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Experience the growing riches of the Far East

The booming Asian economies provide an abundance of studying opportunities to entice intrepid students from abroad

Anybody who’s been to a British university in the past decade can’t fail to have noticed the range of nationalities represented among the student population. Walking round a UK university campus is a bit like travelling on the London Underground: you’re just as likely to bump into someone from Malaysia as Manchester; Delhi as Derby; or the Congo as Coventry. Of course, this diversity enriches the overall student experience for homegrown undergraduates.

But think how much richer the experience would be for a British student if he or she decided to leave the UK behind for a year or two and study at a university in a faraway and culturally contrasting country. Now that really would provide a uniquely memorable experience – and stick out on a CV too!

For Western European students, the part of the world probably offering the greatest cultural contrast is Asia. The architecture; the flora and fauna; the range of religions; the music and art; and, of course, the cuisine. In all these areas, there is so much for Europeans to discover. And, although much of this continent has, until recently, appeared mysterious and out of reach, the combined effects of economic globalisation and social liberalisation have now created a landscape that is both more welcoming and accessible.

So where in Asia is it possible for British-based students to spend a period in university education? And how can it be organised? The countries with the most openings in this area are largely those with the most vibrant economies. They include China, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and South Korea. But universities in Thailand and Indonesia are also moving slowly into this field.

Because of its sheer size, coupled with its recent economic expansion, China offers the most opportunities – and the biggest potential for growth.

The latest figures show that students from more than 180 countries are studying in China. The most popular subjects are currently Chinese medicine, Mandarin language, and management, but science is also increasing in popularity.

The phenomenon is encouraged by the Chinese authorities, with an increase in the number of university courses taught in English and a parallel growth in the number of Chinese-language programmes to prepare students to be taught in Mandarin. Individual universities, in an attempt to increase the proportion of international students on courses, have also introduced a number of scholarships to entice applications from outside the country.

For the student drawn to the call of the Orient, there are two main routes to achieve this goal. The first is to target a UK university with links to partner institutions in these countries. The second is to make direct contact with universities in Asia that accept foreign students; this can be done with the help of several websites dedicated to this purpose.

In the first category, there is a growing number of universities developing ever-deeper relationships with partners in Asia. These include the universities of Nottingham, Kent, Strathclyde, Birmingham, Liverpool and Surrey, to name just a handful.

Some of these have built campuses in the East. The University of Nottingham, for example has one in China and one in Malaysia, principally developed to enable students from these countries to study for a British university degree close to home, but also providing an easy option for its students to spend a year studying in a different country. Around 100 Nottingham students go to each campus every year.

In addition, the university’s international office helps smaller numbers spend a semester or two at partner universities in Singapore and Hong Kong. Vincenzo Raimo, director of the office, says the experience provided by these study abroad periods is invaluable for the students. “It gives students additional experience that will give them an advantage in the jobs market,” he says. “Firstly the language skills, but also the life skill of surviving in a very, very different culture.”

These types of opportunities now form a big part of British universities’ marketing operations aimed at school leavers making their higher education choices. An example is the University of Kent, which has degrees in law, business, film studies and politics, all including a year at named universities in China and Hong Kong.

At other universities, partner arrangements have been established at faculty level, where institutions see academic benefits in sharing knowledge, experience and resources. Strathclyde’s department of mechanical engineering, for example, sends around 50 students to study abroad every year, including some going to Japan and Singapore.

The university’s Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences sends five pharmacy students a year to spend six weeks at the International Medical University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This year the group did a short research project looking for possible cancer treatments in plant extracts.

Professor Brian Furman, who runs the scheme, says there are multiple benefits. “The students work in a real research laboratory for the first time in their careers,” he says. “They make lasting friendships with the Malaysian students who look after them, and they come back more self-confident. The link also strengthens the already well established relationship between the two universities in pharmacy education.”

The other route to an Oriental study experience is to contact Asian universities directly. There are a few websites that make it fairly easy to take that first step. For example, the StudyLink site (www.studylink.com) has an Asia section, which gives a country-by-country summary of the costs, application procedures and visa requirements, and also enables visitors to search for institutions in a particular country, offering a particular course.

Although this represents only a small part of StudyLink’s global operation, it is a growing activity. The Asia section of the site, launched only last summer, is already experiencing much higher volumes of traffic. Last July, that part of the site was getting around 9,000 visits per month, a figure that now stands at over 16,000.

A similar service is offered by Educations.com, based in Sweden, where Richard Prestage, business development manager, reports a growing interest among Asian universities to recruit Western students. “At international conferences I go to now, there’s a much larger presence of universities from China and Japan who want to increase their recruitment of students from Europe and America,” he says.

“Most of the activity on our site is centred on students inquiring about options for spending a semester or a year in Asia,” he says, “but sooner or later I think more of these universities will start offering full degree programmes taught in the English language.