Asia emerging as ‘third pole’ in higher education

Asia is becoming a ‘third pole’ in higher education, as the bipolar world of higher education previously dominated by Europe and North America is set to change, a conference organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, and the Singapore government heard last week.

The rise of Asia has meant “a big part of this planet is now contributing to the knowledge society”, Bertil Andersson, president of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, told the conference. Some 25 years ago it was a bipartite system with perhaps Japan as the sole outlier in the East, he said.

Stefan Kapferer, deputy secretary-general of the Paris-based OECD, an organisation of richer countries, said: “In the coming 50 years, we can expect to see a major shift of economic balance towards emerging economies, particularly those in Asia.”

The economic powerhouse was moving from the old industrialised countries to Asia, Kapferer said. “The economic powerhouse is moving and there are good reasons to believe also the powerhouse of higher education will move,” he told the conference held in Singapore on 14-15 October.

“The growth in the number of graduates in the [Asian] region is going to be phenomenal, so a higher share of knowledge-based work is going to come from the region, whether these graduates are based in the region or they move somewhere else and contribute to global knowledge-based work from somewhere else,” said Lily Kong, provost of Singapore Management University, or SMU. It will be “a non-trivial contribution” in the decades ahead, she said.

However, speakers at the conference noted the rise of Asia will not disrupt the current supremacy of higher education in North America and Europe until it also strengthens inter-regional mobility and collaboration.

“East Asia is a dynamic region. When Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea strengthen their cooperation, East Asia is likely to become the ‘third pole’ of higher education in a new world of knowledge creation,” said Song Yonghua, executive vice-president of China’s Zhejiang University. “It will be a third centre after Europe and the US.”

Song added the emergence of this ‘third pole’ in higher education would bring about “brand new changes” in the higher education landscape globally.

The question is how such an emerging system will be different, said Rolf Tarrach, president of the European University Association, or EUA, and a former rector of the University of Luxembourg, echoing concerns of the global homogenisation in higher education expressed by SMU’s Kong, who noted that with the opportunities for growth in the region, it is important for higher education systems in Asia to focus on innovating, and not to become a homogenous copy of higher education systems in the West.

“How far will there be an Asian ingredient in the development of the [global] system?” asked Tarrach.

Reversal of influence?

“In a short term period, maybe we may no longer talk about [Asian] countries as countries of origin – people interested in higher education going to the traditional universities in the United States, Australia, the UK or elsewhere in Europe. We will also have a situation where these are countries of destination. Where people are interested to go to, and discover, Asia as a hub of higher education in the future,” Andersson said.

“An increasing trend is that institutions go from Europe to Asia, institutions go from the US to Asia,” said Andersson, referring to branch campuses and other forms of collaboration such as joint degrees, double degrees and transnational education where overseas-accredited programmes are delivered in Asia.

“These are often investments where Europe and the United States want to make money and position themselves in the rising Asia,” he said, adding there is also a movement of professors from Europe and the United States and Asia.

According to the QS global university rankings there are 19 Asian universities in the top 100; five years ago there were just 15. “It is not a landslide but a steady increase and I would predict that would continue and maybe in five years there will be 25,” Andersson said. “These are not dramatic changes, but systematic changes.”

But as Asia matures as a higher education power, it is also beginning to face similar problems to the West. How these are tackled could have positive consequences globally, said the EUA’s Tarrach. “If [these problems] are properly and differently treated here [in Asia], the impact on the rest of the world will be huge.”

He noted that Europe, for example, was a continent somewhat “stifled by regulation”, describing it as a “continent which tries to avoid risk”.

How Asian countries address issues of institutional autonomy, academic freedom and aging populations, for example, “provides opportunities for the rest of the world to learn”, said Steve Egan, vice-president at the University of Bath in England.

SMU’s Kong was realistic, saying “the value of Asian universities to the global education landscape is highest when they are not homogenous”.

In fact, the rise of Asia’s universities has “contributed to a certain amount of homogenisation throughout the world”, she said.

“To be internationally competitive is to be internationally competitive in research,” and this striving to be globally competitive has spilled over into other practices “to follow the lead” of the West, spurred by international rankings, she said.

“We are pushing our universities to perform to a certain set of metrics defined in other parts of the world,” Kong said. This brings potential benefits to Asian higher education systems but it should also “give us pause for thought”.

Despite the predictions of an emerging ‘third pole’, Asia’s emergence on the global higher education landscape is not yet on a par with universities in the West.

For example, 25% of Singaporean students prefer to enrol in a foreign university even if it is lower ranked internationally than a Singaporean one, Andersson said.

Western academia is still a benchmark for quality. For example, Andersson noted, Singapore takes top academics from the Western world to “quickstart” its knowledge economy. But “in ten years’ time, will Asian universities start to influence Europe or the United States?”

But “time’s up” for the West, Andersson said. It cannot be taken for granted in the longer term as the universities and higher education systems in Asia “become better and better”.

Western higher education “should be open to a reversal of influence”, Andersson said. “Yes, there is competition, but it is good competition as there are more people involved, more nations involved in knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination.”