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Higher education in Asia-Pacific

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job in April 2013)

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Its common knowledge that overall this region is seeing high economic growth, driven by large populations of young people and rapidly developing economies. But it is not always clear what’s happening ‘under the bonnet’ when it come to higher education. In this final post based on reflections from visiting the region for the Asia-Pacific edition of Blue Skies, I want to draw out a few themes that I spotted.

Economic growth is driving demand from employers in the region for higher-level skills and although provision is rapidly increasing, there is still more to do with both capacity and quality. The latter is seen as critical to ensuring that these rising nations are both efficient and competitive. Higher education investment is seen as one key strategy for fuelling economic development and growth. However, relative to primary and secondary education it is accepted that learners increasingly have both the means and motivation to contribute to their costs, with a rise in cost-sharing and partnerships for long-term financial sustainability. There has also been particular growth of private sector provision across the region, often filling gaps and responding to new areas of demand. The HE sector is also beginning to diversify and specialise although this process has a long way to go in most cases. In addition to economic objectives higher education is also seen as crucial to achieving social development, with the rising middle class demanding inclusive and equitable access to higher education opportunities.

One major trend across these countries that has implications for HE is the rise in regional integration. Organisations such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are driving closer cooperation, cross-border collaboration and partnerships in the HE sector. For example they are working to harmonise qualifications and support the mobility of both students and workers. The European Union is a good example of what can be achieved with such supra-national groupings. This also aligns with the global rise in internationalisation and mobility of students, academics and university brands. Together these trends will intensify competition, create opportunities for deeper global partnerships, and open access to both student and academic talent. More and more students will be studying at rapidly improving institutions within the region, rather than relatively expensive developed-world institutions. Another organisation driving this agenda in the region is made up of the ten countries now within the geo-political and economic alliance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). First founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, membership has subsequently expanded to include Brunei, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Within this grouping 26 member institutions make up the ASEAN University Network (AUN), pro-actively focusing on exchanges, sharing expertise, and increasing mobility.

The internationalisation agenda is also playing into this environment, with more and more universities beginning to teach and publish research in English, competing on the world stage. The exception to this trend is Japan which is still experiencing economic challenges and an often insular culture.

In some cases booming economies can offer relatively high salaries without the need for a degree, as is the case for mining in some parts of Australia and call centre work in the Philippines (now with a bigger Business Processing Outsourcing [BPO] industry than India). It remains to be seen if such trends can be sustained with most jobs requiring ever-higher levels of skill and fuelling the growing demand for higher education in this region. It is clear that South East Asian higher education has come a long way but still had plenty of scope to grow and improve further.

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