Dayana Pingelova

Is Asia still the dominant source market of international students?


The importance of the Asia-Pacific region when it comes to international student recruitment markets is unmatched.

Over 90 million students from the region enrolled in tertiary education in 2018 – a significant proportion of which chose to pursue their studies abroad. In 2019, Studyportals figures show that 42% of global searches for international courses originated in Asia-Pacific.

Those figures represent an enormous opportunity for universities interested in attracting international applicants. But, as 2021 brings about extraordinary upheaval in the sector, there are signs that students from Asia are turning towards regional higher education options.

The big question we all should be asking is: will Asia-Pacific remain the dominant market force it has been for the past five years? Studyportals has the answer.

Introducing Studyportals’ Student Insights 2021

Our annual Student Insights data gives the public a sneak peek into the kind of data available to Studyportals partners.


Key findings this year show that international course searches from the Asia-Pacific region decreased in 2020 by 2% to just 40% of total searches.

That’s not a huge decrease, but it may be significant in the context of broad policies of deglobalisation and repatriation of the HE sector across the region.

2019 saw the entry of six new Chinese institutions to the QS global top 500 – indicative of its $250 billion-a-year investments in the sector. That coincides with India’s release of its 2020 National Education Policy, which seeks to transform the sector over the next 20 years. Universities in Singapore and Malaysia have also seen considerable growth as a result of the pandemic, with Singapore entering the top-five international study destinations alongside the US, Canada, UK, and Australia.

Politics is still a driving force in the market

The top 5 search regions by volume across all Studyportals platforms have continued to show strong interest from 2019 into 2020; namely, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Bangladesh.

Indian student searches still account for almost 50% more than the other nations combined, making it a prime target for university communications departments.

The total number of searches from each country has stayed in line with the regional 2% decrease. That is, all except Iran, which has shown dramatic growth from 3.2 million searches in 2019 to over 5.5 million in 2020.

With high levels of graduate and youth unemployment across Iran, as well as growing political instability, there’s a suggestion here that Iranian students are increasingly turning away from domestic institutions. Lebanon has shown similar growth in the number of students seeking out higher education abroad in the latter half of 2020.

How should universities respond?

It’s important to note that changes in the Asia-Pacific market are mostly small, despite their significance as indicators of long-term transformation. The bottom is certainly not going to drop out of the market any time soon. Furthermore, data surrounding the global pandemic suggests that markets are more resilient and are recovering more quickly than originally thought.

However, universities marketing internationally would do well to take note of these small indicators. Heavy investment in higher education by regional leaders is likely to precipitate a slow change in attitudes towards domestic education. Strategies that target learners in less stable states are likely to pay off over the long-term.

In general, these shifts show the importance of diversifying your international marketing efforts. An inclusive approach targeting countries throughout Asia and Africa would be prudent as 2021 gets underway. We recommend exploring our Asia Focus and Africa Focus reports for a detailed analysis of business opportunities across these two exciting regions.

In times of change, communications strategies that emphasize student support, financing, and wellbeing historically come out on top. A strong international brand and real investment in student needs are likely to be a winning combination.

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