For many students, studying abroad has massive appeal, especially those in Southeast Asia looking for an international education. From summer schools to studying for a graduate degree, the option to receive a recognized education and broaden one’s perspective in a foreign country is very much desired. This has led to the market size of tertiary education overseas growing to around $300 billion dollars.

However the road to get there is paved with complicated school and VISA applications, long and inefficient processing, tiresome liaising with different websites, as well as effortful planning in order to make accommodation arrangements work on a student’s budget. There needs to be a technology or better solution for students in the region.

We speak to Melvin Lee, founder and CEO of Flying Chalks about the company and how he sees the industry evolve as we move past the struggles of the previous couple of years. They are aiming to improve the experience for students looking to travel abroad for their education.

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Headquartered in Singapore with offices in South Korea and Vietnam, the startup has impacted more than 14,600 students different nationalities and provided access to over 2,000 schools in 18 countries including Seoul National University, Korea University, Fudan University and Singapore Management University. Their service offerings include K12 education, tertiary education, exchange programmes, language abroad, study camps and study tours. 

Here’s what Melvin had to share.

Could you describe how your platform works?

Flying Chalks is a Tech-driven one-stop platform and service for students looking to study abroad; accompanying them from when they start planning for their overseas studies all the way till when they successfully complete their programme abroad.

At the start of the journey, students can obtain all the information they need for planning their studies abroad, specially curated from schools, international students and other trusted sources.

We have University Guides written by our Study Abroad Experts, in collaboration with our international students who have studied at the institution, along with Reviews by students on their experiences studying abroad.

Students can also stay updated on the latest scholarships, school programmes, Student VISA application matters and more through articles written by our network of Study Abroad Experts!

For students who need more advice, they can arrange for Free Consultations with our team of Study Abroad Consultants via our website or any communication platforms they prefer.

Once students have decided on the country, school and programme they are interested in applying for, they will be directed to the “Application Dashboard” on our platform to start off with the Eligibility Assessment.

The Eligibility Assessment is a process where we collect information and documents from the student to analyze their profile and determine whether it is a good match with the schools and programmes they are interested in. Submission can be done through our platform. Our back-end recommendation engine (utilizing big data and algorithms) supports us in the analysis and makes recommendations should there be a better match for students.

Once students have passed the Eligibility Assessment, they can go on to apply to their desired school and programme through our platform, and be guided through every step of the journey (including VISA application, Accommodation placement and other pre-trip preparations) until they successfully study abroad.

At any point in their study abroad journey, students also have access to the Flying Chalks’ student community which currently stands at 14,600 strong. Students can discover Peers heading to the same country or school, seek advice from Seniors who have returned from their studies abroad, and connect with Local students who would love to show them around their country!

Travelling abroad for your education is part of the Asian culture? What role do you think technology plays in this, if at all?

In the past, studying abroad has always been associated with a level of prestige within the Asian culture as people who can study abroad are either those who hail from successful families who can afford the expensive tuition fees and cost of living abroad or those with stellar grades that can land them a scholarship with one of the universities abroad. This is also in contrast with students who study in their home country where Asia is still relatively undeveloped decades earlier and there are not many renowned universities that they can attend. Hence, people who studied abroad tend to land better-paying jobs and are highly sought after, which further adds to the prestige and demand for studying abroad.

Over the past few decades, however, many countries in Asia have made great economic progress. This meant that studying abroad is no longer restricted to the privileged few. Education system in the respective countries has also developed significantly, with an increasing number of Asian universities overtaking their Western counterparts to make it in the top university rankings. This meant more opportunities to graduate from a renowned university even for students choosing to study in their home country and greater recognition from employers when they enter the workforce. Hence, studying abroad has less to do with prestige nowadays.

Nonetheless, studying abroad has only become bigger than ever and via a wider range of programmes (K12 education abroad, tertiary education abroad, exchange programmes / visiting student programmes, language abroad, study camps, study tours, professional development abroad etc.). Career development, pathways towards immigration, as well as families wanting their children to have global exposure and a more well-rounded education are some of the top reasons fueling this trend.

Technology has played a great part in accelerating the trend of studying abroad by making information more readily available. This means that students who previously cannot afford to study abroad can now discover scholarship opportunities more easily. Students who previously did not have the confidence of studying abroad now have greater access to resources to help them plan their study abroad journey. Students who can and want to study abroad now have more options to choose from.

We at Flying Chalks have also utilized technology to make studying abroad easier for our students. Combining public data which is now more readily available, with our own internal data, we are able to use algorithms to offer our students school and programme recommendations customized to each student’s unique profile. We are also digitalizing the entire study abroad journey to make studying abroad as easy and seamless as possible. This is topped off with the online community we are building that can support students in their study abroad journey.

All these developments have the effect of making studying abroad a lot more accessible and less daunting for families, which in turn further accelerates the trend of studying abroad given its benefits.

I’m sure you’re handling a lot of outbound flow from Southeast Asia, has there been any shift of students looking at the region for educational opportunities?

Following from what I have shared earlier where technology has made information more readily available and studying abroad less daunting, it has also contributed to an emerging trend of “Asian students increasingly study abroad, but moving closer to home”, with the trend accelerating in the past 3 years due to both push factors (away from “Traditional Study Abroad Destination Countries” such as the U.S., U.K. and Australia) and pull factors (increasing attractiveness of Asia as a study abroad destination).

The trend of “Asian students increasingly study abroad, but moving closer to home is due to 4 main “Push” factors: 

  1. US-China tensions: Affecting sentiment combined with actual effects of policy changes
  2. Covid 19 pandemic: Perceived safety in Southeast Asia and East Asia over the West which has generally experienced worser outbreaks and where governments are seen as “laxer” comparatively to Asia
  3. Safety: US-China tensions, along with the narrative of Covid 19 originating from Asia, has resulted in a sharp rise in racist attacks against Asians in the West. Parents concerned about the safety of their children are hence, opting for alternative destinations
  4. Protectionist policies: “As the cost of overseas education (tuition and living) goes up while prospects of career opportunities and immigration decline, many families will start considering alternative destinations. The increased emphasis on ‘value for money’ is a boon for emerging destinations which are more likely to offer lower tuition and living cost as compared to traditional destinations” Dr Choudaha to ICEF Monitor

The trend of ‘Asian students increasingly study abroad, but moving closer to home is also attributed to the emergence of ‘Pull’ factors that increase the attractiveness of Southeast Asia and East Asia as a study abroad destination:

  1. Rise in university rankings : Asia has increased its representation in the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings from just over a quarter of all ranked universities in 2016 to almost a third today, with Western nations losing ground while the East rises. Specifically, East Asian countries have made the biggest progress in rankings
  2. Asia’s rise in economic prowess: Translating to greater career opportunities for students and hence, greater attractiveness
  3. Increase in the number of programmes offered in English: South Korea for one, has announced plans to expand its foreign student enrolment from 85,000 to 200,000 by 2023 where a major strategy is having up to a third of all university courses being taught in English. Similarly, an increasing number of universities in other East Asian countries (Japan, China with Hong Kong) are also offering more university courses in English
  4. Expansion via branch campuses by academic institutions: The number of branch campuses set up by institutions overseas jumped from 84 in 2000 to 249 in 2015, according to data compiled by the Cross Border Education Research Team. The majority of such campuses are set up in Asia to target the growing outbound student market. This has allowed students to receive the exact same certification and similar education quality without having to travel far away from home
  5. Lower tuition and living costs: Studying closer to home in Asia also meant that students pay less in terms of tuition and living costs as compared to traditional study abroad destinations such as the U.S, U.K and Australia. 
  6. Closer to home: Studying closer to home is also generally preferred as students can still gain global exposure without being too far away from their families and familiar cultural

Technology facilitated the discovery of “emerging study abroad destinations” and made studying abroad in these lesser-known countries less daunting. Combined with the rise in attractiveness in Asia, the trend of students choosing to study abroad in Asia has emerged. 

For example, the Philippines has become one of the most popular destinations for Koreans to learn English. We have also started to send more students to study abroad in Vietnam. We are privileged to be partnered with Vietnam National University, the top public university in Vietnam, to offer attractive scholarships to students who apply through Flying Chalks.  

Where do you think the biggest opportunities for your industry lies in Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia’s economies have been rapidly growing and with that comes a growing middle class who can and wants to send their children for studies abroad; whether it is for their children to be in a better education system and environment, or to increase their global exposure. However, all of these markets are currently dominated by traditional brick-and-mortar agents where families and their children are currently underserved in terms of digital solutions. Hence, I believe that every market offers great potential. 

However, if I really have to narrow it down, I think the biggest opportunities lie in Vietnam. The country is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and the number of students studying abroad has doubled in just five years. Vietnam is now ranked 3rd in the world for having the highest number of students studying abroad at the tertiary level and this number is only expected to grow as the country develops further. Other high growth markets we are keeping our sights on include Indonesia and Thailand.

What’s next for Flying Chalks?

In terms of source markets, we are continuing to focus and expand our presence in Southeast Asia and East Asia, both in terms of the countries we already have offices in (Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and South Korea) as well as new markets with Japan being next in our target. 

In terms of destination countries, we are continuing to expand our network of schools beyond the 2,000 schools in 18 countries that our students already have access to currently, to offer an even wider variety of schools and programmes for them. 

We are also continuing to develop our platform by onboarding more partners (schools and companies that provide supporting services) and introducing a slew of features over the next few months that will go towards making the studying abroad journey (from information gathering and school application, to pre-departure preparation and integration overseas) even more seamless and convenient for our students.