The Rise Of Higher Education In Asia

WTFSG_PROF-Simon-Marginson_University-of-Melbourne-AustraliaBy PROF Simon Marginson, University of Melbourne, Australia

UNIVERSITIES and research in East Asia and Singapore have been completely transformed in the last 15 years. In future they will share global leadership with higher education in the English-speaking countries and Western Europe. But the rest of Asia, including India and Southeast Asia, is well behind.

East Asia and Singapore are advancing rapidly on three fronts at once: the overall rate of participation in tertiary education, the quality of leading science universities, and research and development (R&D) outputs. All within an envelope of taxation and public spending low by global standards.

For Australia this has to be positive. It locates us at the edge of a set of increasingly brilliant knowledge economies. It also challenges us to lift our game.

Higher education and research are in the win-win category in international relations. Unlike military stand-offs and balance of power strategic politics — where the rules are zero-sum and the rise of one nation means the decline of another — higher education and research turn on shared global systems and mutual development. They are zero-sum only for nations that fail to keep up.

There is competition for international students, but with the globalisation of skilled labour world numbers are increasing by 6 to 10 per cent a year. Exports by China and Japan do not have to undermine Australian exports. Despite the win-lose resonance of global league tables, higher education is a rising tide that lifts all boats, though it is a tide that must be paid for.

Strong economies are the condition of strong universities. Of the systems making waves in higher education all, except China, have Western European levels of wealth.

According to the World Bank, gross national income (GNI) per head in 2010 was $29,010 in South Korea, $47,130 in Hong Kong and $55,380 in Singapore. It was $34,780 in Japan, which achieved educational parity with Western Europe in the 1970s. (Australia’s GNI per head was $38,380 in 2009).

East Asia and Singapore is turning national wealth to long-term advantage by investing heavily in an education-led future. The gross enrolment rate of young people in tertiary education (GER) exceeds 85 per cent in Taiwan and Korea. National University of Singapore has more effective global activities than any other university in the world.

In China GNI per head was just $7570 in 2010. But this was double the level of five years before, and amid gross regional disparities Beijing, Shanghai and parts of Eastern China are much wealthier. China is becoming the world’s largest economy and the main knowledge power in Asia. Size, regional inequality and established university hierarchy have enabled a focused national government to create world-class research universities, led by Tsinghua, Peking (‘Beida’) and the rest of the C9, while still building mass secondary education elsewhere.

The GER in China is closing in on 30 per cent of young people. The number of mainland universities in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University top 500 rose from eight in 2005 to 23 in 2011, though only Tsinghua is in the top 200. Meanwhile scientific output is growing by leaps and bounds.

Between 2000 and 2007, the annual number of papers by researchers from China rose by three times, from 18,479 to 56,806. In addition, the number of papers from each of South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan doubled. (At the same time output rose by 9 per cent in the US and 22 per cent in Australia).

State and household

Three elements above all distinguish higher education and research in East Asia and Singapore: the role of government, the family commitment to learning, and the effective division of labour between family and nation-state.

East Asian government has been able to grow research and finance new university sites and equipment at unprecedented speed and scale because the household bears certain costs carried by government in Australia. These include part of social welfare and health and an increasing share of the cost of teaching in tertiary education. In China government covers about 40 per cent of the cost of universities. It is less in Korea and Japan with their large private college sectors.

This high dependence on private tuition fees tends to foster unequal opportunities. Subsidies are often focused on high achieving students in prestigious institutions, favouring the middle class. Compensatory financing for poor and rural families varies by nation. The pattern is decided by government, which uses the workings of educational competition to validate social outcomes.

Whether one-party polities like China or Singapore or multi-party polities like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, nation-states in the Chinese tradition are all ‘one-state’ states. The machine powers on regardless of the ballot box. The Sinic state is a more comprehensive supervisor than is the limited liberal state in the UK, US or Australia with its firm divisions between state, civil order and market.

In East Asia politics, not economic markets, is in command. There is plenty of grumbling about government but less questioning of its basic legitimacy. The state has social primacy. The best and brightest graduates from top universities often head for public posts, in contrast to the US or Australia where they are more likely to head for the professions or high finance.

The state takes ultimate social responsibility for higher education, closely shaping governance, the academic profession and research modes. East Asia and Singapore are rising like a rocket in learning and knowledge because an outcomes-focused nation-state wills it to be so.

East Asian education is also rooted in 2500 year-old Confucian practices of personal self-cultivation via learning; and the institutionalisation of Confucianism in social selection via examinations, beginning in the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) and broadened in the centuries that followed. This tradition was remade in the encounter with European colonisation and the post-colonial strategies of ‘catch-up’ with the West, starting with 19th century Meiji Japan.

The dynamism of East Asian education cannot be understood simply as the displacement of tradition by modernity or Westernisation. Relations between tradition and change are more nuanced and interactive than that. There is a returning confidence in the deep well of Sinic scholarship and expression. The contours of East Asian modernity will be shaped by this. In future much of our new knowledge will come from East Asia and it won’t all be universal science.

One sign of this potent transformation of elite Confucian tradition into modern mass education is that nearly every middle class family invests heavily in private tutoring for its student children, to maximise their chances of reaching the top universities. Often poorer families also somehow find the money. It is normal to finance four hours and more of extra schooling each day. In Korea the national spend on private tutoring may exceed 3 per cent of GDP.

There are widespread concerns about lack of balance and sleep deprivation but the competition juggernaut rolls on. A place in Peking University or Seoul National is the ultimate for proud parents, a lifetime ticket to status and success. The extra schooling underpins the outcomes of the OECD’s PISA tests of the learning achievement of 15 year olds, where the Confucian-heritage systems outperform every English-speaking and European nation except Finland.



It is not every post a winner all the time. Modernising systems is a long task. Leading private universities like Waseda in Japan and Korea University are often more connective and cosmopolitan than the peak national universities. Beyond the border zones and below the top, East Asian institutions are more exclusively national and local in form and feel.

Global competence and engagement also vary between countries. Singapore’s institutions are most at home in the world.

Even the world-class universities are finding their final ascension takes time, if world-class means a high Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking. There is lag between investment in research capacity and publication, another lag between publication and citation, and a more difficult transition to high rates of citation, the shorthand indicator of leading science. For example, National Taiwan University was 45th in the world in the number of science papers produced in 2004-2008, but 397th in citations per paper, a measure still overwhelmingly dominated by American universities. Americans cite Americans.

Until citations reach Western European levels there will be claims that Sinic systems lack inherent creativity (a silly idea reflecting fading beliefs about Western cultural superiority); or that academic freedom is compromised by state tampering in decisions about research, shaped by utilitarianism and cronyism. There is open discussion in China about these problems.

More fundamentally, the stagnation of Japan’s higher education, once as dynamic as Korea’s, suggests possible limits to the East Asian model. Japan is still a science powerhouse but the expansion of participation has slowed. Academic cultures are conservative. Despite corporatisation of the state universities, state control is almost as strong as ever—and funding as restricted as in Australia.

It is as if having caught up to the West, Japanese higher education has lost its driving goal. It is yet to develop a more global or regional project.

The rest

Advanced capacity in higher education and research are essential to nations if they are to exercise some command over their destinies. But with the possible exception of Malaysia and India the rest of Asia lacks the necessary resources.

Malaysia has a GNI per head of $14,110 and spends big on tertiary education but the outcomes are disappointing. The GER is one in three. Thailand has 60 per cent of Malaysia’s income per head but a GER near one in two. Too much Malaysian funding goes to scholarships and loans for bumiputra Malay families to secure their privileged position in the state. Racial preferment impairs the meritocratic selection of students and staff and research funding decisions. Academic salaries are too low and talent drains to Singapore. There is just one Malaysian university in the top 500, the University of Malaya.

In India there is much talk about the knowledge economy. It is mostly just talk. Nominally, size, economic growth and norms of inequality provide India with the Chinese option of fostering a layer of leading research universities amid a developing system. Indian Institutes of Technology, built on selective intakes from an enormous student population, already have a global reputation. But the GER is two thirds that of China’s and the nation-state is not yet up to the task.

China has been a centralised polity for 2200 years. The nation in India is still forming. It is a loosely coordinated federation. Higher educational provision is uneven by state, national government lacks instrumental power and policy debate is riven by symbolic politicking. Delhi has been unable mobilise resources or plan effectively in the East Asian manner. The public research universities are still waiting for the modernising reforms that swept Australian universities in the 1990s. The many small private teaching colleges are going nowhere fast.

Research in some fields in Thailand is growing impressively but government is not closely focused on global standards. Indonesia (GNI per person of $4170) is like India, a loose federation lacking a strong education nation-state. In 2007 the nation spent only 0.3 per cent of GDP in public funding of tertiary education, compared to an OECD average 1.0 per cent. Science research is handicapped by limited capacity in English and little access to global journals.

Though emerging Vietnam has a Confucian-heritage family education culture, it is below middle-income level (GNI per head $2960) and salaries in education and government do not cover the cost of urban living. People often have two jobs or work their positions for personal advantage. There is little time for research. Global agency projects push national policy this way and that, goals are not met, and the established universities cannot provide enough science. But Vietnam’s cultural foundation suggests it might be next to take off.


Professor Simon Marginson is at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. His books include Higher Education in the Asia-Pacific (edited with Sarjit Kaur and Erlenawati Sawir), published in September.

(Article first seen on The Australian)
(Photo of Prof Simon: David Geraghty)
(Photo: ‘The importance of higher education to social mobility’, by Dale Edwin Murray for  Times Higher Education)