Closing borders ‘will see West fall further behind’ as Asia booms

Leaders of top universities acknowledge that balance of power in higher education is moving eastwards

February 6, 2018
Source: Getty

The global balance of power in higher education is shifting towards Asia, and Western countries risk falling further behind if they put up barriers to freedom of movement, according to the leaders of some of the world’s top-ranking universities.

Opening Times Higher Education’s Asia Universities Summit, Subra Suresh, the newly appointed president of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said that the rapid advances in innovation in Asian countries such as China and Singapore outstripped the US’ recent achievements.

“How can a country [the US] that [turns] less than 4 per cent of its graduates into engineers be competing as an innovation leader?” asked Professor Suresh, who served as president of Carnegie Mellon University for five years before joining NTU at the start of last month. “At the end of the 20th century, the US was the undisputed engineering leader of the world. But how can you be an innovation leader when you don’t have any engineers?”

What the US needs to do, Professor Suresh continued, is to attract new talent from elsewhere in the world, something that can only be achieved with the “protection of open borders”. This comes as the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump, the US president, is blamed for a downturn in international student recruitment at the country’s universities.

“In a bottomless world, everybody gains if you move,” Professor Suresh said. “For the past 50 to 60 years, the entire world has been subsidising innovation in the US to the tune of seven times the budget of the National Science Foundation each year.”

Speaking on a panel debate, Stuart Corbridge, vice-chancellor of Durham University, said that connections with rapidly growing Asian economies had become the “lifeblood” of UK universities in recent years, with his own institution having actively sought direct links with institutions in China, not Europe.

“The rise of China in the past 30 years – there’s no precedent for this,” Professor Corbridge said. “We need to get over the idea that the UK or western Europe is some kind of norm reference for the rest of the world – it isn’t. Asia prompts all sorts of interesting questions for Europe.”

Asked if changing immigration laws in the US and the UK could hamper East-West relations, Professor Corbridge added: “Open borders are what works for universities. If you have a protectionist university system like India, you pay a penalty.”

Eng Chye Tan, president of the National University of Singapore, agreed. “If you try to close open-border policies, you do so at your own peril,” he said.

The rapid growth of the strength of Asian universities can be attributed to vast increases in research and development expenditures, Professor Tan said. In 2013, the East and South-east Asian region contributed 36.8 per cent of the world’s total research and development spend, with South-east Asia alone expected to outspend the European Union in 20 years’ time.

Jo Beall, director of education and society at the British Council, said that such levels of investment could have a global benefit, and urged countries such as the UK to be ready to learn from Asia and not be “smug” or “complacent”. 

Although UK universities have been “rightly proud” to promote their respectable global standing, “[even] Ivy League universities are going to need to partner with Asian universities to keep their own position”, she told THE. Pressure to maintain global connections following the Brexit vote means that “we are constantly trying to say the UK is open to business with international students”, she added. “But it’s high time we moved off that promotional platform and listened and engaged increasingly as co-producers of research.”

Dr Beall added: “We can learn from Asia – to have a more coherent, simple education system. We can learn that being open is good – India is suffering from having a closed system, and China learned a few decades ago that being open is the way to go. It would be a timely reminder.”

In terms of what Asian universities could learn from the UK, she added: “Autonomy is something that we hold very dear and very precious, and that comes with costs because it comes with decentralised institutionalised democracy.”

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