Tigers burning bright

Asian higher education is on the rise in a success story that is shaking up the global order. Simon Marginson explains the importance of the Confucian model to the region's progress, while Philip Altbach discusses the systemic problems that could limit its advances

June 17, 2010

Statements about "the rise of Asia" are misleading. Asia is larger and more heterogeneous than Europe. In some nations, higher education is stagnant. In others, it is gaining ground. And the 40 per cent of Asia situated in the "Confucian zone" is moving into the stratosphere.

Confucian higher education is a new kind of system; an alternative global template. In some respects, the drivers of the Confucian model differ from higher education in mainland Western Europe, the UK and the US, where the modern university was incubated.

The Confucian zone consists of northeast Asia plus the island state of Singapore. Japan achieved Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development levels of higher education in the 1970s. It has now been joined by South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. China, with its 1.3 billion people, is on the same path. All bar two of the Confucian nations exhibit a common approach to education and research. Being poorer than the others, the exceptions are Vietnam (only half Confucian) and North Korea.

Confucian systems share three key features. One, rapid growth of tertiary participation towards universal levels; two, an efflorescence of research funding and activity, and the creation of a tier of leading research universities; three, close control by the state.

The Confucian model bypasses the liberal imaginary in which the world is divided between market and state. There is more emphasis on private funding and the private sector than in the US, but government has a tighter grip on education and research than in the bureaucratic systems of pre-Bologna Europe. Both state and market have been enhanced as a result. In 2007, South Korea's tertiary gross enrolment rate (GER) was 96 per cent. Japan's was 58 per cent. In 2009, the Taiwan figure was 87 per cent.

China is less wealthy than other Confucian countries and there are sharp regional disparities. GDP per capita in 2008 was $6,020 (£4,107) compared with $28,120 in South Korea. But adult literacy in China reached 93 per cent in 2008 (India reached 66 per cent and Pakistan 55 per cent). Between 1990 and 2007, China's tertiary GER jumped from 4 per cent to 23 per cent (India reached 13 per cent and Pakistan 5 per cent). Meanwhile, China's Project 985 continues the development of the nation's research-intensive universities.

The clearest sign of a shift in the global balance of power is the time-compressed evolution of research in the Confucian zone. In 2007, national investment in research and development was 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product in South Korea and 2.6 per cent in Taiwan and Singapore (by contrast, it was 1.8 per cent in the UK and 2.7 per cent in the US). In China, the rate of investment more than doubled in 10 years to 1.5 per cent of GDP in 2007. China has the world's largest student enrolment and one in five of its researchers. The number of science papers produced in China rose from 9,061 in 1995 to 56,806 (compared with 47,121 in the UK) in 2007. Between 1995 and 2007, China's annual rise in the output of science papers averaged 16.5 per cent. The rate of growth was 14.1 per cent in South Korea and 10.5 per cent in Singapore (in the UK it was 0.3 per cent).

Leading research takes longer to develop. China's share of world science output was 5.9 per cent in 2008, but only 2.5 per cent of its articles were among the top 1 per cent most-cited science papers. On this measure, the US is dominant, with 51.6 per cent of the leading science papers. But China's research universities are only now emerging. There is a lag of 10 to 15 years between research investment and full citation outcomes. Over the next generation, the gap will shrink and the number of top 200 universities in China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore will multiply.

The Confucian systems have diverged from the rest of Asia. Higher education is growing at varying rates in India, Malaysia and Thailand, but Confucian dynamism is absent. And in non-Confucian countries there is not the same fit between the social use of higher education, as illustrated by participation rates, and the demand for graduates in the labour market. In India graduate unemployment is endemic. In East Asia student enrolments seem to grow in lockstep with modernisation, the transition from agriculture to manufacturing to services, and population movement from country to city.

The trends are clear. But what is Confucian education doing right? Mass tertiary education and research are expensive. How do the Confucian nations pay for both at once while maintaining low tax regimes?

Key to the Confucian model is the willingness of families to invest their own cash in secondary and tertiary education and private tutoring, to position their children in the contest for university entry, which determines their lives. Middle-class families in East Asia can spend as much on education as Western families spend on housing.

In 2006, the state funded just 32 per cent of higher education costs in Japan and 23 per cent in South Korea (in the UK and US, the figures were 65 per cent and 34 per cent respectively). South Korea and Japan have large private sectors. In China, most students are educated in the public sector: national policy is mindful of the city/country balance and is still fostering accelerated growth. Yet in China, too, the public share of tertiary funding has fallen: from 96 per cent in 1978 - the year of Deng Xiaoping's "Four Modernisations" - to 45 per cent in 2005.

Private funding, underpinned by economic growth, is sufficient to explain the rise in tertiary participation rates. In turn, the funding of tuition costs by households frees governments in the Confucian zone to invest selectively in infrastructure, research, leading universities and top students so as to develop global research capacity. By contrast with America's Ivy League, but like Europe, the state sustains the major research universities. By contrast with all Western nations, the proportion of tuition paid for by households is maximised in the lower reaches of the Confucian systems, indicating the extent of popular compliance.

Here, the model rests on the traditional Confucian respect for education. Self-formation via learning is an act of filial piety. Formal education is located within a social and institutional hierarchy that is mediated by competition in examinations. Confucian social harmony is based on universal acceptance of the hierarchy, moderated by the glimmer of hope that exceptional scholastic diligence can earn an honoured place on the upper rungs of the social ladder. These values first took form in the emergence of the scholar elite in the Tang dynasty in China, 400 years before the University of Oxford was founded. Although almost all Chinese universities were founded in the 20th century, their sustaining tradition is older than that of their European counterparts.

Confucian higher education is also modern. Every Confucian nation wants to catch up with Western science and technology. Engineering is the strongest field. For their higher education systems, policymakers have adopted US organisation, based on vertical diversity topped by high-quality research universities, and use neoliberal forms of governance. New public management reforms are marching through East Asia. These include the corporatisation of public universities; devolution of financial responsibilities; entrepreneurship and "Mode 2" (context-driven, team-based multidisciplinary) research; and the use of quality assurance, audit and accountability mechanisms to entrench performance cultures.

But the model is not a simple adaptation of the Western university in East Asia. It is a hybrid of old and new, of East and West - and it works. The combination of private funding of tuition, public funding of research and economic growth is enabling the Confucian systems to lift mass participation, quality and R&D at the same time.

Nevertheless, there are downsides and limits. These flow from the nature of the Confucian model, in which society is controlled by intense competition for places in the "scholar elite" in the top universities, mediated by exams, and the universities are locked by state control.

Steep university hierarchies, intensive selection and examination hell generate equality problems. There has been little exploration of more diverse and second-chance entry into the top universities.

In Japan, corporatisation has failed to create autonomous universities. The government still manages student numbers, programme contents and resource use. Executive leadership and strategic decision-making are often embryonic. Academic freedom is restricted by professional inertia, social conformity and closure to foreigners.

In Singapore and, increasingly, in China, there is more openness and mobility, and feisty academic cultures can be found. But state political control still lurks in the background in Singapore - and is upfront in China, where the university president shares authority with the Communist Party secretary.

China is slowly liberalising. Higher education is a principal medium for this. The barrier is not so much the one-party regime itself but the limits on communicative freedom.

The edgy ideas and off-the-wall invention fostered in universities achieve full potential only when civic discussion and debate also flourish. Renaissance cultures are typically strong in the arts and humanities as well as the sciences. Stellar creators stimulate each other, working across fields. And modern Confucian scholarship needs room to breathe and grow if it is to sustain an evolving East Asian identity. But in all Confucian nations, capitalist and socialist, universities and research priorities are constrained by an all-pervasive state instrumentalism.

Science is overwhelmingly supreme, but even science is valued only to the extent that it becomes embodied in marketable quantities, as in the neoliberal model. Industry takes a larger proportion of research subsidies than in the West, and is largely indifferent to creator-driven basic research, which is the most fecund source of innovation. Only 10 per cent of China's huge investment in research finds its way into higher education.

Simon Marginson is a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne and lead author of International Student Security (2010).

Enter the dragons? Not so fast.

Asia's universities are rising in league tables but could soon hit a glass ceiling. Philip Altbach assesses the persistent challenges that could thwart regional ambitions.

Asia houses the fastest-growing economies in the world, and a number of its countries have placed great emphasis on both expanding and improving their higher education systems. A small increase in the number of Asian universities entering the top 100 in last year's Times Higher Education World University Rankings prompted some commentators to talk of Asia rising at the expense of the West.

Fundamentally, however, academic excellence, research productivity and reputation, which are mainly what the rankings capture, are not zero-sum games. The improvement of universities in one part of the world does not mean that institutions elsewhere necessarily decline. Furthermore, the shift to Asia is by no means dramatic. It is, in fact, a good thing that universities outside the traditional powerhouses of North America and Western Europe are improving and gaining increased recognition for their work.

Asia is also home to a majority of the world's private higher education institutions. While the private sector continues to expand in the region, the bulk of its institutions sit at the bottom of the prestige hierarchy. These institutions are, as the economists put it, "demand-absorbing" - they provide access and places for students, but generally not high quality. In fact, the private sector makes little contribution to improving the quality of Asian higher education.

Fortunately, Asia does have a significant high-quality sector. Many Japanese universities are highly ranked. Singapore and Hong Kong have excellent academic systems. Outstanding universities exist in South Korea and Taiwan. China's top dozen or so universities are approaching world class. The Indian Institutes of Technology, although not universities in the traditional sense, are also elite institutions. Overall, however, Asia's universities do not compare favourably with those in North America, Western Europe or Australia. A number of structural, academic and cultural factors may inhibit even some of the best from rising to the pinnacle of academic quality in the near future - and may also hinder the improvement of Asia's universities in general.

Across the region, different strategies have been employed to raise standards. Singapore and Hong Kong have achieved considerable success simply by building Western universities in Asia and by hiring large numbers of international academic staff, using English on campus and copying Western norms of academic organisation and management. South Korea has sponsored several national campaigns, such as the BrainKorea21 project, to beef up academic quality. Taiwan has relied in part on persuading Western-educated Taiwanese to return home and help develop key universities that have been given extra support. Singapore has strategically invited several foreign universities to open branches and given them significant financial incentives to do so - although several have failed.

China's efforts have been the most impressive. It has pumped funds into universities identified as top performers, merged institutions to improve quality and economies of scale, and tried to create academic environments that reward productivity.

It is possible, nonetheless, that countries and universities across the region will soon reach a kind of "glass ceiling". Increasing financial and other resources and introducing innovative strategies can deliver only so much progress. Persistent cultural, academic and historical challenges may act as an anchor on ambitions. The rise of Asian higher education is not inevitable, at least in the near future.

An academic culture that is based on meritocratic values, free enquiry and competition - combined with elements of collaboration and at least some mobility - is central to a world-class university. Throughout Asia, there is some recognition of the importance of these elements and acknowledgement of how tradition and other forces act as impediments.

Personal relationships are, of course, at the heart of all institutions and societies. But in Asia, personal connections and networks - the Chinese call it guanxi - still influence many aspects of academic life, from the admission of students to the promotion of academics and the allocation of research funds. As a result, faculty across the region are very insular. Individuals trained at a university are hired by that institution and typically spend their academic careers there. This may hinder new thinking because perspectives become entrenched and undue respect is paid to academic hierarchy. Such an environment may also stifle innovation. The ties between a former student and his or her mentor may shape departmental or institutional politics, inhibit change or foster factionalism.

Many Asian universities lack both meritocratic promotion policies and a formal tenure system. Career progression is based on personal affinities, so many academics appointed to a position are in due course promoted without much subsequent scrutiny. In the region, it is uncommon to see productivity and long-term performance rewarded, and universities rarely provide formal protection of academic freedoms.

Teaching - and to some extent research - follows quite traditional, if not outdated, methods. The emphasis is on lectures, with little interaction between students and academics. Professors often simply recite lectures and leave little if any time for questions or discussion. Such teaching has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years, with a recognition that it does not contribute to long-term learning or independent thinking. These methods also extend to graduate education, where formality is often the rule and independent "hands-on" work is not.

Across the region, hierarchy is very much at the centre of academic ties of all kinds. Because of this, students do not enjoy the informal interaction with teachers that their counterparts at Western universities do. Junior staff are constrained by the methodologies and topics favoured by senior professors. In a reflection of the nature of many Asian societies and their respect for age, key academic decisions are often the preserve of veteran staff. Some top universities are trying to change this by rapidly promoting younger professors and hiring a large number of foreign-trained academics.

To at least some extent, academic corruption exists everywhere, but the problem seems to be endemic in some Asian countries. Reports about favouritism in admissions, plagiarism in publication, falsifying research findings and other unethical practices can be found regularly in many Asian newspapers. A study by China's Wuhan University estimated that Chinese academics and their students spend $100 million (£68 million) a year on ghostwritten academic papers. One of the world's top medical journals, The Lancet, has warned that China will not become a research superpower by 2020, as President Hu Jintao intends, unless academic fraud is reined in. Few statistics are available, but anecdotal evidence indicates that the problem is fairly widespread, even in some top Asian universities.

In most Asian countries, graduate education is still poorly developed. It will not be able to provide a research base for Asian universities and educate the next generation of academics without expanding and developing more effective programmes. Typically, professors who focus their work on post-baccalaureate education tend to be the most research active. Their academic responsibilities emphasise research and the training of small numbers of graduate students. Even many of Asia's best universities focus on undergraduate programmes, which hinders the emergence of research universities, although some top institutions, for example in China, have dramatically expanded graduate programmes.

Internationalisation is widely recognised as an essential element of a top university. Many of Asia's universities have stressed it, but there are significant hurdles. What should be the balance between the local language and English, as the main scientific medium?

Some universities encourage academics to publish in major international journals - not an easy task in the highly competitive arena of science and scholarship. Some classes are taught in English, but not always well. The complexities relating to involvement with foreign universities on issues such as branch campuses, franchised degree programmes and other links are multifaceted, and Asian institutions are not always well served by such deals and partnerships. Most of the world's internationally mobile students come from Asia, and many do not return home after completing their overseas study, although this trend is changing slowly.

The final impediment is the state of the academic profession, which is at the heart of any university and is especially important for a world-class one. For many Asian countries, the professoriate is inadequately paid compared with local professionals and woefully remunerated by international standards.

Teaching loads are often too heavy to allow lecturers to perform much research. In many countries, academic promotions are based on longevity rather than merit. The lack of a tenure system means that there are no firm guarantees of academic freedom. Professors need more job protection, more money and more competition to ensure high productivity.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in higher education in such a large region, but we can draw some conclusions about the future shape of the sector.

Most countries in Asia - with the notable exceptions of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore - are still experiencing rapidly expanding enrolments in higher education. In such an environment, competition for public funds is intense. Top-tier universities often lose out in the struggle for resources. The growing private sector has no interest in research and will not produce prestigious universities.

Several Asian countries have set out ambitious plans to improve higher education, and some are making impressive progress. China, South Korea, Singapore and several others have invested heavily, and the quality at their top universities is rising significantly. Other countries - notably India, Indonesia, Vietnam and most of the poorer countries in the region - have a very long way to go.

Although there has been remarkable progress in some countries and in some sectors of the academy, there remain obstacles to joining the global elite. The struggle is a long-term one and will require not only resources but also the overturning of deeply entrenched academic methodology. But building world-class universities is necessary for Asia to continue its impressive economic progress. Sophisticated research capacity and highly skilled people are needed for Asia's future.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs