Region heading for HE ‘powerhouse’ status

Many Asian countries have been setting ambitious goals to expand and improve their higher education sectors to respond to their growing aspirational middle class and as a result are on the way to catching up with and even overtaking the best higher education systems of the West.

Their collective efforts are setting Asia on a path to becoming, if not a ‘higher education superpower’, at least an education powerhouse on a par with Western powerhouses, according to a new book published this month by the Institute of International Education, or IIE, and the American Institute for Foreign Study Foundation.

Asia has already overtaken both North America and Europe in the total number of universities and university graduates, according to the book, Asia: The next higher education superpower?

“Sheer numbers indicate that progress in Asia is likely to profoundly impact global higher education,” said Allan Goodman, IIE President and CEO.

But also in terms of the regional and global standing of its higher education, “Asia can stand on its own. It has been positioning itself as an education hub and developing connections between higher education and business,” said Rajika Bhandari, IIE’s deputy vice-president, Research and Evaluation and co-editor of the book.

“There are institutions rising to a level where they are competing,” she said. “It is an interesting time in Asia where power structures are being renegotiated,” Bhandari told University World News.

Now Asian universities need only to improve quality in order to fully catch up with the West, she said.


Already “many governments in Asia have been facing strong pressures politically and from their populations obliging them to upgrade higher education very quickly”, said Alessia Lefébure, adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, and a co-editor of the book.

There has also been a significant mind-shift in Asia that reflects the confidence of those countries and the rise of higher education systems, so that students in Asia no longer see top institutions in Asia as less prestigious.

“Young people are no longer raised with the idea that there is a dominant West,” said Lefébure.

“A global system of multiple poles of attraction is emerging where higher education will not be dominated by the Ivy League,” Lefébure believes.

“National systems are having to reform much faster than in the West – they are having to be more creative and more aggressive in their marketing,” she said. These include setting up collaborations, dual degrees, joint PhDs, and so on.

In particular, said Lefébure, Asian countries are not simply imitating Western higher education systems, but they are setting themselves up as an alternative to Western systems. “Even if they look similar to European and American universities, most of the time funding is much higher in Asia,” she adds.

“Many Asian countries have significantly stepped up their national budgetary allocations for both higher education and research and development in science and technology,” said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, or NUS, and Tan Eng Chye, NUS deputy president of academic affairs, in a chapter in the book.

“Hence, at a time when the publicly funded universities in both North America and Europe face budgetary challenges in obtaining funding from shrinking state budgets, many Asian public universities are benefiting from increased funding.”

Rankings rise

Huge growth and improvements in Asia’s higher education have been partly reflected in global rankings, where their rise has been a “slow and gradual process”, notes Miguel Lim of Aarhus University, Denmark, in a chapter in the book. But in rankings terms Asia is not yet a higher education superpower.

There is a strong pattern of well-ranked universities in Asia doing better at reputational surveys, which then feed into the next period’s rankings, Lim said.

“This means that institutions that do well in one period gain more recognition and are likely to be judged as more reputable by respondents in the next period’s survey,” said Lim.

“On the whole, Asian universities may be beginning to make their mark, although this is not yet visible at the very top.”

He adds that the strong western-dominated hierarchy at the top of the rankings “is a considerable obstacle to Asia’s (or any other region’s) quest to become a higher education superpower”.

Even though some Asian universities are rising in these ranking tables, improvement has not been equal across different countries. “Only a small number of Asian countries has begun to climb the world-class ladder,” says Lim, adding that the absence of institutions from other parts of Asia is another sign that the region is a long way off from establishing itself as a superpower.

Most of the leading Asian universities are found in the most advanced Asian economies such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and China.

Even where they have made progress, there is concern over the cost involved in producing the research papers and student-to-staff ratios, Lim says.

Attracting talent

More importantly, some Asian countries have been seeking not only to reverse the historic brain drain, but also to compete with Western universities in attracting international students and excellent academics, to increase their academic productivity, develop regional hubs, and to create their own world-class universities, according to Futao Huang of Hiroshima University, Japan.

In part this is apparent in the various forms of education hubs despite sharp differences in economic development, infrastructure and research capacity.

According to the IIE’s Bhandari, the evolution of the education hub phenomenon in the region in recent years has been quite unique, propelling a number of countries – including Malaysia and South Korea – into a more dominant position in higher education regionally and globally than would otherwise have been the case.


But despite so much progress, there are obstacles and challenges which could scupper the emergence of Asia as a higher education ‘superpower’, the book’s editors note. “It is not there yet,” Bhandari says.

“Quality is going to be a real issue for countries moving forward,” says Bhandari, as well as the need to balance the needs of domestic populations and development with external pressures to rise in rankings.

“Asia is off the starting blocks and more than that,” according to the IIE’s Lefébure, but hurdles that could stop Asia in its tracks include a hypothetical prolonged economic crisis such as was seen in the West in the past decade.

Complacency could be another important obstacle. Although Asian countries are investing huge amounts in higher education at a time when Western higher education institutions have been affected by the financial crisis, as Lim points out, the European Commission in Brussels has just launched its Horizon 2020 project – representing a significant increase in its research budget to close to €80 billion (US$85.5 billion) from 2014 until 2020.

“The message for Asia or any other aspirant higher education superpower is that other countries and regions are not standing still. Given the developed regions’ other advantages, [Asia] clearly still has some way to go before it can achieve superpower status,” Lim said.

And ensuring their higher education systems respond well to their own changing economies and produce the right kind of graduates and researchers is another issue.

“Despite the many positive trends in the field of higher education in Asia, there remain many serious challenges to overcome. It would be a mistake for Asian governments to continue on a steady course of expansion and massive investments in the higher education sphere without paying attention to the changing education landscape,” said Singapore’s Mahbubani and Chye.