Higher Education in Asia: Creating Centers of Excellence

Asian nations are struggling to create elite universities without leaving behind the millions of their citizens who just need a college education.

Across Asia, aspirations of academic greatness are being pursued by countries of all sizes. Aging campuses are being razed or refurbished, new facilities are rising, and university recruiters are scouring the globe for the best and brightest scholars.

Highly regarded universities in the People's Republic of China (PRC), Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore are prompting some Asian students to forego big-name degree programs abroad to study closer to home. They are also convincing expatriates to give up choice academic posts abroad and join their faculties. And by graduating high-level professionals, they are helping to spread and develop new technologies and make the region more competitive.

“In order to fully participate in the global knowledge economy and benefit from science and scholarship, (nations) must have at least one research university that is able to function at a world-class level,” writes Philip Altbach, a leading expert on higher education, in the book, The Road to Academic Excellence: Emerging Research Universities in Developing and Transition Countries, edited by Altbach and Jamil Salmi.

A strong focus on centers of excellence in higher education, however, has its risks, namely that of perpetuating inequality in society. “Such institutions need to be seen in the context of an education system that is adequately diversified responding to range of needs of labor markets and able students from all backgrounds,” notes Jouko Sarvi, Practice Leader for Education at ADB.

“In order to fully participate in the global knowledge economy and benefit from science and scholarship, (nations) must have at least one research university that is able to function at a world-class level”

- Philip Altbach, a leading expert on higher education

Yet, the dream of erecting the next Harvard or Cambridge remains vivid. Like world-class museums, Fortune 500 companies, and Nobel laureates, elite universities are signposts of modernity and shining symbols that nations have come of age.

Ivy League universities built their sterling reputations over centuries. But many Asian nations cannot afford to wait that long because their economies are growing so fast. At the same time, increased enrollments in basic and secondary education in Asia have increased demand for university degrees. By some estimates, half of the enrollment growth at the world’s universities over the next 2 decades will occur in India and the PRC - which already has the world’s largest enrollment of doctoral students.

The big question for many Asian education experts is what is the best path forward? Does it make sense to devote so much time and energy to so few institutions? Is the quest for world-class universities the wisest use of public education money, especially in developing nations? Can partnerships with private sector play a bigger role in providing resources for establishing such institutions?

Even when governments set aside huge sums, creating elite universities “requires a lot more than money,” Altbach cautions.

The challenge is so daunting that some experts argue that developing Asian countries would be better served by shoring up their existing higher education facilities. Low-income countries, still struggling to produce quality national universities for their own people, should be careful about entering the race to attract the region’s elite students, say experts.

The value of cooperation

Asia’s quest for quality in elite institutions has been halting and uneven with developing countries struggling and the bulk of the progress registered in richer nations. As such, an intermediate step, say some experts, is to create excellent undergraduate programs in Asia then look to the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere for world-class graduate schools.

Developing countries in the region may first seek to partner with existing centers of excellence, instead of aiming to establish their own as an immediate priority. In this sense, technology could be an enabling factor. Web-based massive open online courses offered by some the world’s best universities, for example, could be used to expand the educational offer, although obstacles remain.

“While interest in these courses is certainly increasing in the region, the issue is not straightforward, as universities are finding out that they will need to adjust their programs, faculty resources and administration set-up to effectively adapt to these new opportunities,” comments ADB's Sarvi.

Educational credits and degrees in the region need to be harmonized so that courses and degrees in one country are recognized in another facilitating move of labor, faculty and students. Networks that promote regional cooperation in education, such as the harmonization efforts by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization, are still in their infancy and much remains to be done.

Education: each to his own

Higher Education In Dynamic Asia: Study ReportsStudy reports: Higher Education In Dynamic Asia

Investing in higher education will help developing Asian countries build high-income economies, with the innovation, knowledge, and technology needed to thrive in an interconnected, competitive world, as noted in ADB's series of study reports Higher Education in Dynamic Asia.

However, following the example of advanced nations to set up Ivy League institutions may not be the best approach available. The advent of online courses along with other innovations are challenging the purely 'brick and mortar' style of education. Developments in information and communication technology are making the world's best resources available to the least developed parts of the world. These can be blended with traditional pedagogic models and institutions to create a new educational paradigm.

But above all, developing countries need a far more diversified system that caters to different segments of the population. Putting too many resources in tertiary degree type of education and institutions may exacerbate the problem of graduate unemployment and not serve the need of a diversified workforce for a developing Asia.

This piece is based on the article "World-Class Challenge" written by John Otis and published in Development Asia magazine, April-June 2011