Asian Universities: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges

Jay R. Dee (Higher Education Doctoral Program, University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA)

Quality Assurance in Education

ISSN: 0968-4883

Article publication date: 25 April 2008



Dee, J.R. (2008), "Asian Universities: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 16 No. 2, pp. 201-204.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Altbach's chapter in this volume provides a concise yet impressively comprehensive overview of the contemporary challenges facing Asian higher education. Umakoshi's chapter offers a potentially useful conceptual framework for characterizing the development of national higher educations systems. These chapters make significant contributions to the field of comparative higher education, but the book as a whole does not fulfil its potential. The subsequent chapters follow an encyclopedic approach in which each chapter focuses on a different Asian country. The nation‐by‐nation chapter organization, though potentially useful as a reference text for graduate students, does not contribute to an integrative analysis of Asian higher education. Instead, I would have preferred chapters that extended each of the conceptual themes identified in Altbach's cogent analysis. Rather than chapters that focus on China, Thailand, or Vietnam, for example, consider chapters that examine issues of accreditation and quality control, academic capitalism, or research and development across national contexts. The potential for readers to learn about Asian higher education would be enhanced, I believe, if the chapters were organized thematically, rather than nation‐by‐nation.

In the introduction, Altbach and Umakoshi note that there is no single “Asian reality” (p. 10), but they argue that higher education leaders and policymakers in Asian countries can learn much from their counterparts. As Altbach explains:

While there are significant differences among Asian countries in size, historical patterns of academic development, wealth, and other factors, it is nonetheless possible to highlight trends that are common to most of the region. Since the problems are similar, it may be useful for countries to examine the experience of other Asian countries rather than always looking toward the West for answers to pressing questions of higher education development (p. 27).

Altbach's chapter identifies key commonalities among Asian countries, including colonial legacies, rapid expansion of demand for higher education, the development of a more highly differentiated higher education system, and the rise of the private higher education sector.

The Western nations that colonized much of Asia established higher education institutions to serve local elites and provide narrow vocational training for civil service professions. Institutions were often linked to the ministries for which they supplied personnel; thus in many cases, universities were simply extensions of government agencies, rather than autonomous institutions. This form of strong centralized control remains an important legacy from the colonial era. The narrow focus on civil service professions, moreover, has made it difficult for some Asian nations to build an adequate research and development infrastructure to compete in a knowledge‐based economy.

Upon gaining independence from colonial occupation, many Asian nations invested heavily in primary and secondary education. Higher literacy rates and concomitant growth of the middle class meant that there were larger numbers of individuals with appropriate academic credentials to seek postsecondary education and the economic means to forgo direct entry into the labor market in order to attend college.

As enrolments expanded, the range of student interests and skills broadened. Institutions from the colonial era that focused on serving elites and producing civil servants were unable (or perhaps unwilling) to accommodate new student populations. Nations needed more highly differentiated systems where there would be a wider variety in goals and missions among institutions. With a more differentiated system, governments could also invest selectively in institutions with different missions; for example, allocating more funds to research universities to promote technology transfer with specific industries.

Altbach argues, however, that expansion and differentiation have diminished the quality of national higher education systems. “Mass higher education means a differentiated academic system, with major variations in quality, purpose, and orientation. Massification drags down the overall quality of the academic system as it creates a more diversified academic system” (p. 23). The maintenance of quality during periods of expansion is a major challenge for Asian higher education. Indonesia, for example, does not have enough qualified instructors to teach the massive enrollments that have emerged in recent years, and Vietnam has one of the highest faculty‐to‐student ratios (1:29) in the world.

The asserted connection between system differentiation and lower quality, however, is debatable. In fact, Sungho Lee, author of the chapter on Korean higher education, provides a perspective that differs from Altbach's:

Diversity in higher education is critically important not only because it allows the system to meet institutional and societal needs but also because differentiation among component units leads to stability that protects the system itself (p. 162).

These perspectives on differentiation vary due to different conceptualizations of quality. Many of the authors in this volume define quality in terms of system inputs; namely, the academic qualifications of entering students. They argue that the expansion of higher education systems and the enrollment of students with lower scores on national qualifying exams had led to lower levels of quality. Jayaram, in his chapter on India, refers to these lower‐scoring students as “leftovers and dregs” (p. 95). These authors, however, are advocating the adoption of a poor American export: the view that only a few institutions can achieve “quality.” The American obsession with institutional rankings has fostered an unhealthy institutional isomorphism in which institutions seek to attain higher levels of prestige and status (largely through selective admissions and an emphasis on research productivity) to the detriment of other important functions. It would be wise for Asian higher education systems to avoid this false hierarchy of quality and instead conceptualize institutional effectiveness in terms of value‐added dimensions of intellectual growth and personal development.

A further trend in Asian higher education is the growth of the private sector. Throughout Asia, government resources have not been able to keep pace with the expansion in demand for higher education, and private institutions have opened to absorb excess demand. More than 75 percent of students in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines attend private institutions, and the private sector is expanding rapidly in China and Vietnam where private institutions were virtually non‐existent before the 1990s.

In chapter two, Umakoshi suggests that Asian nations tend to progress through three stages of development in their higher education systems: private‐peripheral, private‐complementary, and private‐dominant. This typology is useful for tracking the development of private higher education across Asia, but its potential as an analytical tool could be enhanced if it were combined with another variable such as government regulation. If government regulation were added to Umakoshi's typology, then we could characterize national systems not only in terms of the scale of private higher education, but also in terms of private higher education's relationship to national governments – either unregulated, tightly regulated, or a combination of government‐ and self‐regulation. Both Japan and South Korea, for example, are characterized as private‐dominant in Umakoshi's typology, but government regulation of the private sector is more stringent in South Korea than in Japan. Including this variable in the typology would enhance its explanatory power.

Several chapter authors point to problems of over‐reliance on the private sector. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to score poorly on national exams and cannot gain entrance to the public institutions; they enroll, instead, in private institutions that charge much higher tuition and may have lower quality programs. Reliance on the private sector has also led to an overproduction of graduates in the social sciences and professions and insufficient numbers of trained scientists and engineers in nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines. Private institutions tend to develop programs in low cost fields and do not invest in creating resource‐intensive graduate programs. If national higher education systems become too reliant on the private sector, then economic development needs may go unmet.

Most of the chapters in this volume provide detailed historical synopses of higher education development in a specific country. The nation‐by‐nation chapter organization, however, precludes an integrated analysis of Asian higher education. The chapter authors, however, raise several important issues that future monographs on Asian higher education could explore. I will highlight three of these issues.

First, many Asian nations are dealing with the challenge of maintaining a delicate balance between accountability and autonomy. Institutions are now seeking financial autonomy and some measure of regulatory freedom from centralized planning. On the other hand, governments seek to advance national interests in economic development and ensure efficient use of resources. Several Asian nations, including Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines, have enacted new policies regarding accountability and autonomy, and it would be useful to identify trends and commonalities across these different policy environments.

Second, the emergence of academic capitalism in Asia has been rapid and vast in scope. In China, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam, universities have been strongly encouraged to enter partnerships with industry to facilitate technology transfer and strengthen revenue streams for research. The implications of these changes for academic governance and knowledge production warrant additional analysis.

Finally, seven of the world's ten largest distance education institutions are located in Asia. A chapter that explores issues of access and quality within the distance education sector would make a solid contribution to the field's understanding of the massification of higher education in Asia.

In summary, this volume identifies critical contemporary challenges in Asian higher education, but we still await the book that will provide an integrative analysis of those challenges.

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