Rise of postgraduate education fuels Asia’s economies – UNESCO

Asian countries have not only seen huge increases in undergraduate enrolment but also in postgraduate education and university-based research as governments try to meet the demand for highly qualified staff to teach at university level. At the same time, research has been seen as a route to economic development, further fuelling the expansion of the sector bolstered by public funds.

These trends have meant unprecedented support for graduate education or, as a just-released UNESCO report puts it, “to expand out" (increase undergraduate enrolment), "higher education systems had to expand up” into higher quality postgraduate education and research.

“The prevalent belief is that investing in higher education will lead to an educated workforce and that, as evidence of an educated workforce becomes known, it will attract international investment that will contribute to the economic development of the nation,” says the report, Higher Education in Asia: Expanding out, expanding up.

Increasingly Asian countries, particularly middle-income countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, are adopting ‘dual track’ policies – expanding university access as well as developing research capacity.

In addition: “The focus on economic development triggered an intensified emphasis on universities pursuing high international rankings which, in turn, has led to pressure for more research.”


As the report notes, ‘expanding up’ has changed the way many research universities operate as well as how faculty work, with a greater emphasis on graduate degrees and research than in the past. University research is conducted within graduate programmes and typically uses graduate students as research assistants.

“Governments recognise that a national investment in graduate education could have dual payoff: it could help countries meet the demand for qualified instructors at the undergraduate level, while also meeting the national demand for more scientific research,” the report says.

However, ‘expanding up and expanding out’ can compete for scarce public resources. “In many countries decisions regarding the appropriate balance between government investment in top-tier research universities versus investing to upgrade a wider set of weaker institutions are controversial,” the report notes.

The balance between the two in the allocation of public funds varies from country to country.

Many governments in the region believe a top-tier research university “is an international signal of modernity, a source of economic return to the country, and a necessary component of their higher education system”.


Higher education growth in Asia in the past 15 to 20 years has meant the region now accounts for nearly one half of the world’s higher education enrolment, the study says.

More students were graduating from secondary school and seeking to continue their education. This has driven the ‘massification’ of previously elite higher education systems that catered for up to 15% of the population, to closer to 50%.

This in turn has led to a rise in graduate education – masters and PhDs.

Over the last 15 years the growth of private higher education has been more significant in Asia than in other regions of the world. Across Asia nearly 40% of higher education students are enrolled in private institutions.

Most private institutions rely on student fees as the source of income, and although few are research institutions, they require teaching staff with postgraduate qualifications for undergraduate teaching.

Even in countries where private enrolment dominates, such as Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines, most postgraduate education is provided in public universities.

In some countries growth of higher education institutions has been faster than qualified instructors could be recruited and trained, leading to growing concern about educational quality.

Doctoral education

In China just 16% of faculty members had doctoral degrees according to 2011 statistics, with another 35% holding only a masters degree. In Vietnam 14% of university instructors in 2013 held a doctorate with another 46% holding a masters degree, according to official figures.

Demand for masters and PhDs has been high and the rise in graduate and postgraduate teaching has changed the nature of some universities. For example, in Singapore the ratio of undergraduate to graduate enrolment is now 4:1.

The expansion of graduate programmes has contributed to the quality of higher education by supplying more academic staff with masters and doctoral degrees, according to the report.

In the Philippines, for example, the share of university teachers with a doctorate has increased from 8% in 2002 to 13% in 2012, and those with masters qualifications has grown from 26% in 2002 to 41% over the same period.

Generally, middle-income and low-income countries in Asia are behind industrialised countries in turning out PhDs. Malaysia and Thailand, though, have relatively high proportions of doctoral graduates.

At the same time, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that in 2011 there were more than 60,000 students from east and south Asia pursuing a doctoral degree abroad. In Vietnam domestic doctoral enrolment was approximately 4,000 in 2013. In the same year there were over 3,400 Vietnamese enrolled in doctoral programmes overseas.

Innovation-led development

Some Asian countries have concentrated on promoting doctoral education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – subjects, to fuel innovation and economic growth.

It has not escaped their attention that the most dynamic economic sectors globally are technology intensive. According to UNESCO, there is plentiful evidence that investment in research and development in high-income countries such as Japan and South Korea led to innovation and sustained economic growth.

According to some estimates, technology accounts for more than half of economic growth or gross domestic product in all member countries of the OECD excluding Canada. The OECD countries comprise the world’s most advanced industrialised nations.

More recent studies have found that public research led to considerable gains in economic productivity in OECD countries, significantly outweighing the costs of the research. Gains in productivity were greater in countries where research is concentrated in universities rather than government laboratories.

According to some estimates, the rate of return on investment in basic science can be three times that of applied R&D, and most basic research is carried out in universities.

Nonetheless, much university and government research has provided very low returns and contributes to economic growth only indirectly, the report notes.

While in high-income countries the contribution from R&D to national development is well established, the evidence from low-income and middle-income countries is less clear. For these countries the process of ‘catching up’ generally occurs through imitation and technology acquisition rather than indigenous research and innovation.

According to UNESCO increasing human capital broadly “is a more decisive mechanism for the transmission of tacit knowledge than either university research or industry research”.

The most important role of universities in low-income and middle-income countries “is not to generate new knowledge but to raise the skills of the population, to build up human capital and help absorb ideas from developed countries”, the report argues.

UNESCO cites evidence that countries where the ease of doing business and higher education quality is relatively high, tend to benefit more from their own research efforts as well as from international R&D spillovers.

Commercial value of research

Policy-makers often cite commercial returns on investment in research as a reason for expanding support for graduate education and research.

However, in Thailand “there is concern among faculty that government officials hold unrealistic expectations of the return on investment through commercialisation”, the report says.

UNESCO’s case studies of Malaysia and Thailand revealed that very little research can be commercialised, and even if it is brought to market “generally does not yield large financial payoffs”.

Thailand’s top institution, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, derives some US$10 million a year from licences and royalties, “but that represents the yield of 25 years of research and technology and is a minor income source, given the overall budget of the university”, according to the report.

Nonetheless the value of university research goes beyond commercial aspects. Rises in international university rankings as a result of increased research publications can also attract inward investment.

“The higher education system not only has to be good, but it has to be widely seen to be good by the international community,” the report notes.

“Although there are many pitfalls, and many countries fail, there are countries that have successfully embarked on a path towards a knowledge-based society, raising their R&D investment levels considerably, and thus raising living standards of their citizens in the process,” the report concludes.

In Asia these countries include China, Singapore and South Korea.