Asia’s Stake in 21st-Century Higher Education

In most higher education discourse today it is not unusual to hear the claim that the world’s center of gravity is shifting toward the East. Indeed, no region has undergone as profound a transformation as Asia during the past half-century, from the 1970s to the present. Unprecedented economic growth has driven major social and demographic change and institutional reform and, in most countries, has brought about greater stability. The advent of a large middle class, coupled with openness and market reforms driven by economic imperatives, has contributed to greater interconnectedness among Asian states and between them and the rest of the world.

These dynamics are also reflected in the landscape of higher education, especially at a time when economic growth in many rapidly developing Asian economies is linked to knowledge production, advanced skills, and the rising demand for higher education. By 2020, China alone will account for 30 percent of the world’s university graduates between the ages of 25 and 34. India, Asia’s third largest economy, is projected to add 300 million people to its workforce over the next 2 decades—the equivalent of the entire United States (US) population. And all this growth will be among the youth, India’s huge “demographic dividend” that will need to be educated.

Against this backdrop of rapid change occurring in Asia, our new book, Asia: The Next Higher Education Superpower? examines the critical role that higher education plays in propelling Asia forward. While the book also deals with Asia in the broad geographic sense, it focuses primarily on countries with higher education systems that have either undergone a transformation or are part of the global competition. Nonetheless, our book is not just about the “big players”; it is as much about the smaller, rapidly emerging economies, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, which have recently experienced strong economic growth and taken steps toward the internationalization of their higher education institutions. Hence, we look at higher education in Asia both from the lens of international engagement between Asian countries and the rest of the world and that of current developments within the domestic higher education sectors of Asian countries.

When we look at the rise of Asia through the lens of academic mobility, a clear pattern emerges: many Asian faculty who return to leadership positions in their countries of origin have obtained their PhDs from U.S. or European universities; many post-secondary students in Asia plan to at some point continue their education overseas, likely in the United States or Australia. The most recent Open Doors 2014 statistics once again point to the surge in mobility out of Asia as well as into Asia.1 Students from Asia—particularly from China, India, and South Korea—make up 64 percent of the total international student body in the US. Although U.S. students are still relatively less mobile than their peers in the rest of the world, they are drawn to Asia in growing numbers for short-term study experiences as well as for full-degree study.

Measuring up to global standards while meeting local needs

This overall expansion of international academic mobility has encouraged Asian governments to join the global competition for knowledge and talent, with many expressing the clear ambition to have their higher education institutions “play at the top.” Not only are institutions in Asia upgrading and scaling up, but they are also becoming interlocutors, partners, and peers for universities in other parts of the world. A new relationship is poised to emerge that will offer students in Asia and in other parts of the world the possibility to move from one system to another, to experience new environments, and to embrace the differences and opportunities this will bring.

However, despite the rise of world-class Asian institutions, U.S. and European research-based universities are still a draw for emerging Asian countries. What happens in major research-based universities in the West still matters and continues to have an impact on the rest of the world, including on Asia. Today, professional accomplishments of institutions and faculty are based on a system of merit that is largely Western based, with Western criteria and metrics that often place non-Western systems at a disadvantage, especially those Asian countries where English—the lingua franca of scientific innovation and enterprise—is not one of the dominant languages.

Academic excellence in the context of Asia

As Asian countries forge ahead to embrace new developments within their systems and beyond, they will be confronted with the challenge of how best to reconcile the historic and ancient traditions of learning that have existed within the region for centuries and the new emerging models of learning inherited largely from the West. The period of Western colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries further complicated or diluted these ancient systems. Nonetheless, the heritage of colonialism in the region has not prevented Asian governments and institutions from experimenting with alternate and perhaps more authentic approaches to higher education development. As a consequence, in contemporary Asia today, traditions coexist with new models of higher education, either imported directly from the West or shaped after a notion of what it means to be world class. Hence it is possible that we are seeing the emergence of a unique Asian model of higher education that selectively borrows from the West, yet freely draws upon its own solid academic traditions.

By looking at the most recent developments in Asian higher education, the book also explores a new definition of excellence and competitiveness in higher education. While co-authors Kishore Mahbubani and Tan Eng Chye of the National University of Singapore provide an analysis of global rankings as one key metric to assess the quality and excellence of Asia’s higher education institutions, others point to the ability of the higher education sector to adequately serve its growing domestic youth population as a key indicator of the relevance and excellence of a higher education system.

Challenges that hold Asia back from super-power status

But despite the rapid and large growth documented in the book, many challenges remain for Asia as it moves toward super-power status, especially issues related to quality assurance. In the book, both Simon Marginson and Philip Altbach point to the systemic and national challenges in Asia that continue to impede quality and global competitiveness. This quality issue has become even more critical as many Asian countries are seeing a large growth in the number of private institutions that are not regulated by a government body.

There are also issues related to poor infrastructure, where for some developing economies in the region, the available facilities and the current levels of higher education investment and capacity might not be in sync with their goals and ambitions for either attracting the best and the brightest globally, or even for retaining and educating their own students.

Finally, there are the challenges of regionalization, harmonization, and identifying common frameworks for higher education reform and growth. How can higher education policies and strategies be developed that have relevance for the entire region when, in fact, Asia is comprised of many subregions, each with its own unique history and culture? Moreover, the region includes many developing countries whose educational needs are distinctly different from those of the more developed economies in the region. All of these higher education challenges will need to be addressed for the 21st century to truly belong to Asia.

Originally published by the Asian Development Bank Institute publication Asia Pathways.