Cara Skikne

Beyond China: the next Asian international student recruitment countries


In light of the recent Coronavirus outbreak, the world of international education has had to face an indisputable truth: global student mobility is massively influenced by one country – China, which has been the world’s largest sending country of international students for the past thirty years. With the outbreak limiting international travel, closing English language testing centres and delaying commencements at universities in Australia, universities have started asking a very important question: if not China, where else to recruit internationally? What can universities do to become less reliant on any one source country for their international student body? 

With emerging countries now accounting for almost three fifths of the world’s GDP and the spending power of emerging economies on the rise, studying abroad is no longer a dream but a real possibility for many young adults around the world.  However, as no one country can fully replace China as a source country, the challenge will be in finding the right mix that considers changing demographics, growing populations, purchasing power, economic growth, government demand for highly skilled people, shortages in education capacity, destination appeal, push factors to study abroad and the list goes on.   

To help out, we decided to take a look at the most promising growing recruitment countries, and further explore their interest to study abroad. This blog post is the beginning of a larger series, with the first part focusing on Asian countries, the second on Africa, an upcoming webinar and short paper.   


India is often considered as one of the few possible alternatives to China as a source country, though just half the size. In 2017, India sent more than 330,000 students abroad, which makes it the second largest source of international students right after China. In addition to that, India has surpassed the US of having the world’s second largest higher education system. The number of (international) students is only set to grow as India’s tertiary-aged population is predicted to increase by 3.6 million over the next decade, and is set to become home to the largest number of students by 2024.  

The US, Australia and Canada have been the leading destinations for Indian students abroad, making up 45%, 15% and 7%, respectively, out of all Indian students outbound in 2017. The main reason for the appeal of Australia and Canada among Indian students has been their pro-immigration policies. According to Dr. Education, Indian students are considered to be “highly-price-sensitive, value-maximisers who are constantly trying to search for options that lower cost and increase career opportunities”; hence, immigration and work policies are of great importance in attracting Indian students.  

Choudaha differentiates Indian students into two ermerging divisions: the first division is called “price-sensitive value-maximisers” and represents the traditionals which will look for study programs  that offer “value for money”. This group (of mostly graduate students) will consider alternative study destinations in, for example, Asia, Continental Europe and Middle East as long as they offer English-taught programmes. Favorable immigration and visa policies are essential in order to recruit this group. The other and new division called “prestige-conscious, experience-seekers” consists of undergraduates and students who are not in the field of engineering and computer science. They have higher financial resources to afford international education and do not worry about immigration or immediate employment. The split between the two is of course not necessarily easy to identify.  

If we look at our own data, we know that Indian students are traditionally very interested in Business & Management and Engineering & Technology programmes, though that is also become more varied, with 2019 seeing great opportunities for Data Science & Big Data (4.56), IT Security (2.69), Pharmacy (2.75), Dentistry (2.22), Biotechnology (2.21), User Experience Design (1.74), Hospitality Management (1.72), and Food Sciences (2.56).  


A second smaller, though interesting country to consider expanding your recruitment to is Vietnam. Over the past years, Vietnam’s economy has grown constantly with a peak of 7.1% in real GDP growth in 2018; the continuous growth is expected to last until at least 2025. Vietnam has a young population, with 50% being younger than 30, however, according to British Council, the country will experience a decline (-1.8 million) in tertiary-aged population within the next decade. Seen on a long-term basis, this poses a threat to the country’s economic growth and productivity. 

Over the past six years, the number of Vietnamese students studying abroad has increased by 69%. According to Vietnam’s minister of Education and Training, Phung Xuan Nha, there were about 170,000 Vietnamese studying abroad in 2019. In 2016, 90% of all Vietnamese outbound students were self-funded, while only 4.2% were granted government scholarships to study abroad. 

According to UNESCO IUS, Japan, the United States, and Australia are among the top destinations. In 2017, 28% of all Vietnamese international students were studying in Japan; the reason why Japan has become increasingly popular with Vietnamese students is because of its dedication to conquer the ASEAN region markets; the Japanese government provides financial support to selected universities in order to expand their recruitment activities in the ASEAN region. Due to its high-quality brand power, the US ranks second with 25%. Vietnamese are considered to be the most brand-conscious consumers worldwide which is beneficial for the US as it is regarded as a prestigious place to study at.   

Looking at the student interest data from Vietnam over the past year, we notice that students are primarily interested in Business degrees, with Social Sciences coming in second, with fields such as Economics, International Relations, International Development showing good market opportunities.  


With a population exceeding 272 million people in 2020, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. Considering Indonesia’s dominating youth population, with more than 50% being under 30 years old, as well as its large and quickly growing middle class, Indonesia offers great potential for international recruitment.  

Over the course of six years, the number of Indonesian international students has increased by 21%. According to UNESCO, there were approximately 45,000 Indonesian students studying abroad in 2017. In 2018, about one third of these were studying in China. One of the reasons why China has been the top university destination was due to the full scholarships offers for Indonesians. Even though 95% of Indonesian international students are self-funded, scholarships are regarded as a strong incentive. Through greater availability of scholarships, more Indonesians would be able to afford their studies abroad. Indonesia has also approved the first plans to establish a foreign university campus with for Monash University.  

In terms of student interest, Indonesian students were primarily focused on Business & Management programmes, followed by 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, Hydrology & Water Management. 


Pakistan is one of the emerging economies with large youthful populations in Southeast & Central Asia. With a population of over 220 million peopleapproximately 20% of the population is under 30 years old. The country has sent over 53,000 students abroad in 2017, mostly to Australia (20%), the US and Malaysia. Their interest for the US has particularly grown over the past year, with Pakistan becoming one of the world’s fastest growing emerging source countries for US universities

Pakistani students prioritize institutional reputation, similar to Chinese students, especially related to specific study fields. Moreover, job prospects are high on their list of priorities, but also funding opportunities. In terms of study interest, our data shows that for 2019 the strongest interest from Pakistani students was aimed at Engineering & Technology fields, followed by Business & Management and Computer Sciences & IT. A few subdisciplines especially stand out, such as Energy & Power Engineering, Automotive Engineering, Supply Chain Management, Project Management, Computer Sciences, Data Science & Big Data, IT Security, and Dentistry.  

Overall, there is no one country that can fully replace China in terms of international student recruitment, with the countries in this list barely able to sum up to a similar level of outbound students as China. And yet, that does not mean universities should not try to attempt to diminish their risk of overdependence on one country and add a greater mix of countries to their student population. 

Changes in source countries do not happen overnight, and can take years of relationship building, creating in-country expertise to fully develop, yet there is a strong incentive for diversity. Diversity does not just mitigate risks, but also enriches the student experience on campus for all students by bringing a plethora of perspectives, and a healthy debate and respect for national and cultural differences. As more nations are moving towards seeing internationalization not just as an economic incentive, but also one that contributes to peace, diversity, a welcoming atmosphere, freedom and prosperity, the need for diversity has never been stronger. 


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