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Professor Philip G. Altbach, Boston College
The Past and Future of Asian Universities: Challenges for China in the 21st Century

1. The purpose of this discussion is to examine the Western university model and to analyze in light of Asia' s higher education plans for the coming period.

a. Asia seeks to develop its university systems not only to provide greater access but also to create "world class" universities to match and to compete with academic institutions in the West. These two goals are not easy to reach, especially at the same time.

b. Asia's academic aspirations take place in the context of significant change and challenge -- higher education is much more influenced by international trends in a direct way than was the case in the past.

2. The change from the idea of higher education is a public good deserving of significant public support to the idea that it is a private good and that individuals should have considerable responsibility to pay for it. It is also a challenge to building world-class research universities that require public funds to develop.

a. The one exception to this generalization are the rise of the great private research universities in the United States, where wealthy individuals provided funds for the establishment of high quality universities -- as in the case of the University of Chicago, Stanford, and some others.

3. Entry into the highest levels of quality has become more expensive in the current period -- "world class" universities are complex and very expensive institutions. It is difficult to build one from the ground up.

a. Building world class universities in the 21st century is a much more difficult task than in the 19th century, when most of the universities now seen as world class grew to be universities that they are today.

b. Research universities are more complex, larger, and much more expensive than was the case in the past.

4. In the era of globalization, important worldwide trends affect the development of Asia's universities in profound ways. Academe is more affected by global trends now than was the case when the great universities were establishing. This also makes the development of higher education systems within a national context more difficult.

A. The key reality of the latter half of the 20th century has been massification—the dramatic growth in the numbers of students worldwide and in the proportion of the age group served by postsecondary education. The trend toward massification has been impossible to resist for both political reasons and because modern knowledge-based societies require larger numbers of skilled people.

i) The world's higher education systems have moved from elite to mass and recently to universal access. Countries have moved from enrolling 5 percent or under of the age group to 20 percent and now in many cases well over half. China is in the process of moving to mass enrollment, and remains at the lower end of enrollment patterns among countries with successful economies.

ii) The inherent conflict between access and quality is part of the massification phenomenon.

iii) Massification also creates the necessity for large and differentiated academic systems -- with institutions of higher education of varying quality, with different missions and goals, and with different patterns and levels of funding. This complexity is new to many countries but is inevitable everywhere. Examining how countries such as the United States, Germany, or others have dealt with this challenge may be useful.

iv) China's challenge to develop a differentiated and rational system of higher education to meet many different needs and population groups. In a country as large and diverse as China, the creation of a differentiated system that is effective is not easy.

1. Differentiation requires coordination and the ability to impose clear goals and missions on different sector of the postsecondary education system. It also requires a sense of what is best for the public good and for national development

2. Linking a coordinated system with a sense of institutional autonomy and competition is not an easy task.

3. It is clear that not all postsecondary institutions should be research universities -- there are many different populations and purposes to be served.

B. Globalization also affects Asian universities directly through the growing international market for highly skilled people. China, for example, is a major exporter of students, mainly for advanced study, and a large proportion of these students do not return to China. There are also many Chinese who are teaching and researching outside of China.

i) The brain drain, as it was once called, is now much more complex than it once was, and it is important to understand the nuances of this new situation.

ii) There is now more contact and interaction between scientists and scholars who work abroad with the home country.

iii) People who work in other countries often return home when the academic, political, and economic circumstances at home become favorable.

iv) The era of a globalization means that as Asian university systems develop, there will be more interactions among people from different countries -- and in the case of large countries like China and India, the balance of human resources will be negative for them.

C. Another challenge of globalization is that of distance education -- it is now possible for providers of academic programs to offer those programs worldwide, and it is possible for academic institutions to use curricular elements from abroad.

Some of the largest distance education institutions- in Turkey, India, China and several other countries, are mainly national institutions that serve national markets.

i) Some others are specifically marketed to an international audience and these are mainly headquartered in the industrialized countries.

ii) Inevitably, curriculum, methods, and degree structures from one country will be increasingly used in other countries through distance education.

iii) Issues of accreditation, standards, relevance, and the like will need to be carefully considered.

D. Another impact of globalization is the impact of the new world language, English. English is the main language of scientific communication, and it is increasingly important for teaching as well even outside of countries that traditional use English.

i) In Asia, English is especially important despite the existence of strong and widely used indigenous languages. Chinese after all is spoken by the largest number of people in the world, and yet China has one of the largest numbers of English speakers as well.

ii) Asian countries have different approaches to using English.

iii) Singapore exclusively uses English in secondary and higher education

iv) Malaysia has had varying policies but increasingly accepts English

v) In India, a large minority of students study in English and there is resistance to moving academic programs to the regional languages

vi) Creatively using English but at the same time preserving the national language is a key challenge for Asian higher education in the coming period.

5. A historical perspective is useful to understand how Asian academic systems have developed over time. History affects universities and traditions remain important, even in a country like China that has made since 1952 several sharp breaks with the past.

a. Almost all Asian higher education systems stem from colonial traditions. The only exceptions are Japan and Thailand and to some extent China. The colonial experience has important implications for contemporary higher education throughout Asia.

b. It is interesting to look at the different policies of the colonial powers concerning higher education

i) In all cases, higher education was conducted in the language of the colonial power, and this has had implications to the present time.

ii) The British permitted a good deal of local initiative but dictated the organizational pattern of academic institutions - the British influence can still be seen in South Asia, but less so in Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Singapore).

iii) The Japanese established universities in Taiwan and in Korea and their impact, although supplanted by the United States, was influential during the period of early higher education development in those areas- the Japanese established academic institutions exactly like the ones they had developed at home.

iv)The United States, which became the colonial power in the Philippines following their defeat of the Spanish in Cuba, was active in building higher education institutions in English in the US "land grant" model.

v) The French, Dutch, and Portuguese were less active in terms of higher education development, but nonetheless had an impact.

vi) The development of universities in Japan and Thailand is particularly interesting since these countries had autonomy to choose their own academic models.

vii) Both chose foreign models rather than relying on existing indigenous institutions.

viii) Both chose to use the local languages rather than a foreign language

ix) The Japanese chose mainly the German model - Germany was harnessing higher education for national development and this appealed to Japan, with some American influences

x) Thailand looked to England and France more.

xi)The role of Christian missionaries through Asia is interesting in the early development of higher education

xii) The case of China is also very significant and interesting from a historical perspective.

xiii) Although China has a long history of advanced education -- China after all invented the examination system -- its contemporary higher education institutions are all in the Western model.

xiv) Foreign influences were strong in China, due to missionary activities as well as because of the impact of the European powers and Japan along the coast. Academic institutions in the Western model were established in the capital as well as along the coast at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. These institutions came to dominate higher education in China.

xv) After the Revolution, the Soviet academic model was introduced into China.

xvi) A significant part of the story of the higher education development of Asian countries has been the struggle with and adaptation of colonial and foreign academic ideas and models.

6. The private sector has long been important in many Asian countries, and the private sector will continue to be important in the future as well.

a. Private higher education has a long history in Asia -- dating from the establishing of academic institutions in the region - some of these institutions have been related to missionary religious groups but in many cases not.

b. Several Asian countries today have a majority of enrollments in private universities -- including in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and recently in Indonesia, and also in Taiwan

c. In Asia, the bulk of funding for private higher education comes from student tuition and other private sources - with very little from government.

d. In some cases, some of the best universities are private - in the Philippines, south Korea and Japan this is the case- although the bulk of private institutions are at the lower end of the prestige and quality hierarchy.

e. In some Asian countries, there have been government controls over the private sector -- this shows that it is possible to have a strong regulatory regime for private institutions if that is considered to be important.

f. Clearly, private higher education institutions are an important part of the future of Asian higher education because the government is unable to absorb the costs of providing access.

7. The future of Asian higher education. The following trends will inevitably be part of Asia' s higher education future. They will play out in somewhat different ways in different countries.

a. Massification will continue and will, in countries where enrollment rates are still low by international standards, including China, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and others, be the central reality of the coming period.

b. The emergence of national systems of higher education is related to the continuing impact of massification.

c. The impact of globalization in many different ways will continue to be a challenge -- including language, migration, and others.

d. Privatization of public universities and private higher education will continue to grow.

e. The impact of Information Technology in many different areas, including distance education, the management of institutions, scientific communication, and others will grow in importance.

f. Finding funds to pay for expansion in numbers and improvement of quality is a key challenge.

g. The academic profession is a central issue as well -- if universities are to be successful, the academic profession must be well trained and effective, and this is a major challenge.

i) Academic freedom is a central element in having an effective academic profession.

h. The role of research in higher education and in national policy is also of special importance in societies increasingly dependent on science and technology for the future.

(China.org.cn, July 29, 2002)

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