Is South-east Asia higher education’s next global hotspot?

With a vast youth population but relatively low participation rates, higher education in the Asean region looks ripe for expansion. But can challenges over funding, quality and regional cooperation be overcome? Joyce Lau reports 

June 24, 2021
 Villagers use an aluminium ladder to cross a concrete bridge as a metaphor for Is South-east Asia  higher education’s next global hotspot
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When it comes to the growth in student numbers in recent years, it is natural to focus on the two Asian giants of India and China. Those two nations, with their billion-plus populations, account for the bulk of the world’s international students and dominate Western universities’ financial planning for the post-pandemic world.

However, it is arguable that horizon-scanners should be looking much more closely at the cluster of smaller, densely populated nations sandwiched between those regional superpowers.

In terms of raw numbers, the 660 million population of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is comparable to that of continental Europe. However, the demographics are very different: the average age of an Asean citizen is 29, compared with about 40 in the West. And, according to the United Nations, the region is home to about one in 11 of the world’s 15- to 24-year-olds.

Yet despite already having about 20 million students in tertiary education, the Asean region has enrolment rates averaging only around 40 per cent, compared with 90 per cent in parts of East Asia. That potential makes South-east Asia particularly fertile ground for higher education. Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s former foreign minister and author of Does Asean Matter? A View from Within, says that “the prospect for higher education growth in Asean cannot be underestimated”. And, in 2015, regional leaders signed the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, which cites higher education as “one of the catalysts in accelerating Asean’s economic, political and sociocultural development agenda”.

However, Stuart Gietel-Basten, an expert on Asian demographics and professor of social science and public policy at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), warns that favourable population figures alone will not drive expansion. “Demography is not destiny. You have to look at the available resources, systems, institutions and governance,” he cautions.

That point is echoed by Choltis Dhirathiti, executive director of the Asean University Network (AUN). He calls the region’s large cohort of young people “both an opportunity and a problem. The opportunity is that we have a lot of talent to choose from for admission to our universities. The problem is whether we can offer that quality of education to everyone.”

People pass by a steel globe sculpture at a mall in Manila, Philippines.
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Many countries in the region continue to be beset by rural poverty, outdated infrastructure and political instability. Sharifah Munirah Alatas, an expert in strategic studies and international relations at the  Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, sees political interference as “Malaysia’s biggest challenge to education excellence and growth”. Some of the socio-economic barriers, meanwhile, have been underlined during the pandemic.

For instance, while many commentators have suggested that the rise of online education during lockdowns could make higher education more accessible, urban households in Malaysia are grappling with having “many children in a less-than-conducive home set-up”, Alatas says. And “the situation is worse in rural areas…where internet connectivity is highly unstable and often absent”.

A vivid illustration of the connectivity issue was provided by a video that went viral of a Malaysian university student hiking into the woods and climbing a tree in an attempt to get a wi-fi signal strong enough to complete her online exams.

The pandemic has also heightened the issue of affordability. “Economically, the pandemic has affected millions of households, which is a major reason why their higher education is being deferred by students,” Alatas says.

As for quality, the scale of the challenge is laid bare in university rankings. Asean claims to have about 7,000 higher education institutions. The AUN does not have an exact count of how many universities there are among them, but Dhirathiti estimates that there are more than 4,000. Of those, however, only 49 made it to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021. The highly developed city-state of Singapore has two institutions in the top 50, but no other Asean nation has an institution in the top 300, and three member states have no ranked universities at all: Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

In fairness, the region is well aware of the quality issue and, in 2016, launched the Asean Quality Assurance Network, in consultation with European exerts. The launch statement calls quality control a “key component of education harmonisation and promotion of accountability, comparability and visibility towards a credible HE system in Asean”.

Dhirathiti says that his main professional goal is “quality development” – and he insists that he is pushing against an open door. “There’s a lot of criticism, particularly of universities that are not in the top tier,” he says. “But, from my own experiences, universities in our region are really trying to improve their teaching methods and research capacity.”

As for global league tables, Dhirathiti says that methodologies that draw heavily on research citations would be “problematic” for most institutions in the region, which are more focused on supporting local populations.

“It’s a question of balancing growth with our Asian traditional practice of having universities as part of close-knit communities, and with a strong focus on teaching,” he says.

Alatas agrees that regional decision-makers must keep this teaching focus in mind as they plan their responses to “the international pressure” imposed by rankings. But she also agrees that quantity in Asean higher education is not always matched by quality. And she thinks that this problem is exacerbated by an institutional “overcapacity” that sees too many students studying at low-quality private institutions. In Malaysia, these are “more likely to face closure or consolidation” post-Covid than the 20 main public universities that have been protected during the pandemic by an increase in government spending, Alatas says. Indeed, more than 20 per cent of the Malaysian government’s entire budget is now spent by the education and higher education ministries – and Indonesia spends a similar amount.

Table: Rank and file: Member states of ASEAN by population
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HKUST’s Gietel-Basten says that Asean faces an “interesting strategic question” of whether to focus on improving a small number of elite universities, as China did –sometimes to the detriment of lesser-known schools – or to develop more holistically.  

“Do you put all your eggs in one basket to create ‘diamond’ universities?" he asks. “Do you build a network of top regional institutions? Or do you go for the Dutch model of bringing up the entire sector?” he asks. “In terms of equality of access, [the Dutch model] is a better system for students – a sort of European model of regional development.”

Indonesia’s Natalegawa also acknowledges that tough choice. “Asean’s learning institutions are challenged – on the one hand, to provide the specialised skills and knowledge needed for the future – for instance, relating to digitalisation and environmental sustainability – and, on the other hand, to provide equitable and inclusive quality education for all, so that none are left behind,” he says.

The rankings success of the “China model” of pouring significant resources into institutions with the most potential in research and internationalisation has enthralled many Asian policymakers. For instance, Badri Munir Sukoco, a member of an Indonesian government’s higher education task force, has proposed that the country invest in higher-ranked universities: “If our best universities can increase their ranking, then they can attract better talent. If they can do that, they can create better technology, which leads to start-ups and economic progress,” he says.

Badri, who is director of the Postgraduate School at Universitas Airlangga in the East Javanese capital of Surabaya, cites China’s Double First Class programme, whose funnelling of funds into the top 1 or 2 per cent of Chinese universities has, he says, spurred significant research and innovation. He cites the Global Startup Ecosystem Report, a ranking of “startup ecosystems” produced annually by the consultancy Startup Genome and the Global Entrepreneurship Network. In 2015, the top 20 included no Chinese cities. Today, Beijing is ranked 4th, after Silicon Valley, New York and London.

“We are a young country – and young people will become our workforce and the nation’s professionals,” Badri says. “Asean is the future. The question is, how can we realise that?”

A new focus on innovation, he believes, is possible under Nadiem Anwar Makarim, the thirtysomething start-up founder who was appointed Indonesia’s education minister in 2019. However, he fears that without improvements to higher education, Indonesia could fall into the “middle-income trap”, a phenomenon whereby newly industrialising countries fail to develop into financial and technological leaders.

China, of course, has avoided that trap and is seen not only as an inspiration but also as a potential source of practical support in Asean.

“Cooperation with China has only just started, mostly with universities that border Asean countries, such as Vietnam, but this will be a big factor,” Dhirathiti says. “This is not only because of Chinese government support for projects, but also [because of] geographic proximity and cultural linkages.”  

What about the linkages and cooperation that already exist within Asean itself? So far, these are very underdeveloped.

“Asean member states would do well to promote greater synergy between their institutions of higher learning,” says Natalegawa. And he suggests facilitating “more seamless exchange programmes among the students” and “exploring the possibility of a common Asean certification standard”.

But he adds that Asean is “a region defined by diversity” – and that presents hurdles. For example, Asean member states speak 11 official national languages, most of which are mutually unintelligible. That leaves English as the bloc’s lingua franca, but it is only widely used for teaching in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei Darussalam. Hence, with the exception of Singapore – and some Western branch campuses in the likes of Malaysia and Indonesia – Asean universities are not highly internationalised.

Political unrest also has a habit of getting in the way of university cooperation. Myanmar’s previously improving higher education sector, for instance, is currently all but shut down amid the unrest following February’s military coup. Despite the Asean chairman’s call for a “peaceful solution” in April, the junta continued to suspend thousands of educators from their jobs.

Still, intra-Asean cooperation is taking tentative steps forward. As well as implementing the regional framework for quality control, policymakers in the region are also working on a common assessment framework – and they are looking to the European Union as a model for how to bring many countries together under one umbrella. But Dhirathiti warns that achieving a unified system for joint research, student movement or credit transfer is “not so easy”.

People queue to receive relief supplies from the food pantry during the Coronavirus crisis
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“The concept of intra-regional collaboration and mobility is still foreign to many South-east Asian universities,” he says. “For example, scholars in Malaysia and Thailand, or the Philippines and Indonesia, may not do projects with each other because there’s no tradition to do so. We’re unsure of each other’s quality standards, and that’s a big hurdle: this is unlike in Europe, where there is a common standard.”

Asean also lags on student exchange. According to Asean statistics, less than 10 per cent of 2018’s student mobility in the region saw students going to other Asean nations: 90 per cent of students who could afford to be internationally mobile chose to leave the region. And while there is no complete data on Asean student outflows, it is estimated that about 300,000 students left Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia annually for overseas study before the pandemic struck.

However, according to Louise Nicol, founder of the Asia Careers Group and a long-time resident of Malaysia, “while mobility and short exchanges are important, there is far too much emphasis on that aspect” of regional development. “The focus should be on using education to promote economic growth, improving quality domestically, attracting inbound students for prolonged periods, and encouraging students who have gone overseas to return with the skills they acquired.”

Still, she thinks that none of these things are likely to be high on the agenda for post-pandemic governments with “bigger fish to fry”.

“Jobs and public health are the governments’ priorities, quite rightly. For higher education to remain relevant – and funded – it needs to prove and support its links to employment.”

In that regard, HKUST’s Gietel-Basten says that Asean nations face a chicken-and-egg problem. He cites Thailand as a country that has achieved a relatively high level of educational attainment, with a higher education participation rate of about 50 per cent, but that has still not caught up in terms of graduate employment.

“Many graduates are not finding appropriate jobs despite putting much time and effort in. They may not be being trained in the right things, and there may not be enough professional-sector jobs due to the country’s level of economic development,” he says.

The situation is even starker in less developed countries. “If you are from a small town in Laos and acquire a degree, how will you leverage it?” Gietel-Basten asks. “In low- to middle-income countries, you have significant agricultural and informal labour markets.”

However, without the tax revenues from profitable industries and well-paid citizens, even the most dedicated governments will struggle to finance world-class higher education systems. Moreover, cash alone may not be enough to recruit top faculty or foreign students to a developing country, Gietel-Basten warns.

“Elite professors don’t grow on trees. You need to go to the international job market. And recruiting a professor to Shanghai is different than recruiting one to Yangon,” he says, referring to the former capital of Myanmar. “The question is: Can universities on their own break that cycle and push countries to develop rapidly and change the economy? For that to happen, everything needs to be aligned.”

One solution might be for the Asean region to realise its ambition to become a bridge between the East and the West.

“Asean would like to be positioned as a neutral region that can partner with everyone, be it China, the European Union, the UK, Australia, East Asia or India,” says Dhirathiti. And this could be a potential driving force for higher education, he believes.

Malaysia’s government, for instance, aims to have 250,000 international students in the country by 2025 – in pursuit of which it has built EduCity, a mega-campus near the Singapore border that houses several overseas branch campuses, including three from the UK.

While those campuses primarily recruit Malaysian students, one of EduCity’s goals since opening a decade ago has been to draw more overseas students. Of course, the pandemic has not helped in that regard, and Wing Lam, provost and CEO of the University of Reading Malaysia, a resident of EduCity, concedes that the 250,000 target “now looks unachievable” owing to travel restrictions and safety concerns.

“It might take several years before we see a full recovery,” he says. “However, there are also opportunities; Malaysian students who would normally consider studying overseas might decide instead to study locally at one of the partner universities in EduCity.”

Indeed, earlier this year, EduCity invited international universities to use its facilities to temporarily accommodate Asian students who are unable or unwilling to travel to the universities’ home campuses because of Covid-19. However, that plan had to be put on hold at Malaysia’s own third Covid wave took hold.

Indonesia, too, is aiming for greater internationalisation. “As part of its drive to accelerate the development of higher education, the Indonesian government has opened to foreign campuses,” says Andrew MacIntyre, Monash University's pro vice-chancellor and president for Indonesia. In October, Monash will respond by opening a branch campus in the country, with an initial cohort of master’s students in data science, urban design, business innovation, public policy and public health.

Of course, establishing sustainable and flourishing overseas outposts is not easy and rarely lucrative. Universities setting up branch campuses in Malaysia, for instance, “know the importance of engaging with local communities, conducting research and building networks for the long term”, according to Lam. “It goes beyond a purely commercial decision to one that is more strategic in nature.”

In Indonesia, the process is complicated by the fact that “much of the regulatory framework for foreign universities is new”, says MacIntyre. “However, we have been able to work with [the Indonesian government] in shaping the development and application of key regulations. Finding sustainable ways of embedding ourselves in the key nations of the region is a core strategy for Monash.”

Monash isn’t the first Australian university to set up an Indonesian outpost, however. In March 2020, Central Queensland University opened a centre in Jakarta to offer corporate training in business, law, governance and English, as well as master’s degrees in conjunction with Bakrie University, a local private institution. Undergraduate programmes in business, digital media, cybersecurity and public relations and journalism are also envisaged. Earlier this month the university also announced that it will open a fully fledged campus in the North Sumatran capital of Medan next February, with both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

Chris Veraa, Central Queensland’s director for strategic engagement, says that the centre was the result of “many years” of institutional links to Indonesia, including via alumni and research connections. It gives the Australian institution the opportunity to “establish new partnerships with industry and strengthen our relationship with government”.

The university’s vice-president for global development, Alastair Dawson, sets out what is in it for Indonesia. The country “is growing at a rapid rate, and this includes increased demand for tertiary education”. Central Queensland is “looking to assist in meeting that demand, both physically and online”.

The willingness of other Western universities to follow suit remains to be seen. For now, China and the Middle East remain the primary locations for branch campuses, while India’s recent opening up to foreign outposts could draw in some institutions focused on that nation’s vast student market. But, one way or another, it is clear that demand from Asean’s own huge student market must be met – domestically or otherwise.

As Asia Careers Group’s Nicol says, over the next few years, “South-east and South Asia will be the growth engine for global higher education. It won’t come from anywhere else like it will from this region.”

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

In addition to Singaporean universities in top 300, universities in Malysia are within this range of rankings.

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