GLOBAL: The Rise of Asia's Universities

At the beginning of the 21st century, the East is rising. The rapid economic development of Asia since the Second World War has altered the balance of power in the global economy and hence in geopolitics. The rising nations of the East all recognise the importance of an educated workforce as a means to economic growth and understand the impact of research in driving innovation and competitiveness. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s the higher education agenda in Asia's early developers - Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - was first and foremost to increase the fraction of their populations provided with postsecondary education. Their initial focus was on expanding the number of institutions and their enrolments, and impressive results were achieved. Today, the later and much larger developing nations of Asia - China and India - have an even more ambitious agenda.

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Yale President's lecture to The Royal Society, UK

Both these emerging powers seek to expand the capacity of their systems of higher education, and China has done so dramatically since 1998. But they also aspire simultaneously to create a limited number of 'world class' universities to take their places among the best. This is an audacious agenda, but China in particular has the will and resources that make it feasible. This aspiration is shared not only by other nations in Asia but also by certain resource-rich nations in the Middle East.

Consider the following recent developments:

* In the Gulf States, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to open branches of top US and European universities such as Cornell in Qatar and the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi.

* This past autumn, the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened in Saudi Arabia. Its $10 billion endowment exceeds that of all but five American universities.

* In Singapore, planning is underway to build a new public university of Technology and Design, and a new American-style liberal arts college affiliated with the National University.

* In China, the nine universities that receive the most supplemental government funding to enhance their global competitiveness recently self-identified as the C9 - China's Ivy League.

* In India, the Education Ministry recently announced its intention to build 14 new comprehensive universities of 'world-class' stature.

I will discuss the motivations for attempting to build world-class universities, the practical obstacles that must be overcome, and the potential consequences of success. Because the circumstances in the Middle East are very different, I will confine my attention to Asia.

There are other important trends that are changing the global landscape of higher education: the rapidly increasing flow of students across borders, the expanding number of satellite campuses being established by US and European universities, the emergence of for-profit providers of both on-site and distance education, and the urgent need to strengthen higher education in the world's poorest nations, most notably in Sub-Saharan Africa.

I confine myself to analysing the prospects for and the potential consequences of developing world-class universities in Asia.

* Richard C Levin is President of Yale University, US.

* "The Rise of Asia's Universities" is a lecture delivered by Richard C Levin to The Royal Society in London, UK, on 1 February 2010.