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Mind the gaps in higher education for realizing the ‘Asian Century’
By Prof. Said Irandoust, President of the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok
Asia’s phenomenal economic growth in recent decades has many pundits predicting the continent’s rise will last well into the current century. Indeed, as national economies grow from Beijing to Brunei to Bangalore, we are now witness to the world’s geo-economic center of gravity tilting eastward. World powers are “pivoting” their policies towards the region as opportunities loom. A new era of prosperity heralds for Asia, we are told, and the 21st Century will belong to the “East”.
This is good news for those pining for Asia to resume its historical place as a linchpin of the global economic order. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), in last year’s report Asia “2050: Realizing the Asian Century”, stated the continent could very well recapture the predominant economic position it held prior to the industrial revolution. By mid-century Asia could account for more than half the world’s economic output and enjoy a robust per capita GDP of $40,800.
But not so fast, this rosy prediction is by no means a fait accompli.
Yes, parts of Asia are excelling wonderfully. But against the backdrop of a continent inclining upward, inequality reigns and the gulf between the rich and poor and ‘the haves’ and ‘the have-nots’ is stark. For every Singapore – a modern, multicultural city-state brimming with skilled professionals, world-class universities and world-beating per capita incomes -- there is a Myanmar, a Bangladesh or a Lao PDR, all least developed countries.
While super-charged South Korea with its legions of PhDs is the envy of all, and ever affluent Hong Kong can surely hold its own to attract elite talent to its knowledge-based society, can the same be said for all the people of Nepal, Cambodia or Timor-Leste?
Glittering megacities are expanding at pace, but so too are their slums and the hundreds of millions across Asia’s hinterlands struggling lift themselves out of abject poverty. Rapidly growing India may boast of a burgeoning middle-class and the fourth largest amount of US-dollar billionaires, but close to half its one billion-plus population subsists on under US$ 2 a day and a quarter of the country ekes-out a life on less than one dollar per day. Behind some astonishing evidence of success, remain troubling stories of continued failure.
Nobel laureate winning economist Prof. Joseph E. Stiglitz in his timely tome “The Price of Inequality” has recently invited vigorous academic debate regarding the impact of widening economic divides in American society, warning that we accept excessive inequality at our peril.
The Columbia University economist’s critique of the top 1% of society accumulating hugely disproportionate wealth offers some food for thought for policy makers here in Asia-Pacific too, where Gini coefficients– a common measure of inequality– at 46% for developing countries are generally too high, and least developed countries are juxtaposed against highly developed nations. Real fissures of growing inequality both nationally and regionally are rife and not going away.
So too, the yawning gaps in levels of higher learning attainment and overall skills of populations are striking, and will require daring solutions for the continent to reach its potential.For how else can countries such as Singapore and Cambodia continue to coexist equally within the planned Asean Economic Community 2015 when the socioeconomic disparities between them are simply so vast? To increase the odds of Asia’s overall ascendancy increased investment, cooperation, coordination and effective governance of teaching/learning and research at universities becomes a vital necessity to assist the attainment of prosperity of all – not just for some.
In Asia, countless smart, savvy, mobile professionals are now on the move as highly sought-after commodities. Asian university students are now sprinting beyond their own country’s borders in search of world-class educational and job opportunities in richer countries.Concomitant to this many countries, especially those in the affluent but rapidly aging West, have responded by competing to woo Asia’s best and brightest with scholarships in the hope of claiming highly-skilled new citizens.
With the race on in Asia, more often than not the highly-skilled and best educated people are moving from the very countries that can least afford to lose them. The one-way exodus is underscored by fleeing IT whizzes and engineers, and astonishing numbers of newly-minted doctors and nurses in the Philippines who annually depart their country for greener pastures as health care providers. A recent OECD report indicates that 70% of Vietnamese who study overseas do not return.
So against the backdrop of the Asia-Pacific region’s economic growth, its growing urbanization, and the continuing migration of people, surely it’s time to think collectively of a pan-Asia spirit, and call for governments to institute agreements that strengthen people’s resilience and coping capacities as part of a vision for inclusive development. One way forward is for interconnected Asia to choose higher education cooperation over self-interested national competition, and to stop the “Brains Race” from becoming a “Brains War” that would only amplify the zero-sum equation of victors and the vanquished.
This year’s World Bank East Asia and Pacific report of higher education titled “East Asia Putting Higher Education to Work” offers useful prescriptions by calling for higher learning institutions to align their curricula and research with the needs of employers facing chronic skills shortages. Central to its findings is a recommendation for regional policy reform in financing and public sector management of learning systems to achieve better human capital and R&D outcomes.
In a sign of what’s possible, a new US$ 90 million ADB project for Vietnam to strengthen the teaching and learning outcomes of biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics and social sciences should close the labour gaps and help the growing country’s young people attain the skills needed in the job market. This should be replicated around the continent.
Thankfully this all becomes possible if we fixate on societal needs first, and unite for purposive curricula across Asia’s untold universities, colleges and tertiary institutes to include the widest cohort of newly empowered young people in history. Rather than promoting educational orthodoxies that exacerbate socioeconomic disparities, let us lean towards new teaching models for social enterprises that contribute to the sustainable development goals; or which promote the use of innovations that improve people’s lives at the same time as preserving ecosystems.
Universities can indeed train our fellow Asians in the necessary practical skills to tackle poverty locally whilst creating more sustainable, resilient societies regionally. This is the historical moment to educate the next, smartest generation that is ‘fit for’ the ‘purpose’ of reducing poverty and achieving sustainable prosperity through home-spun innovation in Asia that will lead it towards a century it can truly call its own.
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