Asian flu spawns antibodies

August 21, 1998

When it became obvious about a year ago that certain Asian currencies were not going to regain their previous strength, several countries took drastic steps to stop sending students to study in the West. Most dramatically, a large number of Korean and Malaysian students were asked to return home. For most private students who managed to continue, a great financial strain was felt by their families. It has become clear that fewer Asian families can afford to send their children abroad to complete their education, but there will be many who will still do so. The rich will do what they have always done. And, in countries where parents fear discrimination, even the relatively poor will go to great lengths to scrape together the money needed to get away.

Nevertheless, what had been a growing Asian student industry in several developed countries has hit its first major obstacle: a strong supply of tertiary places threatened by a steep drop in foreign demand. I doubt that Asian students will shed tears for the institutions that have learned to depend on their business. The well-established universities and colleges among them will, I suspect, re-adjust far more easily than most of the students themselves. What is more worrying in Asia is how will this sharp change in circumstances affect the education overseas of the next generation of Asian elites? Does this mean that the young will be less educated or will they be educated in more local ways?

The first changes suggest that something positive may come out of all this. Many of the suppliers of education have turned from competing for more students with little attention to standards, to putting greater emphasis on the quality of the students they hope to graduate. For example, a number of universities and foundations in North America, Britain and Australia rescued thousands of their needy students with special grants, loans and part-time jobs so that these students could stay to complete their studies. Because not all can be so helped, this has called for selectivity. Presumably, in most cases, students doing well have been more likely to receive help than those whose academic performances have been weak. Another example is where institutions offered a larger number of scholarships to assist the new students they want to admit. Again, we may assume that those who perform well would win these awards.

If measures like these continue, we can expect that the better students would benefit from the present crisis, a kind of much-needed correction to the previous relentless chase by institutions for overseas student fees.

The new stress on quality may also arouse a corresponding response on the demand side: that only the brightest and most promising students may hope to study abroad on public funds, and perhaps that they should be sent only to the institutions offering the best courses. If this should be the next phase in the Asian student industry, the results of this crisis will not be as negative as they might appear today.

Once governments sending students accept that numbers must necessarily fall and manpower needs have to be recalculated, past practices can be reviewed and there can be more concentration on quality. There remains, of course, the dilemma of whether the governments should send only their best students abroad or whether they should use scarce resources to raise the standards of their institutions at home.

The response, as might be expected, has been varied. Some countries have radically changed their policies and now support home-based institutions. But if funds are limited and demand for places continues to grow, it would be difficult to improve the quality of local institutions. One attractive way out is to privatise as much as possible, but without allowing the market to favour only those who can afford the fees. But if incomes at home remain generally low, then there needs to be a judicious use of public funds to help truly promising students, to overcome the bias towards those who are better-off that is inherent in most private colleges.

Here, the innovative examples, first established years earlier, of "twinning" and franchise arrangements at the undergraduate level between local private colleges and universities overseas, are good ones. They have enabled students to do most of their studies at home and go abroad for not more than a year or two to get foreign degrees. These arrangements are now being extended, notably in Malaysia. New ingenious ways are being negotiated to maximise the benefits of this variety of distance teaching and learning, including matching a greater range of subjects that different foreign institutions have to offer with what their students need and, where appropriate, moving staff and students around. It is yet to be seen if the increase in demand by students, who would otherwise have sought more ideal learning environments and chosen to go to institutions overseas, would lead these local colleges to upgrade themselves significantly. If that happens, and the crisis begets quality, then it is not all bad news in Asia.

All Asian educators face a period of considerable ferment and change. At the heart of the challenge is the problem of quality, something neglected by many countries in the quick search for trained people to meet development needs and also by many students who need paper qualifications in a hurry. Foreign institutions have been doing a great service for both over the past three decades. Thus the dependence on these institutions has been inevitable. The tough question the past year has posed is: what can local educators now do to ensure that their needs for trained personnel for their respective countries will be met in more reliable ways?

The education industry has clearly been enriched by reaching out across national borders for talent and skills and being open, up-to-date and inclusive in course content. Like the knowledge market in all its forms, that which serves not only economic purposes but also strengthens social and political development has a price.

Let us hope that this crisis will not drive the industry in Asia to any kind of protectionism. The worst news would be if local privatisation is supported by using local teachers and textbooks alone. Examples worldwide have proved that sustained quality in education produces the desired results for the countries that know what they want. This quality is hard to guarantee but, if it can be promised, it is something people are willing to pay for.

Wang Gungwu is director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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