Demographic Trends Shape Education in Asia

Feature | 1 July 2014

The needs of a growing population of young people are shaping education policies in Asian countries, explains ADB education expert Jouko Sarvi.

How important is the demographic factor in education in Asia?

Demographic trends are extremely important in education and human resource development. The Asian region, with a large population, is seeing dramatic shifts in its demographic trends, including a rapidly rising number of youth, in South Asia for example, and at the same time, an increasing population of aging but active citizens, such as in East Asia and Southeast Asia.

The ballooning mass of young people creates a growing demand for education services. However, as the older people continue to pursue their personal development, they are increasingly demanding opportunities to enroll in programs that support lifelong learning.

What are the consequences of this growing mass of young people demanding to receive an education?

One clear consequence is financial: the expansion of student enrollment and education systems cannot be met in developing countries by public financing alone. This is particularly evident in higher levels of education: the per-student cost in secondary education is around 15 times more than the per-student cost in primary schools. In tertiary education, this factor goes up to between 30 and 35 times.

Is education an opportunity for the private sector?

“Globally, about 450 million youth are neither in education nor in employment or formal training. About 300 million of them are in Asia, and the bulk of those are in countries that have very large overall populations, including countries in South Asia.”

- Jouko Sarvi, ADB education expert

Yes, of course. Too often, governments aim to undertake dual roles - the roles of both education policy maker and education provider. This dual role can be appropriate in basic education. However, at post-basic and higher education and training levels, changes are happening as increasingly governments realize the importance of concentrating on formulating appropriate policies and transferring, where possible, the responsibility of education and skills training provision to private providers.

Involvement of the private sector lessens the burden of government financing, and at the same time increases the relevance and responsiveness of education and skills to the needs of the labor market with employers centrally involved in the design and delivery of education and training.

However, governments must pursue comprehensive regulatory frameworks to guide and monitor the private sector and to ensure the education and training provided by the private sector is of high quality and provides opportunities for all, including students from poor backgrounds and disadvantaged groups.

What kind of education services will this young population need?

There is a need to strengthen the link between education services and the economic needs of a given country. As some nations shift to become services-led, for example, soft skills such as communications and technological competences are important while countries still in an industrial stage need to provide hands-on, technical skills.

Understandably, youth demand education and skills training that will increase their chances of employment upon graduation. Diversification of education systems will also be important for this. Strengthening local educational institutions that are closely linked with the needs of the local economy can be a good way of maximizing the impact of schooling and training for students.

What other changes are demographic shifts bringing to South Asia?

An area of growing importance is the informal sector, as there are so many young people who are training on the job rather than going through a formal education process. This puts the burden of training on the employers, but also leaves the young people without a formal qualification.

At the same time, globally, about 450 million youth are neither in education nor in employment or formal training. About 300 million of them are in Asia, and the bulk of those are in countries that have very large overall populations, including countries in South Asia. This is a huge waste of human capital that urgently needs much more attention.

What can be done to meet these needs?

It is crucial to create many more pathways to acquiring education and skills. There should not just be one way to get skills training and qualifications. Investment in skills for informal sectors is also important. For example, more could be done to support training in entrepreneurship, which could help youth to pursue self-employment.

In addition, skills that youth acquire through the informal sector should also be acknowledged and taken into consideration when a young person wants to join the formal education sector or shift jobs. Training institutions, for example, should accept on-the-job training as a credit for entrance or a process should be set up for assessing and crediting youth for on-the-job training.