Book Review

Expansion of higher education in Asia

S. M. Rayhanul Islam | Published: May 16, 2019 21:19:10

Since the 1980s, higher education and research have developed rapidly in Asia. This has been a logical consequence of booming economic growth in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. Regardless of whether their economic successes were built on trade, industrial production, or natural resources, most of the countries have realised the need to look to the future and build their societies based on innovation and knowledge. Higher education systems in these countries are growing outwards with the construction of new campuses to enrol more undergraduate students. At the same time, they are reaching upwards with the introduction of more graduate programmes to ensure a steady supply of qualified professors and researchers.

The book 'Higher Education in Asia: Expanding Out, Expanding Up' examines the dynamics associated with the growth of graduate education in Asia, with particular attention to the middle-income countries of Southeast Asia. By looking at the system as a whole, the authors attempt to evaluate the strategies used to respond to current demands and also to build a sustainable system that can continue to grow in terms of quality and reputation. Some of these policies can be considered controversial, such as the growing reliance on the private sector, which raises issues of equity in access to higher education. Concerns also arise with the unintended consequences of being guided by international rankings to attract staff, students and even from international investment. Through a series of case studies in middle-income Asian countries, the authors also provide valuable insights for developing countries across the region to find their own balance as they embark on new policies and reforms of their higher education and research systems.

The book contains five chapters. The first chapter entitled 'The reshaping of higher education across Asia' analyses the convergence of pressures that have resulted in dramatic enrolment increases in university education in the region. Enrolment in higher education has experienced explosive growth across Asia over the last two decades, the result of school participation rates, increasing demand of society and economy for specialised human resources, and the perceived importance of advanced education in subsequent life opportunities. This enrolment growth put financial pressure on many governments. In response, governments sought ways to lower the cost of instruction in public universities and shift more of the cost of higher education to students and their families. At the same time, to reduce student demand for access to public universities, many governments changed legislation to allow and encourage the growth of private universities, now the fastest-growing segment of higher education in the region. However, increased access to higher education has not necessarily led to greater equity. The poor remain disproportionately limited in their access to higher education.

Chapter 2 examines the dynamics associated with the expansion of higher education in Malaysia and Thailand, which have experienced the most dramatic growth at this level of education over the last decade. A case study of these two middle-income countries was undertaken to further elaborate the reasons that governments and higher education institutions in these countries are expanding their graduate level programmes, how the growth of graduate education is affecting the professional lives of the faculty and administrators leading those programmes, and the institutional-level issues associated with this expansion. Support for expanding graduate education in these two countries has been largely tied to the belief that investing in higher education will lead to an educated workforce and that, as evidence of an educated workforce becomes known, it might attract international investment that will eventually pay off in national economic development.

The third chapter entitled 'The case for graduate education: Does university-based research really lead to national economic development?' examines the role of research in national economic development, with a specific focus on university-based research in low- and middle-income countries. While there is considerable evidence that countries which spend more on research benefit from that investment financially, that linkage can be complicated. In many countries, most research is not done at universities but by private sector enterprises. One reason is that private sector enterprises are reluctant to outsource their research. They tend to want proprietary rights over new findings that might have commercial application. This chapter shows that many elements of university and government research have very low direct returns and contribute to economic growth only indirectly. These indirect effects can be important and often take the form of knowledge spillovers to the private sector. University-based research can yield important benefits to national development but does not necessarily lead to the economic payoffs that governments expect.

The next chapter titled 'University research productivity across Asia' is divided into three parts. Part 1 provides a brief overview of international university ranking systems, how the major ranking systems differ, and the implications of universities choosing to benchmark against one system versus another. However, university ranking systems typically treat the university as the basic unit of analysis. A rank is assigned to the overall institution. Yet, often there are pockets of excellence, even in those universities that may not earn the highest overall institutional rankings. These pockets of excellence can still have meaningful implications for institutional reputations and national economic development. Part 2 examines patterns of research excellence below the level of the university by focusing on broad and niche subject areas. One way to increase both research capacity and output is through collaboration. To that end, part 3 examines the role of international collaboration in research productivity. The authors analyse the growth in research productivity in 26 selected countries or territories across East, Southeast and South Asia, measured in terms of publication rates, and examine the extent to which those publications have been a product of within-region and wider international collaboration. Findings indicate that international collaboration is an effective way to boost both productivity and quality in university-based research.

The last chapter of the publication summarises key themes as discussed in the previous chapters and highlights core issues that governments and higher education systems will need to address in going forward. Every country in South Asia has to find its own balance between expanding out and expanding up in terms of higher education and research.

 S. M. Rayhanul Islam is an independent researcher.


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