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A Look into the Southeast Asian Student Market

The COVID-19 pandemic has truly caused a huge shift in student mobility. With countries implementing measures to mitigate the further spread of the new coronavirus variants, which include border closures, only a limited number of students can travel and continue pursuing their studies abroad.


With the unprecedented disruption of international student mobility in the past few months, HEIs would do well to look at other student markets aside from the usual sending countries. In this article, we will focus on an emerging rich student market–Southeast Asia—and see how countries from this region fare in terms of being a source of prospective international students.


Although many of the figures in this article are pre-pandemic (since pandemic figures are tainted by the irregularity of the situation), they give us an important sense of where these countries’ student market will go after the health crisis. The good news is that the world is slowly moving towards that direction.



Vietnam’s economy has been consistently growing with a peak of 7.1% in real GDP growth in 2018 and the growth is expected to last until at least 2025. Another thing is, Vietnam has a young population, with 50% being younger than 30. This means that a bulk of the population is in the studying age and with a growing economy, families have more disposable income that they can use to support the education of their children even if they choose to study abroad.


In recent years, the number of Vietnamese students studying abroad has increased by 69%. Based on the records of Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training, there were about 170,000 Vietnamese studying abroad in 2019.


According to 2016 data, 90% of all Vietnamese outbound students were self-funded, while only 4.2% were granted government scholarships to study overseas.

According to UNESCO, Japan, the United States, and Australia are among the top destinations for Vietnamese students. In 2017, 28 percent of all Vietnamese foreign students were studying in Japan.


Japan has become more popular with Vietnamese students due to the Japanese government’s financial support to selected universities. Students from Vietnam are mainly interested in degrees in Business, Social Sciences, Economics, International Relations, and International Development.


Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world with a population over 272 million people in 2020. The country’s population is dominated by the youth, with more than 50% being under 30 years old. With this particular demographic, combined with its large and fast-growing middle class, Indonesia offers great potential for international recruitment.


Over the course of six years, Indonesian international students have increased in number by 21%. According to UNESCO, approximately 45,000 Indonesian students studied abroad in 2017. In 2018, about one-third of these were studying in China.

table of indonesian student study destination

One of the reasons why China has been the top university destination was due to the full scholarship offers for Indonesians. Even though 95% of Indonesian international students are self-funded, scholarships are regarded as a strong incentive.


Indonesian students are primarily interested in Business & Management programs, followed by the Social Sciences. Among the disciplines with the most promising market opportunities, the following stand out: Entrepreneurship, Supply Chain Management, International Development, Sustainable Energy, Energy & Power Engineering, Mining, Gas & Oil, as well as Sustainable Development, and Hydrology & Water Management.


table of malaysian student study destination

Malaysian students have always been enthusiastic to study overseas. The country’s Ministry of Higher Education reported that in 2019, over 70,000 Malaysian students were studying abroad. Among the many reasons cited by students on why they prefer to seek higher education overseas was to have a chance to immerse themselves in foreign cultures, network with global peers, and study in the world’s top universities


filipino student study destination table

In recent years, most of the Filipino international students have studied in the United States and Australia. According to the IIE Open Doors report, there were 3,295 Filipino students enrolled in the United States for the 2019-2020 academic year, including 1,753 pursuing undergraduate degrees, 1,007 seeking graduate degrees, 444 pursuing Optional Practical Training (OPT), and 91 in other programs.


According to the Commission on Higher Education, the figure is expected to grow because of the Philippines’ commitment to embrace “internationalization” of the colleges and universities as well as the vibrant student exchange program in the country’s higher learning institutions. We expect these figures to go up once the pandemic in the country is controlled.


thai student study destination table

The US has historically been the favored study destination of Thai students. Over the past decades, the market share of the US, however, has declined significantly in favor of countries like Australia and the UK, where the number of Thai degree students has almost tripled since 2002.


Outbound mobility of Thai students is attributed to the following factors: demand for high-quality education, enrollment in prestigious international schools, and foreign language training. The political instability in Thailand, likewise, is said to be a strong motivating factor for local students to study abroad.


According to statistics from the Taiwan Ministry of Education, a total of 67,668 Taiwanese students went abroad to study or work in 2018.

taiwan student study destination table

The United States is the top study destination for Taiwanese students, with 21,516 students, which accounts for 32 percent of Taiwan students going abroad to study. Australia came in second place with 18,227 students and Japan in third place with 10,347 students in 2018. Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and New Zealand were also popular among Taiwanese students. Most of them choose to go to the United States to attend a degree, certificate, or language program. In contrast, most Australia-bound students take part in working holiday programs. Canada and Japan offer similar visas to allow Taiwan citizens to work and study in short-term programs.


What the Figures Say

Although the number of international students from Southeast Asia countries is not as huge as compared to top sending nations like China and India, the trends over the years have been gradually increasing. If combined, the number of students coming from the region make up a significant portion of the global figures.


If given more access to high-quality programs, students from this area would willingly wager to enhance their knowledge which will eventually open them to greater career opportunities. Among the primary considerations of the students from the Southeast are available scholarship opportunities, access to prestigious institutions, and foreign language training, specifically English.


The Southeast Asian region is not only a rich source of potential enrollees but will certainly add diversity to higher education institutions catering to international students. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)


#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM

MSM VP Global Suneetha Qureshi

MSM Vice President - Global

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities. 


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.  


Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments. 


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Education in Thailand. WENR. (2019, April 16). https://wenr.wes.org/2018/02/education-in-thailand-2


Fulfilling your child’s dreams of studying abroad. The Edge Markets. (2021, March 29). https://www.theedgemarkets.com/content/advertise/fulfilling-your-child-dreams-of-studying-abroad


Kennedy, K. (2019). Vietnam & UK sign 23 MoUs on education. Retrieved from https://thepienews.com/news/vietnam-uk-boost-educational-cooperation/


Philippines – Education and Training. International Trade Administration | Trade.gov. (n.d.). https://www.trade.gov/knowledge-product/philippines-education-and-training


Taiwan – Education. export.gov. (n.d.). https://www.export.gov/apex/article2?id=TaiwanEducation#:~:text=According%20to%20statistics%20from%20the,of%20Taiwan%20students%20going%20abroad


UNESCO IUS. (n.d.). Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students. Retrieved May 28, 2020, from http://uis.unesco.org/en/uis-student-flow


World Bank. (n.d.). The World Bank In Vietnam. Retrieved May 28, 2020, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam/overview


World Population Review. (n.d.). Indonesia Population 2020. Retrieved May 28, 2020, from http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/indonesia-population/



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