The Asian Century is Underway – but will Universities in the West lose out?

UK universities suffer worst-ever rankings in world league table while Asian institutions rise.

Sure, we can blame a lot on a nasty virus, but truth is we all know this has been building up for some time. If you are surprised that the Asian Century is now well and truly underway then frankly you’ve not been paying attention.

It’s 15 years since Joseph E. Stiglitz duly predicted this would be the ‘Chinese Century’ and nothing that has happened since suggests he was wrong. If you require any further evidence that The Future is Asian, then I suggest you read Parag Khanna’s book (2019) of the same title.

I am shortly to do professional development with UK Independent Schools, advising them on how to combat this emergent paradigm in their marketing to potential Asian students; a market suddenly in decline. And yes, there are solutions, but none will come easy.

Western universities don’t yet know just how big a drop there will be in international student enrolment, but it will be severe.

In the UK alone, the number of Chinese applicants for a Tier 1 visa (a common route for wealthy students to study in the UK) is down 72% in the first three months of this year. While Asian-based student recruitment agencies report a 90% drop in interest in UK education destinations and a staggering 95% drop for USA, Australian, French and German schools and universities.

Covid-19 is most definitely contributing to the problem, but that alone doesn’t explain why WeChat groups across China are currently flooded with comments such as these:

“Many of us are very surprised at how poorly some advanced countries in Western Europe have handled the pandemic. We always thought that both the quality of life and health in Western societies were far better than in China, but now our views have changed.”

(Alice Tan, business owner based in Guangzhou)

Sure, you can blame individual politicians but perhaps the cause is deeper rooted than simply the failings of two blustering, inadequate political leaders.

The Chinese government has many problems, but the pandemic makes me feel that foreign countries’ governments have even bigger ones. We (Chinese) will all have second thoughts [about the attractions of the West] from now on.”

(Richard Shen, a white-collar worker for a foreign firm in Shanghai, whose family run two chain restaurants in the city)

These comments provide stark evidence of a turn away from the West, with urban rich Asians critically reappraising any assumptions they once held that the West, especially its culture and politics, is the model for Asians to follow.

Consequently, in the near future an existential line will be crossed – we may be crossing it now – and that line will be when Western is no longer seen as the default orientation for ambitious Asian global citizens blessed with material and cultural capital.

Dr Stephen Whitehead lives in Thailand, where he works as a consultant for international schools and as Lead Writer for Educational Digest International.


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