Liberal arts 'have a bigger role to play in Asian HE'

In the rush to compete in global rankings, Asian countries may be over-standardising higher education development without providing sufficient alternative pathways to address the diversified needs of students, according to a new paper published by the Centre for Global Higher Education or CGHE, UCL Institute of Education, London.

The author, Ka Ho Mok, vice-president and chair professor of comparative policy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and an international co-investigator at the CGHE, argues for a reassessment of higher education provision and the meanings of global rankings, and makes the case for adopting liberal arts education more widely.

Mok says we should not simply treat universities as tools to meet economic demands and serve growth of gross domestic product.

Liberal arts education prepares students to pursue enduring goals “with adaptive practice” for an interconnected and increasingly complex world, fostering “big picture and comparative knowledge” across global boundaries and borderlands.

Universities should be seen as “places to cultivate students to become compassionate leaders with international and regional perspectives, broad-based education, and professional skills to handle increasingly complex problems or issues”.

He said: “The growing importance of liberal arts in fostering this kind of talent should not be ignored.”

Who benefits?

In the paper, The Quest for World-Class University Status: Implications for sustainable development of Asian universities, published as part of the CGHE’s working paper series, he asks for whose benefit are universities eager to improve their international prestige and whether students are rewarded by their investments in tertiary education.

The paper explores the major challenges confronting higher education in selected Asian countries – particularly Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan and Singapore – and examines the specific purpose of higher education. It notes that governments are making serious efforts to increase competitiveness of universities and achieve a high international ranking at a time when massification of higher education is generating concern for graduates confronting underemployment and joblessness.

In particular the paper critically examines the role of liberal arts education in Asia, specifically the role of differentiation and fit-for-purpose education in addressing the growing diversity of learning needs and achieving sustainable development of higher education.

Mok praises selected Asian countries’ “major achievements in producing additional learning opportunities in tertiary education for citizens, ascending in global league tables, and publishing high-quality journal articles internationally”.

But he says we also have to be cautious about the negative effects emerging in the past few decades. “The mismatch between the university and the labour market, the stratification among higher education institutions and the possible loss of national identity have been attracting increasing attention from both researchers and policy-makers.”

He highlights the problems of underemployment and unemployment that have “haunted the central governments in those nations with rapidly massified higher education systems”.

In South Korea there are reportedly three million economically inactive graduates, in Japan 38% of graduates in 2009 could not find jobs eight months after graduating and in China it appears that in 2013 only 38% could secure their first job.

Across the selected countries there is a trend of increasing youth unemployment and the assumption that higher education promotes upward social mobility is being challenged.

Mok reports that even though Asian countries have demonstrated some success in building world-class universities, almost three-quarters of entering cohorts come from the wealthiest 25% in these top-tier higher education institutions. This raises the question of who is benefiting from the pursuit of world-class status, in addition to whether universities are pursuing top rankings at the expense of diversification and without protecting local culture and heritage, he says.

Mok highlights the importance of not simply copying policies or good practice without considering the context and calls on systems to honour and reinvent local cultures, practices and traditions to solve global problems.

Mok singles out Hong Kong for emphasising research performance but needing to differentiate between universities having differing missions, strengths and specialisms in developing centres of research excellence.

In Taiwan, the introduction of university league tables with a bias towards research papers in international publications has led to criticism that this undermines academic freedom. Mok explained to University World News that the choice of topics or publication venues are affected by pressure to publish internationally and by funding sources, especially when funding may be directed by market forces and assessments of performance biased towards international citations.

In the paper he also says that special funding for selected universities has been blamed for its contribution to increased stratification of higher education institutions.

The Chinese government has concentrated grants on a limited number of universities as part of its plans to develop 100 key universities and disciplines and transform its elite universities – Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing – into super elites, Mok adds.

Alarmed by its declining position in regional and global league tables, Japan has allocated more resources in the past decade to promote international collaborations and student exchange programmes.

The Singapore government has invited world-renowned institutions to establish overseas campuses or offer programmes in collaboration with local institutions with the aim of making Singapore the ‘Boston of the East’, but the government was criticised for bringing in too many overseas students to compete with the locals, Mok says.


He stresses that Hong Kong universities demonstrate the importance of differentiation and fit-for-purpose education.

“While catering to the increasing call for more global integration and closer international connection, local needs should also be taken into serious consideration,” he said. “Engaging in community services and promoting knowledge transfer have thus become imperatives for academics.”

He cited his own university, Lingnan, which has positioned itself as “the leading liberal arts college” in Asia as a good example of a university that is fit for purpose.

He uses the definition of the Association of American Colleges and Universities that a liberal education should provide both broad knowledge in areas of study and knowledge in a specific major or field of interest; but also develop a sense of social responsibility; practical skills spanning all areas of study – such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills; and the ability to apply knowledge and skills in the real world.

Lingnan University is renowned for its ‘whole-person’ education, research performance, and has demonstrated teaching quality and achieved a high employment rate among its graduates, he says.

Community engagement and incorporating classroom learning with hostel life and campus activities are a key factor, helping students develop critical thinking, aesthetic appreciation, leadership strategies, social skills and ethical values.

But Lingnan also performs strongly on the development of research and knowledge, and has established platforms for local and international scholars to cooperate in research. This includes a partnership with 10 globally leading higher education institutions to co-organise and international postgraduate summer school and international conference this year.

Even though the principles for liberal arts colleges do not cultivate students to become experts in a specific area, the employment rate of Lingnan University graduates consistently exceeds 95%, just above average for young people in Hong Kong, Mok says.

“The strengths of Lingnan University rest on its belief in role differentiation, which drives the whole institution to strive for different experiences for its students,” Mok says.

“Unlike other performance-oriented higher education institutions, its whole-person direction compels the faculty to keep the balance between teaching and research tasks, thereby ensuring the students’ learning experience.”