World insight: the future of higher education in South Asia

We have reached a key moment in the development of the region's higher education sector, says Ismail Badat

June 15, 2016
Bangladeshi girl has head decorated with flowers, Dhaka University
Source: Getty

Rising demand in South Asia for higher education is currently not being met, despite its growing importance on the economic development agenda.

The demographic time bomb of a youthful population (more than 600 million under 18), the pace of social change and South Asia’s elevated position in the new economic order has created a critical mass of latent potential. By 2020, India alone will have the largest university age group cohort in the world, and careful management of this talent pipeline is not just an Indian concern but a global one.  

While an estimated 30 million or more are enrolled in tertiary education systems across the region, the unmet demand is estimated at three to four times this number. As South Asian countries forge a path towards growth of their industry and services sectors, the role of the higher education sector in facilitating a skilled, knowledgeable workforce has become critical – to the point of competitive advantage for many countries seeking investment. 

Coming soon: THE Asia University Rankings 2016

Following in the footsteps of its East Asian counterparts, rocketing demand for higher education has facilitated the growth of private provision as a strategy to absorb pressure on public-sector places, shifting the financial burden from the state, and has the potential to drive capacity, boost financing and improve quality of higher education provision in South Asia, although more robust regulation is required. With the exception of Sri Lanka and Nepal, most countries in the region have rapidly developed private sector higher education provision. 

South Asian universities rank poorly on international rankings, and need to work to “depoliticise” the sector, while raising standards of provision and quality assurance mechanisms. Concerns to do with quality of service provision are pervasive in both the private and public sectors.

India’s first government-backed rankings for higher education, launched in 2016 in an attempt to provide an indigenous picture of university health (notwithstanding that opinion is divided on such league tables) has begun to put sharp focus and promote debate on the quality of provision (not just quantity) within institutions and by learners too. 

If South Asia wants to achieve sustainable economic growth, governments and industry need to pay greater attention to education and invest greater amounts of funding into research. While research capacity has been increasing, the proportion of South Asia’s research output compared with the rest of the world is extremely low. The total research output from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries accounts for only about 2.86 per cent of the total global output over the past 50 years.

In 2013, China produced 71,003 documents with international collaborations, compared with Indias 17,484, Pakistans 4,278 and Bangladeshs 1,566. Paradoxically, while more countries from outside the region are looking to collaborate on research with South Asian universities, just 2.2 per cent of all international collaborations involve countries within the region.

Greater research collaboration at a regional level could be a productive first step in particular to reaping the benefits of collaborating on projects that address common, region-specific challenges. 

There is hope, however. A growing trend of graduates with PhDs, either through scholarship programmes or self-funded, are returning from abroad with recent exposure to higher education in countries where the sector is more developed. This is beginning to strengthen the research capacity within institutions in South Asia. 

The disconnect between the needs of the market and the courses offered by higher education institutions has contributed to high levels of graduate unemployment and underemployment. There is evidence of co-opting industry as a stakeholder in the learning process. For example, the IT services giant Infosys has undertaken to work directly with lower ranked universities in India on the company’s own corporate campus in a bid to boost the employability of new graduates. A successful outcome-based  higher education experience is becoming more of an imperative in South Asia, where unemployment is not a option. 

Female representation in leadership remains low by any benchmark, despite huge progress being made at undergraduate level with women almost reaching parity in numbers with men. Numbers in Afghanistan, for example, have grown from virtually zero during the Taliban era to nearly 180,000 women in tertiary education today. However, just 3 per cent of vice-chancellors in the region are women.

The reasons are complex. Cultural barriers, hostile recruitment and selection practices, and a lack of structured development programmes for women are among the issues.  

A recent trend towards devolving more autonomy over tertiary education to states and provinces has opened up new possibilities that are playing an enabling and facilitating role in all aspects of higher education. India has led the way, with devolution of authority initiated in 2013 meaning that states enjoy greater autonomy to reform, govern and fund the sector.

Many of these states have developed strategies to bring about the reform needed to strengthen their education sectors, and have an appetite for pursuing international collaborations – an area that, although key to rankings, remains untapped. The Pakistani province of Punjab has charted an ambitious course, and has developed an education "road map" that includes establishing a 400-acre knowledge park with plans to host universities and technology partners from across the globe. 

This is a pivotal time for the world to invest in building and strengthening academic collaborations with South Asian higher education institutions, and to engage with state governments to bring systemic reform that supports the internationalisation and research collaborations. The numbers in South Asia coupled with geopolitical and financial limitations mean that conventional models of higher education delivery and economics cannot meet the scale of the challenges faced by countries in the region.

Large-scale structural reform is required in the areas of service provision, establishment of research networks, equity of access to educational opportunities at all levels – particularly to research and leadership roles for women – and a clear relationship between learning and employability. This reform is now a prerequisite to make the connection between quality education, relevant skills and prosperous stable societies.

International partners have a key role to play in these reforms. However, it requires a deep understanding of the country context, institutional culture, leadership, funding sources and appropriate partnership models that bring sustainable mutual benefits in a complex but hugely rewarding region.

Ismail Badat is the British Council South Asia regional manager for higher and further education.

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