Acumen Leadership in conversation— with Haike Manning: South East Asia: It’s About Not Putting All Your Eggs in One Basket

Haike is from New Zealand, every good organisation should have at least one Kiwi! He is a former diplomat and New Zealand Ambassador to Vietnam (2012-2016). He has been a business owner in Vietnam, establishing LightPath Consulting Group in 2017 – a B2B consulting business specialising in international education, acquired by Sannam S4 Group in 2021. 

What happened in 2022?

In 2022 we saw a really strong rebound, particularly in markets like Vietnam where we’re seeing numbers of students going from there to Australia, for example, returning to pre-pandemic levels. We’re definitely seeing a growth in interest in transnational education, and that’s a response from institutions realising they’re over-exposed to a single form of delivery, which is bums on seats.

For Acumen, 2022 was a big year in terms of our South East Asia expansion. We opened our Ho Chi Minh CIty office in April 2022: we’ve now got our offices in Vietnam and Malaysia as well as a presence in Singapore as well. We’ve also been undertaking work for clients and other markets including Indonesia and Thailand, utilising our growing network of experts.

What were the main struggles or complications you heard clients and those in the industry talk about in 2022?

I think there was uncertainty around how markets would recover: would the students come back?  how significant had the financial impacts been on families and so forth?

During the last three years in Vietnam for example we’ve seen an explosion of private and bilingual international schools, which suggests that the market remains in a very healthy state and that parents remain willing and able to invest privately in their children’s education.

What concerns face higher education in 2023?

I think one of the big challenges that many institutions face is that so many have built such a strong China business over many years, and that’s a great achievement to be commended and obviously there are lots of positives associated with that. But I think as we look forward into 2023, there just remains that uncertainty about what’s going to happen next in China. It may resolve itself beautifully but no one’s got a crystal ball on that.

What trends can we expect to emerge or continue in 2023?

Strong markets in Southeast Asia and a really exciting opportunity for many of our clients and for many international education providers. There’s a lot of institutions visiting, we have a lot of client work and we can expect a bounce back in terms of student mobility from students going out from Vietnam. We can also expect continued growth and transnational education programmes being delivered in the region, including Vietnam and Malaysia.

I think we’re going to see an increase in demand for options for Malaysian families. Many Malaysians will continue to study abroad but equally, some will be looking for more cost-effective options at home. I also hope we will see the continued growth of Malaysia as an international education hub, being an education destination for students from South Asia and the Middle East. I think that’s a really important part of the landscape here and the region.

Why is this trend important for higher education leaders?

This trend towards offering optionality to the market to meet changing market needs is important for international educators to be aware of, alongside an effective TNE strategy.

Sustainability is such an important (and loaded!) word these days –  those institutions who are able to be agile in responding to changing market conditions are the ones who will thrive.  Sustainability means diversification of products, delivery, and markets.

How do the trends link to student or parent decision-making?

I think deciding whether to send your son or daughter overseas for a full education or whether you might choose a slightly more cost-effective option starting in-country and then transferring at a certain point is one of the other trends to be mindful of.

The pandemic has seen an up-weighting by parents of the importance of the safety of their children abroad.  In some cases, destinations that are a little bit closer to home may gain some favor.  So you might see, for example, more people from South East Asia choosing New Zealand because of the high safety and well-being and caring element of the education system or looking at Western Australia, for example, because it’s only five hours flying from South East Asia.

As opportunities in the labor market continue to improve in fast-growing economies such as Vietnam, parents and students may be more inclined to stay ‘closer to home’.  Our new 2023 Vietnam Voices report which surveyed 1000+ parents on their attitudes towards TNE programs found that 47% assessed a better future opportunity for their child in Vietnam rather than overseas. I think this figure would have been much lower 5 years ago.

What is your overall outlook for higher education in 2023?

When you look at it in a granular sense, you might see peaks and troughs but I think overall if you take a demand-driven perspective on it, I think the demand for international quality education is going to continue to grow as economies grow, particularly in South East Asia, South Asia, Africa, elsewhere as well.   Parents invest heavily in their children’s education – it is for many the most important investment they will ever make – and as incomes grow, so will the spend on quality education.

What would you hope to happen in higher education in 2023?

It may not be in 2023 but I think ultimately our mission as international education professionals should remain very much focused on the end user and the family and recognise that the decisions that families make around education for the kids are amongst the most important decisions that they make in their lifetimes. Those decisions are critical and I think it’s beholden on us as international educators to make sure that we are working to deliver the best possible outcomes and the best possible fit for families and students.

Do you have any specific messages that you’d like to share with the marketplace?

Come and visit to see the region for yourself and visit the markets. We’re very happy to meet and to host and to provide our own insights, to offer support and to really inform on how Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia or other Southeast Asian markets might fit into an institution’s plans. You’ll really be getting that finger on the pulse and understanding the dynamics of the markets.

We recently launched a new initiative called Vietnam Rising, a program hosted twice a year in Vietnam, which is designed to give senior international education leaders that sort of strategic bird’s eye view of what’s happening in the market for the next five years.   So if you’re trying to figure out where Vietnam should sit in your international strategy this will be perfect for you.

Check out more from Acumen leadership in conversation for more reflections, insights, and predictions for 2023.