ASIA: Higher education in East Asia must improve

University access has increased dramatically in low- and middle-income countries of East Asia, but higher education is "not yet fulfilling its potential", according to the World Bank. The emerging economies and developing countries of Asia need to improve higher education to maintain economic growth and "climb the income ladder", it said in a just-released report.

In the report Putting Higher Education to Work: Skills and research for growth in East Asia the World Bank says higher education is critical to increasing productivity and economic growth. Yet the number of graduates being produced by the region's universities is still too low for the labour market in fast-developing countries like Cambodia, China, and Vietnam.

Higher education will be crucial for low-income countries to become middle-income and for middle-income countries to make the leap to rich country status.

The middle-income countries are China, Indonesia, Mongolia, the Philippines and Thailand, all of them with significant manufacturing capability. The low-income countries are Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, which have been experiencing rapid economic growth.

These countries have been expanding university access in the past 20 to 30 years, from very low enrolment rates to around 20% or more. This however is still below that of richer countries in the region like South Korea and Japan.

"Some countries urgently need to grow their higher education systems in terms of enrolment," the report said. "In most countries there is scope to enhance equitable access to widen the talent pool, and the share of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) remains too low to support much technological capability."

In addition, the higher education system does not sufficiently provide graduates with the skills needed in the fast-growing market, said the World Bank report released on 12 October. Universities have been unable to raise skill supply and quality, even though demand for graduates has strengthened and wage premiums are overall attractive, the report said.

"With aging populations, [these] developing economies face the challenge of achieving growth led by gains in productivity. The significance of higher education will increase as countries work to escape the middle-income trap," said James Adams, the World Bank's East Asia and Pacific region vice-president.

Meanwhile, at the level of the population, "the mismatch between the skills that firms need and that higher education institutions produce may mean longer lags in getting a good job after graduation - lags that may frustrate expectations among the young," said Emmanuel Jimenez, director of the World Bank's human development sector for the East Asia and Pacific Region.

And, in a worrying trend, finding the right skills becomes harder the greater the export orientation and technological intensity of manufacturing firms. In manufacturing, skill gaps appear to grow with the firms' degree of openness and technology adoption.

Higher education institutions are "not supporting technology assimilation and upgrading as they should," said the Bank. In the most technologically advanced of East Asia's middle-income countries "only a few research universities are sources of ideas and engage in applied research with commercial applications.

"In all other countries, with the possible exception of China, there is very limited engagement of universities in applied research and technology development, or even only technology upgrading, indicative of a disconnect between firms and universities," the report said.

Countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines are still some decades away, and the others some years away, from acquiring the technological capabilities of leading industrial nations and have low-productivity service sectors, according to the bank's analysis.

Even China, whose exports overlap with many of the most advanced countries, operates in the lower quality and lower value-added ends of manufacturing.

The World Bank called for an increase in financing of public institutions, which account for 70% of student enrolments, more money for underfunded science and engineering fields and more scholarships and loans for the poor and disadvantaged.

But it noted that a major reason higher education is "failing to do its job" in these fast-growing economies is that universities have been managed as disconnected individual institutions. Higher education needs to be seen as a system including institutions and the people and organisations that interact with them.

Such a system includes firms, research institutes and other levels of education. "Failing to consider the links between higher education institutions and the wider world around them leads to poor performance and poor outcomes," the Bank concluded.


When "higher education institutions are not supporting technology assimilation", we need to find another way to fill these technological gaps which affect our educational exprecience.

We believe such a way is our platform, iversity, a startup which I'm working at, which aims to provide a state-of-the-art alternative to the clunky course management platforms such as Blackboard and Moodle. It can also be used to organise research projects or study groups via connecting researchers and student in one place and providing an efficient collaborative way of education management.

It can be seen here. A sample course can be tried here.

Alexandra Tiniakou