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Bangkok: As university enrolment continues to grow across Asia, a new report from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) analyses ways in which countries across the region can accommodate more students while strengthening the  quality of their university programmes and research. 

Entitled Higher Education in Asia: Expanding Out, Expanding Up, the report will be launched in Bangkok on 19 May during an event organized by the Office of Higher Education Commission, Mahidol University and UNESCO.  Based on data from the UIS and a wide range of other sources, the report is designed to help governments in Asia and beyond evaluate the policy tradeoffs in expanding access to high-quality universities and research institutions.

“The race is on to build world-class universities as countries seek to attract more foreign students, companies and investment,” says Hendrik van der Pol, Director of the UIS. “But there are hidden risks. By directing more funding to top-tier universities, governments may overlook pockets of excellence in other institutions. In terms of national development, countries might benefit more by supporting these emerging universities that are excelling in niche areas but may not yet appear in international rankings.”

Across Asia, higher education systems are expanding out with government support to construct new campuses, hire more professors and expand the private sector. Nearly 40% of tertiary students in Asia are enrolled in private universities and colleges, which have experienced phenomenal growth over the past decade. But the situation varies considerably between countries, with the share of students enrolled in private institutions ranging from 15% in Viet Nam to 81% in the Republic of Korea, according to the report. 

At the same time, universities are also expanding up with the introduction of new graduate programmes in response to growing socio-economic demands for highly-skilled professionals. These new programmes also enable universities to keep up with the rising demand for higher education by producing more professors with higher qualifications. In China, for example, only about 16% of university faculty members have doctoral degrees and another 35% have a master’s degree.

The situation is similar in Viet Nam, where 14% of university instructors have a doctorate and 46% have just a master’s degree. To bridge this gap, countries are increasing investment in graduate programmes, but this may ultimately lead to a reduction in funding for undergraduate education.

The report highlights ways to strike a balance by examining policies in Malaysia and Thailand. 

Both governments have sought to expand their graduate education programmes over the past decade. In Malaysia, graduate enrolment increased four-fold from about 21,100 to 85,200 between 2000 and 2010. Overall, the Malaysian government spends about twice the amount per higher education student than Thailand. However, Thai universities have a broader resource base and more administrative autonomy than their counterparts in Malaysia.

“The rapid expansion of higher education in Asia implies that universities must re-evaluate their strategies and responsibilities far beyond national boundaries,” according to Prof. Rajata Rajatanavin, President of Mahidol University and the Council of University Presidents of Thailand. “Asian universities have an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to and harness the benefits of the global intellectual marketplace.  Do we have the courage and wisdom to realize the needed changes and make the necessary investments?"

To better evaluate different strategies, the report compares a range of policies in both countries – from the performance indicators used for government funding to the commercialisation of university research. Special focus is given to policies aimed at improving university rankings by, for example, increasing the publication requirements for professors. While these policies can be controversial, they are nevertheless shaping university reforms. So the report highlights the pros and cons by comparing the three most commonly-used university ranking systems.

Across the region, countries are not simply seeking to expand enrolment in universities – they are also striving to strengthen their foundations in research and experimental development (R&D). The report presents a range of data to better evaluate the economic benefits flowing from university research, as well as the spillover effects to industry. Overall, R&D intensity (a commonly used indicator reflecting R&D expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product) varies considerably in countries across the region: Republic of Korea (4.0%), Japan (3.4%), Singapore (2.2%), China (1.8%), Malaysia (1.1%), India (0.8%) and Thailand (0.25%).

The report also compares government investment in applied versus basic research. In Thailand, for example, 38% of R&D expenditure is devoted to applied research versus 14% to basic research. The rest (48%) goes to experimental development. In contrast, China devotes 78% of R&D expenditure to experimental development, 17% to applied research and 5% to basic research.

“This report provides several important insights into the development of Asian universities” says Gwang-Jo Kim, Director of UNESCO Bangkok. “We need to do more research on critical issues surrounding higher education in the region. UNESCO Bangkok will endeavour to provide advice and options on what governments can consider for building quality universities that are more affordable and relevant to the needs of the society and the economy.”  
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