What does the rise of Asia mean for global higher education?

Many hurdles remain, from racism to presumed Western superiority, but equal dialogues and collaborations will foster the global common good, says Xin Xu

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1 June 2021
Collaboration between Asia and the West is a global common good in higher education and beyond
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The rise of the East is reshaping global higher education. It ignites curiosities, challenges assumptions and triggers debates. But, first, where is “the East”?

In this piece, the East broadly refers to Asia, including subregions such as east Asia, South-east Asia, south Asia and central Asia. “The West” broadly refers to Anglo-European systems. Concepts of the East, the West, the Global North and the Global South are often constructed based on an imagined “other” and a distinction from it. But all terms are too ambiguous to capture the numerous nuances within the referred region, hence this clarification.

In the past 30 years, the world has witnessed the rapid expansion of “world-class universities” in the East. Asian universities are surging on world university rankings, and gross tertiary and doctoral enrolment rates in many Asian systems are increasing faster than the world’s average growth rate.

Among the world’s top five countries for outbound international students, four are in Asia: China, India, Vietnam and South Korea. While Western countries still attract the most incoming international students, Japan, China, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and India are emerging as regional education hubs.

Many Asian countries’ funding for university research has expanded well beyond the world’s average. China has surpassed the US in quantity and leads the number of publications in science and engineering. More and more international faculty and returnee academics are moving to the East for academic careers in Asian universities. 

What is the relationship between Eastern and Western higher education?

The phenomenal development of Asian higher education is entangled with Western imprints. In Asia, the West is often used as a reference point for “catching up”, as an equivalent to “international”, as a teacher to learn from and as a symbol of “modernisation”. All these assumptions are associated with continuing colonial imagery, white supremacy and Anglo-European dominance in global higher education.

Consequently, Asian universities are performing “better” in the Western sense. Their ontologies, epistemologies, discourses, methodologies and standards still showcase Western influences. For example, the positions of Asian universities are measured and defined by Western ranking criteria. English carries growing importance, although it is not the official language for most Asian countries. Many Asian universities are incorporating “international” elements in teaching and research, often via promoting English-medium instruction and English-language publications.

The East and the West are forming stronger ties in higher education and research, although the pattern is asymmetrical at the moment. Most outbound Asian students head to Western countries. China, India and South Korea are the top three sending countries of international students to the US. In the UK, China and India are the top two providers of students. But most US and British students head to other Western countries for an overseas education. Meanwhile, the US is the top scientific collaborator for China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India and Kazakhstan. But for the US, only China is among its top five scientific collaborators, along with the UK, Germany, Canada and France.

The East understands the West better than the other way around. This is partly because, as noted, the East has been following the West in many regards. It’s also due to a sense of complacency from the West, coupled with a lack of interest, respect or humility to learn from the East and the rest of the world.

The colonial imagery that positioned the West as “the best” lingers not only in the East, but in most of the world, including the West itself. Consequently, reaching equal ground can be challenging. It can be mistakenly assumed that non-Western knowledge and practices are inferior or not valuable or need to be appropriated towards Western frameworks.

In universities, this can manifest itself as racism, stereotyping, discrimination, oppression and marginalisation. For example, valuable points raised by students drawing on Asian knowledge and practices can be ignored by lecturers and classmates. Non-white or non-Western scholars can be omitted from reading lists, citation lists or collaboration networks. Students and academics whose mother tongue is not English can be discriminated against in academic and non-academic settings. The decolonisation agenda and postcolonial discourses have long tried to point out that diversity of knowledge is beneficial to all.

In the end, the East and the West will never be the same, largely due to fundamental cultural differences and the resilience of endogenous cultures that still nourish contemporary higher education. Asian universities, academics and students have nonetheless been emphasising local agency and pushing back against potential Westernisation. For example, China recently abolished the primacy of international publications in research in an attempt to rebalance national and international knowledge. Their Western counterparts are also increasingly cautious about Eastern or foreign influences, as the US-China new cold war in higher education has been showing the world.

What does the rise of the East mean for global higher education?

East-West competition is foreseeable, particularly given geopolitical tensions. But in higher education and research, where East-West ties are well established and beneficial to all, there is much room for learning and unlearning, not only in the East and the West about each other, but in the wider world beyond the East-West axis.

The world is entering a multi-polar era where diversified systems develop simultaneously – the East being one of them, and a remarkable one. Fostering equal dialogues and mutually beneficial collaborations between and beyond East-West is for the global common good. The growing African-Asian higher education collaboration is one telling example.

The sun may rise in the East, but it shines across the world. The rebuttal to the East-versus-West dichotomy is not to create another grouping of “the East and the rest”. The rise of the East does challenge the pre-existing Western dominance, but it should not mean replacing the rule of the West with the rule of the East. Instead, it provides opportunities to the West and beyond for more collaborative, open and diversified global higher education.

Xin Xu is a research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Global Higher Education. This commentary partly draws on her recent article “Epistemic diversity and cross-cultural comparative research: ontology, challenges, and outcomes” and forthcoming book, Changing Higher Education in East Asia

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