination. He says visa issuance is relatively easy and students studying for more than six months have access to medical care and discounted travel, although at present they are not able to work part-time as they can in some countries.

“Basically, I think many students are now realising that English is spoken in more countries than just the UK, USA, Australia etc.,” he observes. “Coming to Hong Kong allows students to see how English is used in a real multicultural environment. In addition, with the current climate of terrorism against many Western nations, Hong Kong – being governed by China – has no such threat and students can enjoy studying in unrivalled safety.”

Another country that has recently started to eye up the potential of education export is Taiwan, a small country with strong ties to China. Rather than its English capabilities, it is Taiwan’s prowess in the Chinese language that the country is seeking to promote. India is reported to be one country that Taiwan is keen to receive international students from.

A special educational attaché has been appointed at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in New Delhi, India, to promote education opportunities in Taiwan. Wenchyi Ong, working at the centre, says, “We want to present the vast opportunities available in Taiwan for Indian students. There is lack of awareness about these opportunities among school principals, parents and students. Parents need to spend only 10 per cent of the cost they spend sending their children to Anglo-Saxon universities. Quality of education is one of the best and is recognised by all overseas countries. As an additional benefit, children can also learn the Chinese language during their stay in Taiwan.”

Recognition of qualifications overseas is a point raised by one Singapore-based commentator too. Vernon Sim, Sales & Marketing Manager at SSTC School for Further Education in Singapore – which recruits 70 per cent of its student intake from Korea, Vietnam, China, Thailand and Indonesia – says that as well as the fact that English is the first language used in all schools, it is the recognition worldwide of diplomas and degrees awarded in Singapore that makes it a hard-to-beat education destination.

“I believe that Singapore will see more overseas students as there is no other country offering such a wide variety of qualifications that are recognised worldwide,” he comments. “Almost all universities in Australia and many British and some American universities offer degrees in Singapore, either through satellite campuses or via training partners here.” He adds, “Malaysia has many big local institutions offering their own degrees but not all enjoy worldwide recognition.”

If competing on price, then another contender within Asia is India – a rapidly developing nation and one that has seen the fledgling roots of a language travel industry of its own emerge, given the widespread usage of English in the country. Jason Flaming, Director of a three-year-old school, ILSC-New Delhi (which is owned by Canada’s ILSC), explains, “English is the second official languague of India after Hindi, and it is widely spoken at all restaurants, shops, hotels, markets and stores. In fact, you often hear Indians conversing with each other in English as opposed to Hindi as it is often the only common language between them (India has 18 recognised languages, with dozens of other languages). Students have no problems going anywhere and using English – albeit the proficiency of the speakers vary.”

Flaming says this fact – and, importantly, the major cost savings possible for students in India – are the two biggest incentives for international students. “You could easily live in India for six months on what you would spend in Canada in one.” 

Working with a range of agencies around the world, ILSC-New Delhi currently has a nationality breakdown of 55 per cent Indian, 10 per cent Japanese; 10 per cent Middle Eastern; 10 per cent African and then five per cent each from South Korea, Europe and Latin America.

Flaming says, “India as a language travel destination is certainly a very new idea, and this is an idea ILSC-New Delhi is really taking advantage of. We are getting more and more bookings from our overseas agents every week as “Incredible India” is starting to make its mark on the world. This, combined with the coming Commonwealth Games to Delhi in October, 2010, is thrusting India to the centre stage.”

Other Asian countries working to promote their English study opportunities internationally include the Philippines – where English is also widely used – and even Thailand, where, at IH Bangkok, Marketing Manager, Graeme Savager, explains that the school launched an English Study Holiday programme last autumn.

However, unlike other Asian countries, Thailand seems to attract non-Asian nationalities interested in enrolling on an English programme there: “The vast majority of our students are Thai, although we are seeing an increasing amount coming from abroad since we launched our Study Holiday in Thailand programme alongside our new website last autumn,” details Savager. “So far, we’ve had students from Germany, Czech Republic, Spain and the Ukraine.”

In the Philippines, Claus G Bauer at Paradise English explains precisely why this country is chosen by international students keen to learn English. The name of the school gives it away: “Particularly [here at] our Institute on Boracay, because we are on a beautiful and safe island,” he says, adding that the Philippines is “less expensive, requiring less travel for Asians”.

The most typical nationalities enrolling at Bauer’s school are Asian – particularly Korean – but there are also some Europeans and South Americans. “We believe that more Chinese and Japanese students will choose the Philippines when they realise it to be an English learning centre that has many native English speaking teachers teaching in institutes,” he says. “As people are educated about the Philippines and there are less negative stories in the media, students will choose coming here as a language learning alternative to the more conventional countries.”

Issues of quality and reputation are also something that Sim addresses in Singapore: acknowledging that recent government efforts to clean up the industry can only be a good thing. “The Singapore government is trying very hard to rein in the ‘bad hats’ in the industry given [some] incidences in the last couple of years,” he relates. “The introduction of the EduTrust scheme and the setting up of the watchdog board, the Council of Private Education, will go a long way in repairing the reputation of Singapore Education. SSTC looks forward to the EduTrust scheme as we are a high quality, premium boutique school and we hope that only genuine players are left when the dust settles.”

Compulsory quality accreditation of international education providers is a trend that has been adopted recently by the UK, while Australia is currently overhauling its quality requirements, and the USA still has no definitive quality control for private providers. Singapore has mobilised itself relatively quickly and is poised to challenge its international rivals – setting the tone for the Asian continent.

Asian recruitment trends

Many countries in Asia are keen to maximise their international recruitment of students, but how are most of the involved institutions going about putting themselves on the map? The answer is predominantly via agencies, together with direct marketing efforts.

“We recruit mainly through participation in education fairs and partnerships with local recruitment agents and education consultants,” reports Dylan Ong, Marketing Officer for the International Marketing & Recruitment Team at Swinburne University of Technology (Sarawak Campus) in Malaysia. The university offers a range of foundation, diploma, degree, Masters and PhD programmes as well as supplementary and intensive English courses.

Ong explains, “Following initial correspondence by email, we will follow up with a visit to the operating premises [of agencies]. Generally, we work well with agents in every country we visit, but our most established partnerships are in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.”

Ong’s experience is similar to many providers throughout Asia. Vernon Sim at SSTC School for Further Education in Singapore relates, “We engage recruitment agents who meet our criteria and will abide by our code of conduct. Through these agents, we participate in exhibitions, roadshows and conduct seminars.” Meanwhile, Stuart McCutcheon Barrett at Q Language in Hong Kong details, “We have agencies in several countries and use virtual agent referral sites. Plus, we have direct applications via our website. Also ‘word of mouth’ [is important], as some of the applicants already have friends or family studying/working in Hong Kong so they take the opportunity to join them.“

In Singapore, however, there is one difficulty that agencies working with institutions in the country are now facing. Graham Sage, Director of Inlingua Singapore, explains, “New regulations in Singapore are making it more difficult for educational agents overseas to recruit for private educational institutions here, as the government no longer allows the agent to collect course fees from the potential student to pay to the institution. The student must now pay the course fees directly to the school.”

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English Australia  
Feltom Malta  
International House
      World Organisation  

Alphe Conferences  
British Boarding
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International House
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Pearson Education  

Dr. Walter GmbH  
Student Guard

LTM Star Awards  

Malta Tourism
Office de Tourisme

Bond University  
Carrick Institute
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English Australia  
La Trobe University  
Language Studies
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Global Village
University of
University of
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University of
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CERAN Lingua
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Global Village  
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National School
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Camp Beaumont  
International House
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Kaplan Aspect  
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King's Colleges
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LAL Language
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Queen Ethelburga's
Spinnaker College  
St Giles Colleges  
      (Canada, UK, USA)
Study Group  
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Thames Valley
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Twin Group 
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University of
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Accent Francais  
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Alliance Française
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Home Language
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International House
      Berlin - Prolog  

Q Language Ltd  

      Language School  
EC English
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Feltom Malta  
Malta Tourism

Dominion English

EAC Language
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EF Language
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      Ecuador, England,
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Columbia University
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Julian Krinsky
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