Asia – The Next Superpower Of Higher Education?

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In the world of higher education, there has been much discourse and claims of a shifting global movement gravitated towards Asia. Indeed, it is not unusual to also hear and read about the region’s profound transformation and rise over the past half-century since the 70s to the present day.

Asia has undergone unprecedented economic growth over the last few decades resulting in driving major social and demographic change as well as institutional reform. In some countries, for the most part, this has brought about greater stability, infrastructure and more sound policies and regulations. The rise of a large and growing middle class together with increased openness, market reforms and regional initiatives such as ASEAN to unite and increase its global competitiveness has brought about greater interconnectedness amongst Asian countries and the rest of the world.

The higher education sector in the region has also reflected these dynamics, which is no surprise considering the economic boom in many fast-growing Asian countries is linked to a knowledge-based economy – knowledge production, advanced skills and an overall rising demand for higher education. In fact, it is estimated that by 2020, China alone will account for 30% of the world’s university graduates aged between 25 to 34 years old. Asia’s third largest economy, India is also projected to add 300 million people to the workforce in the next 2 decades – that, by the way, is the equivalent size of the entire population of the United States. On top of these big players, let’s not forget hot emerging countries that have undergone strong transformation or are part of the global competition and experienced rapid economic growth and taken steps to internationalize their higher education institutions, such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. Let’s look at the higher education landscape in Asia from the view of international engagement between Asian countries versus the rest of the world as well as domestic higher education developments of Asian countries.

A recent Open Doors 2014 statistics show a clear pattern that affirms the surge in mobility out of Asia, as well as into Asia. Delving deeper, we see many Asian faculty who return to leadership positions in their countries having obtained their PhDs from either US or European universities. On top of that, there is an increasingly growing segment of post-secondary students in Asia that plan to study abroad, likely in the US, Australia or Europe. This isn’t surprising. Consider this – Asian students make up a whopping 64% of the total international student body in the US. What does all this mean for Asia’s higher education landscape?

Achieve global standards while meeting domestic needs

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The growing expansion of global academic mobility has propelled governments in Asia to join the global competition for knowledge and talent with a strong push to have their respective higher education institutions (HEIs) perform at the top level. Hence, we’re seeing Asian institutions upgrade, scale up and also taking on roles to become partners and peers for universities in other parts of the world. This growing dynamic relationship will offer students in Asia increased flexibility and ease to move from one system to another seamlessly while experiencing new environments, cultures and opportunities.

While there are good positives to remain hopeful and optimistic on the rise of the higher education landscape in Asia, research-based universities in US and Europe still attract huge interest from emerging Asian economies. Ongoing developments and progress that stem from these Western-based institutions still continue to have a strong impact to the rest of the world, including Asia. Standards of proper governance and global best practices continue to be strongly led by largely Western institutions – usually with Western criteria. This potentially places non-Western systems at a disadvantage as for some Asian countries, English – the dominant language for science & technology – isn’t one of its dominant languages.

Institutions in Asia, with the support of its respective governments need to further boost their efforts to step up initiatives, policies and procedures aimed to elevate their competitiveness in the global education market. Understandably, this does not come without its challenges and shortcomings as the region needs to find a unified and fair yet strong and transparent long-term plan to effectively position the region as top education destination.

Academic excellence in Asia

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With its long history and ancient traditions that has continued to lived on for centuries, Asian countries will face a new challenge of how to best harmonize its practices together with new emerging learning systems largely from the West. Complicating this mix further are the various Western colonialisms in the 19th and 20th century. That, however, has only made Asian governments and institutions innovate and experiment with alternate approaches to higher learning. As such, what you see today is a co-existential blend of new models of higher education, some imported directly from the West, while others imported in parts or shaped and localized with the notion of what it means to be world class. With that, it’s likely we are starting to see the making of a uniquely Asian version of higher education that borrows or mimics from the West, yet distinctively instills its own local academic traditions.

What challenges does Asia face?

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As Asia move towards superpower status fuelled by its rapid growth and large market, many challenges remain, especially issues related to strong infrastructure, quality assurance, sound regulations and getting talent. Additionally, with Asian countries seeing a large growth in the number of private varsities, quality issues become more pivotal to ensure proper bodies and policies are in place as a means of checks and balances for these institutions.

Poor infrastructure is also another real challenge for some developing economies in the region, as existing facilities coupled with available investments and capacity may fall short of what’s necessary to attract not only the brightest students around the world, but also quality teaching talent or even retaining their own students.

Perhaps the most challenging yet critical trial for the region lies in the formation of a regionalized, harmonized and unified framework to reform and boost the higher education landscape. Moreover, Asia is also unique in that the region blends of economies at different stages – emerging, fast-growing to developed – from fast-growing potential countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, to strong mammoths like China and India in the mix. As such, the educational needs for each of these countries are uniquely distinct. How can Asia, comprised of its many subregions, unique history and culture, all come into agreement of a unified higher education policy and strategy that is relevant for the region?

The answers to this big and very important question a well as the higher education challenges will be the critical factor that Asia needs to address to be the global powerhouse for the 21st century.