Iran, China lead rapid growth in Asia’s research

This is a dynamic time in higher education, especially in East and Southeast Asia. Across the world, in all middle-income and high-income nations, both elite higher education and mass higher education are moving to a more central role.

Since the late 1990s, worldwide participation in universities and colleges has grown at an accelerating rate. Mass higher education now extends also to low-income countries – in one quarter of all nations with a gross domestic product, or GDP, per person of less than US$5000, the rate of enrolment now exceeds 15%.

Meanwhile, science and university research, and 'World-Class Universities', are also spreading.

Scientific output is growing very rapidly on an annual basis in eight BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and other emerging economies, more quickly than in any university system in the past, including the United States. In these systems, enrolments at tertiary level are also growing rapidly.

Four of these countries are in East and Southeast Asia, Singapore (annual growth rate of science papers 9%), Malaysia (11.5%), Thailand (12.7%) and China (15.4%). The fastest growth of research is in Iran (23.5%), which is represented in the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning or ASAIHL.

Across the world, international student mobility is growing at twice the rate of student enrolments. In East and Southeast Asia it has become an important medium for building cross-border regional integration, within ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and especially between the ASEAN nations and East Asia. Taiwan, like Korea, Japan and China, has placed priority on recruiting students from Southeast Asia, which parallels the pattern of East Asian investment in Southeast Asia.

For East Asia, Southeast Asia is a new economic frontier, a customer and a source of lower priced labour, and perhaps a demographic source to supplement ageing populations.

For East Asian higher education, there are public goods as well as private goods to be developed through transactions and cooperation. There is growing staff and student exchange with ASEAN, and research partnerships. In part of Southeast Asia there are opportunities to contribute to capacity building in higher education. Aid and trade, knowledge and people flows are combined.

Historic flows

But this continues the long pattern of flows in the East Asian corridor, running between Indonesia and Japan.

Southeast Asia has always been shaped by its geography between South Asia and East Asia. Hindu-Buddhism fed the cultures of the maritime empire of Srivijaya and the awesome hydraulic regime in Angkor; Indian influence dominated over Chinese influences in Indochina up to the border between Champa and North Vietnam; and Islam came to Indonesia, the Malay peninsula and the Philippines from West Asia and South Asia.

At the same time, during the Song, Yuan and later the Ming dynasties, the route to China, Korea and Japan through the South China Sea, the Nan Hai, was becoming increasingly important. East Asian merchants became distributed across the region. Trade in the East Asian corridor climaxed between 1770 and 1850 when it was growing by 4% a year.

Western military intervention and colonisation disrupted the regional flows.

We are now seeing a reversion to the historic pattern of regional relations in East Asia. Within the global setting, partly as a response to globalisation, trade and cultural exchange are maximised in regional blocs, formal or informal.

Whereas in the past the East Asian corridor was populated by tributary and private trade, now it is also sustained by flows of learning and ideas. And it continues to be a zone of cultural mixing between states and beyond states, in which new ways of life are developed. We can hope it will generate new solutions to the problems of the human condition. The East Asian corridor is one of the world’s creative zones.

Here I am providing an outsider’s overview of higher education and research in East Asia and Southeast Asia in a global context.

Economy and population

National size and economic wealth are very uneven and this is central in all regional relations.

Singapore’s achievement in all areas is extraordinary. It is hard to find a university anywhere in the world with a more effective global strategy and developmental trajectory than the National University of Singapore – except perhaps Nanyang Technological University.

Malaysia is now as wealthy as Portugal and Russia in per capita income terms and after long periods of prosperity Thailand and Indonesia are now entrenched as middle-income countries.

In the next generation the world will talk about Indonesia, the world’s fourth-largest nation, the way it now talks about Brazil. For all the remarkable qualities of their people, the nations of Indochina, which bore the brunt of Western intervention, remain poor but are moving forward.

Turning now to Northeast Asia, this region has become as wealthy and powerful as Western Europe and the United Kingdom, or more so. Combined research and development investment now exceeds North America. Taiwan has almost exactly the same population and GDP as Australia, though it has less land, less kangaroos and more rain.

On the Purchasing Power Parity measure of GDP, China’s economy has reached that of the United States. We all know of the dynamism of modern South Korea because its economic, cultural and educational influence not only permeates East and Southeast Asia but the world.

It is not always realised at world level that Iran, a large nation with a long civilisational tradition, has made very considerable progress in the last two decades in higher education and science.

Growth of HE participation

Let’s look more closely at recent growth in educational participation. Up till about the mid-1990s worldwide participation in ‘tertiary education’ – the UNESCO and OECD definition of higher education that refers to programmes of at least two-years full-time or more – grew at the same rate that world GDP grew in real terms. Then something changed.

The growth of tertiary education shot above GDP. Higher education became qualitatively more important, and more costly. It became a higher priority in the economy, policy and society.

In many countries, the pace of growth accelerated at much the same time, in the second half of the 1990s and after. Rapid growth has extended to all regions except Central Asia. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where participation remains low, it is increasing quickly from its low base.

At world level the Gross Tertiary Enrolment Ratio is now increasing at 1% a year. One third of the school leaver age group now enrols. One per cent a year is 20 % in 20 years. In another generation half of all people will enter tertiary education and a third will gain a degree. Less than 15 years ago, only half of all people had mobile phones. Will higher education become as commonplace as mobile phones?

In the East Asia and Pacific zone participation has now caught up to the world rate. Essentially this is because China, with its demographic weight, is almost there. As you know, China’s GDP per person began increasingly rapidly since the early 1980s, but it was only in 2000, when policy changed, that participation in higher education took off, zooming past GDP per head. Middle-class demand is now so strong that the growth pattern is irreversible. The official target of 40% by 2020 will be reached.

Taiwan moved earlier to expand tertiary education and at 84% to 85% now has one of the highest participation rates in the world. The quality of its diverse academic and technical-vocational institutions is crucial to that.

If we compare Gross Tertiary Enrolment Ratios, or GTERs, across the ASEAN nations plus East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, India and the other comparator and ASAIHL countries, we can see here that the systems in societies in the Chinese civilisational tradition – the China, Hong Kong SAR, Taiwan and also Korea and Japan – have exceptional levels of tertiary education.

At 97% the GTER in Korea is second in the world. Singapore, where we don’t have data, is at a similar level to Hong Kong. A majority of the school leaver age cohort enters tertiary education in Thailand at 51% though Malaysia is disappointing at 39%, not far ahead of the Philippines and Indonesia with their lower GDP per head. In Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar not enough students reach the end of school.

It should be noted, however, that aggregate participation figures only do not tell us about the quality of mass education, which is highly variable.

There is a good fit between the pattern of participation in tertiary education in an Asia-Pacific society, and the level of Internet penetration. It’s not the one causes the other, both are signs of the level of resources and modernisation, but no doubt Internet connectivity facilitates advanced education.

In Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan and China Internet use is higher than educational level, while the opposite is true in Thailand and Indonesia where education is ahead of networking. Internet use is very low in Cambodia and Myanmar.

There is also a good fit between the level of participation in tertiary education and the proportion of the population living in cities. The urban share is mostly higher than the GTER but tertiary education is catching up.

Statistically three developments go together: growth of the middle class, the growth of cities, and growth of higher education. The required scale of provision of higher education means that higher education institutions concentrate in cities. Cities also concentrate the middle-class families that lead social demand for higher education. This builds a critical mass of upper secondary students, concentrates political pressure for expanded higher education provision and enables economies of scale. In turn the growing higher education infrastructure funnels and magnifies aspirations.

In Indonesia, for example, the GTER has risen broadly in line with the urban share of population since 1990, a period during which the share of labour in agriculture has fallen significantly.
This is not to say all people living in cities are middle class or educational aspirations are confined to them. Higher education in cities comes within viewing distance of the whole urban population, accumulating demand and placing greater pressure on government and markets to provide access.

With the continuing mobility of large numbers of people between countryside and cities, especially in China, India and Indonesia, you can be sure that the demand for higher education and level of enrolment will keep going up.

Growth of science and research

In the 1990s the Internet and the globalisation of English-language science created a one world research system. Most new knowledge comes from this system, not nation-bound systems. If they can, national economies, governments and universities need to connect to that global knowledge system to draw innovation benefits and deal with foreign corporations, governments and universities.

In turn, this, together with the movement for 'World-Class Universities', has stimulated the growth of national science systems, including home PhD training, in many more countries.

There has been a surge of investment in research and development in East Asia. Korea has the highest level of investment in the world, 4.29% of GDP. China’s investment is rising by 0.1% of GDP a year and in five years will pass the United States. Most resources go to the large state enterprises but enough reaches the universities to drive rapid growth in scientific outputs.

While Indonesia has not yet started to build a modern research system, Malaysia is spending, and there is growing research activity in Thai universities.

There are 50 countries around the world with the broad capacity to produce their own science. Most, though not all, have GDP per head at US$20,000 and more.

In Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines the outputs are largely by overseas trained doctoral students working with their PhD advisers.

Among other countries in the Asia-Pacific, the main story is the enormous output of published science coming out of China. When the world’s largest nation grows its research at the rate of 15% a year for almost 20 years, it is mathematically certain that in future a large part of human knowledge will come from that country.

In just one decade the total output of published science in East Asia has moved well past the United States. China is moving into second place in research after the United States. In quantity terms it will move past the US in the next five years. In quality terms the United States, and also Europe as a bloc, are still well ahead of China. The US produces a third of the world’s leading science, the high citation papers, the top 10% and top 1% papers.

However, in the physical sciences and engineering in China – engineering, computing, chemistry, physics and to a lesser extent mathematics – China’s research quality is improving at a remarkable rate. In the year 2000 it produced 0.6% of the world’s top papers in chemistry. By 2012 that world share of top papers had risen to 16.3%. China’s research in medicine and the life sciences is weaker.

Research in East Asia and Singapore as a whole is strongest in the physical sciences and engineering, the fields that relate to urbanisation, construction, transport, communications, energy and also the environmental implications of development. That’s where the research and development investment has gone.

World-class universities

Let’s turn to the emergence and strengthening of research-intensive universities in East and Southeast Asia. 'World-Class Universities' are universities that figure in global ranking and that normally means research universities. Research drives the whole of the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, or ARWU. Research and research-related reputation drives more than two-thirds of the Times Higher Education ranking and half of the QS ranking.

At world level the list is dominated by the United States and Oxford and Cambridge in the UK. Toronto in Canada is very large. The number of top 10% papers from Harvard (7,060) is more than twice that of number two, Stanford University (3,223).

As yet, Asian universities are not strongly represented in the top 30 of the major research rankings. One reason is that Americans in the large American research system tend to cite Americans. In addition, there are time lags between investment in research, increased scientific output, its recognition in citations, and the pick-up of citation performance in rankings. So the most recent investment in Asia is not showing yet.

However, the protracted investments are now bearing fruit. Between 2004 and 2015 the number of universities in China in the world top 500 jumped from eight to 32. Taiwan saw an increase from just three in 2004 to seven in 2015. Hong Kong has the same five but this is a strong research university system with excellent citation rates. Some Hong Kong universities would be higher placed except that the Hong Kong University Grants Committee maintains all universities at a modest size and keeps an effective balance between them.

Iran now has two ARWU world top 500 universities, as does Malaysia, Universiti Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia. It is a little surprising that Korea only has one top 200 university, Seoul National University. That will change. China now has four in the top 150, Tsinghua, Beida (Peking), Shanghai Jiao Tong and Zhejiang. In Singapore, the National University of Singapore, or NUS, would be in the top 50 if it was not for the Nobel Prize factor in ARWU, which affects 30% of the index used for ranking.

Let's consider data taken from the Leiden University ranking released on 17 May. This is the best ranking of research universities – sound in terms of technical validity, and the most user friendly. It provides data in five discipline clusters as well as overall. However, the Leiden ranking includes only the leading 842 universities that produced 1,000 papers or more in 2012-15. It does not provide much information on emerging systems.

What stands out here is the rapid rate of improvement in quality in some regional universities, as measured by the growth of high citation scientific papers – for example Nanyang, Fudan, Beida (Peking) and Zhejiang universities. NUS in Singapore now produces almost two-thirds as many high-citation papers as the University of Cambridge in the UK.

At Nanyang 14.8% of all papers are high citation papers, compared to 12.9% at NUS. The number of high citation papers, the quantity of quality in science, is a good measure of total research firepower.

In Taiwan the acknowledged leader of research is confirmed as National Taiwan University. Interesting to see the Universiti Malaya would be number two if it was located in Taiwan. But Taiwan has depth – it has 19 universities in the Leiden ranking. Note that Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia are not far from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia on these measures. Thailand is a bit further back but has five research universities in the world top 800.

Every nation now needs its own capacity in research, and the provision of that capacity has become part of the responsibility of modern governments, like roads, clean water and a viable banking system.

As you know, building research capacity and performance requires focus, time and resources; it means being self-critical and benchmarking against stronger systems; it means researchers have to be paid sufficiently well to keep enough of them from being poached by the established systems; and it benefits from cross-border help.

The World-Class Universities already established in the East Asian corridor countries will keep rising. What is less certain is whether, or when and how, research capacity will be built in the emerging higher education systems in the ASEAN region. But it is certain that collaboration with international partners will be crucial. International collaboration helps build a research system over time.

Professor Simon Marginson is director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education in London, UK. This is an edited version of his keynote speech and presentation on higher education and regional engagement in Taiwan and Southeast Asia, given at the 2016 Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning conference in Taiwan last month.