Is West best?

The Asian Century is well underway

Dr Stephen M. Whitehead looks at how the default position that ‘West is best’ is being questioned in Asia more than ever. What this might mean for international education?

What’s happening?

My first article on this topic was barely out on social media when news arrived of yet another punch to the gut of UK education:

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

Just how bad can 2020 get for the UK and many other Western countries? Sure, we can blame a lot on a nasty virus, but this has been coming 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. As he succinctly puts it:

‘In the twenty-first century, Asianization is emerging as the newest sedimentary layer in the geology of global civilization…Asian businesspeople strut around the world, Singapore and Japan have overtaken Germany as “most powerful passports”, around the world students are learning Chinese and Japanese, entrepreneurs are launching businesses in Asian metropolises. The Asian way of doing things is spreading. (p.21)



Less attractive

I am shortly to conduct 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 are easy. Let us just look at the (growing) list of issues now creating a perfect storm for Western (notably, UK, USA, and Australian) international education.

  1. Brexit
  2. Trump
  3. Anti-Chinese sentiment
  4. Asian-focused Racism
  5. Endemic violence (race riots and mass shootings in the USA)
  6. Leadership failure (especially over Covid-19)
  7. Anti-immigration rhetoric
  8. Restrictions on the foreign student work programme (US)
  9. Trump’s attack on STEM Chinese grad students and researchers
  10. US denying entry to Chinese students/scholars with supposed links to China’s military
  11. Xenophobia fuelled by Trump calling Covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’
  12. US universities raising fears of Chinese students being engaged in espionage
  13. The closing down of Confucius Institutes across the Western world
  14. The rise of right-wing extremism in Europe, UK, USA
  15. Attacks on Chinese in Canada, UK, USA and European cities
  16. Economic depression across the Western world

Added to which, what I sincerely hope will not be the terminal decline of UK higher education. Though, with rumours of many leading UK universities facing cuts this year of tens of millions of pounds, then the future is indeed bleak if not stormy.

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.

It’s not just the virus

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)

The death rate, economic shutdown, and recessions in America and Europe have had a great psychological impact on China’s middle class, discouraging their interest [in moving].’ (Bill Liu, a Guangzhou-based agent helping wealth Chinese emigrate and buy property overseas)

‘I cannot help but worry about whether my son will be discriminated against in the foreign school – whether he can get the same respect and opportunities compared to a few years ago.’ (Gua Hua, a Shenzen resident whose son was due to start university in California this autumn)

It casts a psychological shadow for us. We originally planned to send our 7-year-old son to Canada for junior school next year or the year after. I had hoped he would adapt to the Western environment from an early age. However, the economic impact of the pandemic [on the West] has made us pessimistic.’ (Jade Zheng, who owns property and a business in Shenzen)

Deeper roots

Sure, you can blame individual politicians (Donald Trump and Boris Johnson immediately spring to mind) 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.

Go or stay?

At that point, young Asians will stop heading to Western universities in large number. They will choose to stay and study in Asia. When that happens, it will be one more sign that the Asian Century has truly arrived – leaving the West to adjust to very new, and inferior, reality.


Dr Stephen Whitehead lives in Thailand, where he works as a consultant for international schools and as Lead Writer for the Educational Digest International (an edition from which this article is adapted). A sample chapter from Stephen’s forthcoming book, The International School Teacher’s Handbook, can be accessed here. Contact Stephen via:



Feature Image: by 潜辉 韦 from Pixabay

Support Image: by wei zhu from Pixabay