From where I sit: Confucian values

May 27, 2010

Asia-Pacific higher education is becoming a global force, but only some nations in the region have achieved or approached parity with Western Europe and North America.

The truly spectacular success story is from the Confucian zone in East Asia. Japan achieved high participation rates and research-intensive universities in the 1970s: now Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and China are following suit. Student numbers and research are growing by leaps and bounds.

All the Confucian systems are rising - except Vietnam, only partly Confucian and poorer than the others, and North Korea, which is on Planet X.

Between 1991 and 2007, the number of tertiary students in East Asia and the Pacific rose from 14 million to 44 million. The regional tertiary gross enrolment rate (GER) reached the world average, with South Korea's GER at a startling 96 per cent.

Internet connectivity is also advancing rapidly in the region, but the headline story is research. In 2007, national investment in research and development was 3.5 per cent of GDP in South Korea, 3.4 per cent in Japan and 2.6 per cent in Taiwan and Singapore (in the UK, it was 1.8 per cent).

The last Confucian cab off the rank is the double-decker bus: China. Its tertiary GER has jumped from 4 per cent to 23 per cent since 1990. Project 985 is creating global universities. The rate of R&D investment has doubled to 1.5 per cent of GDP. China has the second-largest R&D budget in the world. From 1995 to 2007, the average yearly increase in published science papers was 16.5 per cent in China and 14.1 per cent in South Korea.

The rest of Asia is not matching the Confucian zone. In 2007, the tertiary GERs in India and Pakistan were 13 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively. The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia are investing heavily, but their "world-class" institutions and foreign enclaves are cordoned off from local society and poorly integrated with economic development, in contrast with the Confucian zone.

East Asia embodies a new Confucian model of higher education. The key is the willingness of families to invest in schooling, tertiary education and extra tuition. Households are driving the growth in participation. Private investment is secured less by neoliberal ideology than an older Confucian respect for self-formation via education, within a social hierarchy "harmonised" by fierce competition for university entry.

Private tertiary investment exceeds public funding by three to one in South Korea and Japan, which have large private sectors. In China, the public share of tertiary funding fell from 96 per cent in 1978, the year of the "Four Modernisations", to 45 per cent in 2005.

By freeing Confucian governments from much of the cost of participation, the private investment in tuition enables state hyper-investment in research and elite universities. This combination of private and public funding, plus economic growth, is allowing the Confucian systems to lift participation, quality and R&D all together.

It is a brilliant model. We have yet to see all it can do ... but it may have downsides. In the most mature Confucian system, Japan, sudden-death competition brutalises adolescents. Academic independence is inhibited by close central regulation and a pervasive conformity. Public funding is so reduced that there is limited scope for strategic initiatives and compensatory social-equity measures.

China and Singapore maintain higher public funding. But the jury is still out on the extent to which these systems can foster a spirit of openness, criticism and free-wheeling creativity.

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