Context: Higher education in Asia Pacific

By David Barnett – CEO Higher Education, Pearson Asia Pacific

At a time when the eyes of the world are focused on the emergence of Asia (and China in particular) as global economic powers, higher education in the region is more important than ever. Developed economies rely on a flow of highly skilled labour to drive productivity, create more confident and affluent middle classes, and to increase business efficiency. Having a vibrant and high quality higher education system is widely accepted as being a necessary condition of economic growth and national competitiveness. This introduction seeks to provide some background information on the key themes and challenges that higher education is currently going through in the Asia Pacific region. 1

Growing affluence in the region means that demand for higher education is rising nearly everywhere, with increasing numbers of 18 to 23-year-olds also fuelling this demand (with the exception of Australia, Korea and Japan, because of the lower birth rates in those countries). During the last two decades there has been a vast expansion in higher education across Asia Pacific. In China, the gross enrolment ratio of higher education increased from nine per cent in 1998 to 23 per cent in 2007, with total enrolment rising from 6.23 million to 27 million during that period. 2

Inevitably, with the number of students increasing and governments no longer being willing and/or able to fully absorb the costs, the issue of funding sustainable tertiary education systems has arisen. Various methods have been used to tackle the funding shortfall but the most popular solution has been to move some of the cost of higher education onto students and their families by either introducing fees in public universities or encouraging private higher education institutions.

Tuition fees have been introduced across the region, and some countries, like Australia, Japan and New Zealand have subsequently increased them further. 3 Some universities reserve a portion of places for applicants who do not qualify for government scholarships but are willing to pay private tuition, and in other cases, universities impose special fees on students enrolling in high-demand programmes of study. In Indonesia for example, some major public universities quadrupled the income that accrued from fees within a matter of years. Similarly, in Vietnam it is now common for public higher education institutions, or parts of them, to earn 40−45 per cent of their budgets from the collection of fees of various kinds. 4

Overall, there are significant differences among Asia Pacific countries in the average tuition fees charged for tertiary education, but the fees are only one part of the picture. It is also important to look at broader support that may be available to students, most notably in the form of loans and scholarships. In this context, there are examples of countries that have high tuition fees and well-developed student support systems, such as Australia and New Zealand, whereas others, including Japan and Korea, have high tuition fees but less-developed student support systems. 5 Generally-speaking, financial constraints have meant that scholarships have given way to loans and there has been considerable experimentation with various kinds of loan schemes across the region.

The demand pressure on public universities has been eased and access to higher education further expanded by loosening restrictions on the private sector, allowing provision to be opened up. In Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, private universities enroll the majority of students (in some cases up to 80 per cent), and in Malaysia private colleges and universities have increased in number from about 100 to 690 over the past five years.6

The expansion of higher education into the private sector has created new concerns about the quality of education being provided, in addition to issues already present in the public sector as explosive enrolment increases put pressure on systems, resources, facilities and teacher/student ratios. A dearth of qualified and experienced instructional staff poses a serious challenge to the continued expansion of higher education institutions, the quality of service that they provide to students, and the quality of research that is undertaken, itself critical to the development of knowledge-based economies and the innovation upon which they depend.

Furthermore, corruption is a major problem within higher education institutions in Asia, evidenced by instances of plagiarism, falsification of data, and cheating on examinations. Cases of corruption and academic dishonesty seriously threaten educational quality and the international reputations of institutions where they occur. 7

Students (increasingly spending their own money to study) need to be protected as consumers through the assurance of good quality higher education. Existing regional initiatives aimed at ensuring quality education include the Asia-Pacific Quality Network (APQN), ASEAN Quality Assurance Network and the Chiba Principle of Quality Assurance. There are also regional initiatives geared towards recognition of qualifications, such as the Brisbane Communique, and the ASEAN Common Higher Education Area. 8

The way in which higher education is administered and governed also has an important impact on the quality of service across the region. There have been moves to consolidate national oversight and responsibility for higher education in central or provincial ministries of education, and greater administrative autonomy has been given to individual colleges and universities in return for them covering more of their own costs. Autonomy continues to be one of the most pressing and controversial issues in the higher education sector of most countries across the region, including debates about academic freedom and political concerns. 9

The higher education that’s being provided must also be relevant to the needs of the labour market. Across much of Asia there are problems with graduates not being suitably trained and lacking the skills sought by employers, resulting in high graduate unemployment rates. Vietnam, for example, has few graduates in the areas of health and welfare, humanities and arts, and service industries. Cambodia has an unbalanced disciplinary structure, with 66 per cent of students graduating in social science, business or law. 80 per cent of Thai firms have said that they experience difficulty in filling job vacancies due to graduates who lack basic and technical skills, and in China graduate unemployment in 2008 rose to 13 per cent – high compared with the official national unemployment rate of 4 per cent.10

It could be argued that this issue stems from incoming students lacking the skills to handle the demands of university work due to low quality secondary level instruction and misalignment of secondary curricula with the kind of knowledge that is required for academic success at university level. A key issue is that across Asia admission to higher education is still heavily test based, and so countries (including Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and China) have increasingly been reviewing and diversifying their university entrance criteria and processes. 11

Whilst overall access to higher education has been expanded, issues of equity to access remain across much of the region. There is concern that the kind of financial issues mentioned above have impacted the ability of students from poorer backgrounds to continue their studies into higher education and also affected the kind of institutions they are able to enroll at. An issue of gender imbalance is also apparent, with the Asian region registering a 26 per cent rate in terms of gender balance enrolment—a larger gap compared to Europe’s 70 per cent. 12

Nevertheless, as economists speak of a shift in economic power from countries in the West to the East, the same is also starting to be said regarding their higher education systems. The Times Higher Education 2012 World Reputation Rankings suggest that universities traditionally considered to be the global leaders, such as those in the US and UK, are starting to slip in esteem, whilst those in Asia Pacific are on the rise. Universities in Japan, China, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan have all moved up in the 2012 reputation rankings, consolidating their positions in the top 100 list. 13

Higher education institutions now operate in a global market and trends in the globalisation of higher education are readily apparent in Asia Pacific, characterised by a degree of intra, inter and extra-regional mobility of tertiary students. Globally, the number of students attending institutions outside their country of origin tripled between 1985 and 2008, 14 with Asians accounting for 52% of all students studying abroad worldwide. 15

In 2009, China and Korea accounted for the most mobile students from among Asia Pacific countries, at 421,000 and 105,000 students respectively, with most of them heading for North America and Western Europe as well as within East Asia. There is also a unique flow of students between China, Japan and Korea plus a peripheral ASEAN flow into those three major economies. 16 The presence of Asian students is particularly strong in Australia, Japan and Korea, where they account for more than 75% of all international students. 17

International mobility in higher education still operates within a very asymmetrical market, dominated by some strong providers, mostly in English-speaking countries. Globally, the United States hosts the largest number of international tertiary students, while the proportion of such students is highest in Australia. 18 Western institutions are also increasingly engaging Asian universities for franchises, twinning programs, joint or double-degrees and e-learning or distance learning—of which Malaysia and Singapore are notable examples. 19

Having this international dimension to higher education is important in order to maintain international competitiveness through awareness of, and exposure to other cultures and languages. This has been recognised recently by the Japanese Government who have begun offering substantial grants to universities for study abroad programmes in response to the number of Japanese college students going to foreign universities declining by 28 per cent, from 82,000 in 2004 to 59,000 in 2009. 20

At the same time as maintaining the flow and mobility of their domestic students to study abroad, the challenge for Asia Pacific economies and their higher education institutions is also to attract and cater for international students at home. As shown above, some countries within the region are already successfully doing this, such as Australia, where education is one of the country’s largest exports. (Some estimates have put the value as high as Aus$17.2 billion in 2008–09, or about 1.4 per cent of GDP, with growth of over 20 per cent from the previous financial year. 21) The dominance of Australia—or the US, Canada and UK globally—reflects the fact that English is still the global business language of choice, but as Asian economies and trading links to them continue to develop there may be scope for this to change. Many companies in the region now consider Chinese Mandarin language skills, for example, to be extremely important when recruiting new employees.

A further way of attracting international students is to ease immigration policies to encourage the temporary or permanent immigration of students from abroad. Australia and New Zealand, for example, make it easy for foreign students who have studied in their universities to settle by granting them additional points in their immigration point system. 22

One final element necessary to mention in any discussion about the current state of higher education is the role of technology. Technology is reshaping teaching and learning across the education sectors and no less so than in higher education. Improved technology is able to further widen access to higher education through the implementation of open distance learning (ODL). ODL continues to make up an increasing share of the market, particularly in China, Indonesia and Thailand where there is considerable government subsidy for this type of learning. 23 (In China, the government gives grants of around $10,000 to professors at dozens of universities to help them improve their undergraduate teaching materials and then put them online—more than 10,000 courses from Chinese universities are now available online as a result. 24) Most of the largest open universities in the world can now be found in the region, including the Central Radio and Television University of China, with over 2.6 million students. 25 Within China as a whole, more than 10 per cent of university students are engaged in online learning. 26 In Australia, Open Universities Australia (OUA) which is owned by seven local universities has grown from a small, distance-based learning provider into the leader in online higher education, having experienced a doubling in enrolments over the past four years.

Be that as it may, the scope to which improved technology is able to impact higher education is always going to be dependent on the wider technological infrastructure of a country and digital readiness of its population. Asia Pacific countries differ greatly in these terms, some being amongst the most technologically advanced in the world, whilst others still exhibit major weakness in terms of Internet penetration rates and personal computer ownership. The Internet penetration rate in Cambodia, for example, is just 0.5 per cent of the population, and in Indonesia it is only 10.5 per cent. 27 This needs to be developed in order for distance learning to flourish, although ‘m-learning’, whereby course materials are made accessible through Wi-Fi and mobile phones, is an alternative being experimented with by some universities (including City University of Hong Kong, Shanghai Jiaotong University, and the University of the Philippines Open University). Taking the example of Cambodia above, the country has the lowest internet penetration rate in South-East Asia and few landlines, but it also has the highest call rates and the world’s highest ratio of telephone users using wireless. 28

It is clear, therefore, that higher education in Asia Pacific has gone through a period of substantial change over the last twenty years or so. This looks set to continue as economic development carries on, with increased affluence creating demand for further expansion, itself a prerequisite for healthy knowledge-based economies through the skills taught as well as the research and innovation generated. Serious challenges remain concerning funding, quality assurance—related to the availability and experience of teaching staff, corruption and issues of autonomy and monitoring—the suitability of graduates to labour market needs, equity of access, international competitiveness and technological readiness. The extent to which governments and higher education systems are able to deal with these issues will be key to Asia Pacific’s overall economic development in the coming years.

David Barnett was appointed Regional CEO, Higher Education for Pearson Asia Pacific in 2012. David has been actively involved for many years in the Australian Publishers Association, serving as convenor of the HE committee and as a board member. He is also a member of the Australia Government’s Digital Education Advisory Group.

  1. Please see ‘A note on language’ (p.19) for a definition of ‘Asia Pacific’ in this publication. It is important to mention that in such a demographically, geographically, politically and economically diverse region generalisations must be treated with caution: the purpose of this introduction is merely to highlight some of the key trends and issues that are common to many of the countries in the region.
  2. Hye-Rim Kim, Higher education sees rapid change, Bangkok Post/UNESCO, 12 March 2009, accessed April 2012,
  3. OECD, Education at a Glance 2011: Highlights, OECD Publishing, 2011, accessed April 2012,, p.62.
  4. Asian Development Bank, Higher Education Across Asia: An Overview of Issues and Strategies, Asian Development Bank, November 2011, p.18.
  5. OECD (2011), op. cit., p.62.
  6. Asian Development Bank, op. cit., p.19.
  7. Ibid., p.11
  8. Tshepo Gwatiwa, Trends of higher education in the Asia Pacific, UNESCO Bangkok, 22 March 2012, accessed April 2012,
  9. Asian Development Bank, op. cit., pp.24–26.
  10. Ibid., pp.14–15.
  11. Ibid., pp.13–14.
  12. Gwatiwa, op. cit..
  13. David Jobbins, Reputation of UK universities slips as East catches up, University World News, 15 March 2012, accessed April 2012,
  14. Richard Yelland, The globalisation of higher education, OECD Observer, No 287, Q4 2011, accessed April 2012,
  15. OECD (2011), op. cit., p.30.
  16. Gwatiwa, op. cit..
  17. OECD (2011), op. cit., p.30.
  18. Yelland, op. cit..
  19. Gwatiwa, op. cit..
  20. Editorial: The Japan Times, Money to study abroad, The Japan Times Online, 1 April 2012, accessed April 2012,
  21. Yelland, op. cit..
  22. OECD (2011), op. cit., p.34.
  23. Gwatiwa, op. cit.
  24. Rebecca Clothey, Current Trends in Higher Education: Expanding access in Asia Pacific through technology, Higher Education Special Interest Group, 2010, accessed April 2012,, p.3.
  25. Asian Development Bank, op. cit., p.31.
  26. Clothey, op. cit., p.3.
  27. Asian Development Bank, op. cit., p.35.
  28. Clothey, op. cit., pp.4–6.

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