ASEAN, China must bridge HE and workforce skills gap

Countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China face serious disconnects between the knowledge and skills that their higher education systems provide graduates, and the skills needed for the countries’ future development.

Education reforms and more international knowledge exchange and collaboration will be needed to bridge this gap and should be the first task for the ASEAN as it moves towards economic integration, according to speakers at the British Council’s Going Global 2013 conference held in Dubai from 4-6 March.

The ASEAN – comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – will become an ‘economic community’ and regional common market by 2015, with important implications for its workforce and skills development.

Christian Bodewig, senior economist with the World Bank’s Human Development Sector, East Asia, said that as ASEAN members strove to succeed as emerging middle-income countries, human capital and skills development had moved to centre stage.

However, higher education systems across the 10 nations suffered from disconnects with the needs of employers and with secondary-level and vocational education.

Bodewig argued that a debate on the required skills and how they could be fostered was more important than focusing on issues such as credit transfer. Putting harmonisation or standardisation first would not work and could be a “straitjacket” for the development of higher education in the region.

This was because countries were struggling to put in place systems of academic credits, accountability and university autonomy while also trying to understand the needs of the labour market, enterprise and their own priorities for research, he said.

“Employers in Vietnam tell us that they not only don’t get the technical skills that are needed and have to retrain on the technical side, but graduates don’t have the conscientiousness or critical thinking skills in order to function.

“That is a pretty poor situation,” he said, citing World Bank research on skills in East Asia.


Fasli Jalal, a former deputy education minister in Indonesia, said the ASEAN community had so far agreed to integrate university application processes and move towards credit harmonisation – challenges because of the great variation across member states. But quality was a major issue.

Policy-makers recognised that new approaches to teaching and learning were needed at all levels of education. “But when we try to convince universities of the importance of improving teaching quality or the learning process, it is not easy for them to understand what to do.

“It is easy to understand if English is one of the problems, or computer literacy; but when you go to soft skills, it is not easy. Do we need to add special programmes or subjects, or do we need to change the mindset of the totality?” said Jalal.

Countries like Indonesia already face huge challenges in building capacity and providing access to higher education, he added. Currently, Indonesia’s higher education system could cater for 5.56 million students, or 27% of 19- to 24-year-olds. The aim was to triple this number.

Bodewig said the ASEAN could learn from countries like South Korea and Singapore, which had bridged the skills gap more successfully. “If these constraints are addressed in a way that countries learn from one another and go through this process together, then it is very promising,” he said.

“You need universities that are autonomous and accountable for the outputs they produce, based on the information they have, and they need capacity in teaching and management.”

The case of China

His recommendations were echoed in another session, on whether China’s education system was meeting the country’s economic needs.

Professor Ding Xiaohao, chair of the academic committee of the Graduate School of Education at Peking University, argued that it was not, citing a recent survey of employers that highlighted deficits in the areas of innovation, problem solving and other soft skills.

While there was a shortage of students graduating from higher and vocational education with the kinds of skills sought by employers, around one million graduates a year – one in five – could not find jobs.

More autonomy for institutions would allow them to develop their strengths and respond more flexibly to market needs, Ding said.

Curriculum reform was also needed for a better balance between knowledge transmission and whole-person development. In addition, students’ innovation and entrepreneurial abilities needed to be improved.