Students work at terminals in a state-of-the-art library at Tsinghua University in Beijing. China is plowing money into top universities while also establishing vocational programs and enabling more students to go to college.Across East Asia, governments are funneling resources into elite universities, financing basic research, and expanding access to vocational and junior colleges, all with the goal of driving economic development.
Hong Kong and Singapore, compact port cities that have lost their traditional importance as logistics and manufacturing centers, are rushing to turn themselves into centers of innovation.
China has invested in a group of select universities that it hopes will become globally renowned hubs of technological and scientific research, while in South Korea, leaders are spending billions of dollars on projects designed to spawn top-notch laboratories and attract foreign universities as partners. And as Taiwan's economy loses ground to China, it is trying to draw top talent through aggressive international recruitment.
Asia's approach to higher education contrasts markedly with that of the United States, where, even before the global recession hit, the percentages of state budgets dedicated to higher education have been in steady decline.
"Out here the government is looking at education as a driver of the country's future, so it isn't last in line," says Rajendra K. Srivastava, provost of Singapore Management University, who spent 25 years at the University of Texas at Austin.
Continuar a ler o artigo...As American educators fret over a "dropout crisis," some Asian countries report graduation rates in the 90th percentile. Many of those graduates are in strategic fields like engineering. Jee-Yeon Kim (above) studies electrical engineering at Korea's National NanoFab Center. The goal is to produce students who will contribute to indigenous research.
In Texas, he recalls with dismay, "when they were allocating the state budget, education was one of the last things to get approved."
But while the government-led push is quite different from America's decentralized approach, Asian college and government officials say they are taking cues from the United States. Specifically, they hope to replicate America's post-World War II path to growth.
"Asians have studied very carefully the reasons why Western populations are now successful," says Kishore Mahbubani, a dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and author of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East. "They realize that unless you create good universities and attract the best minds in the world, you can't move into the next phase of development."
All this is against the backdrop of declining American dominance in global research. A 2008 National Science Foundation report found that patents filed by inventors living in the United States had dropped from 55 percent in 1996 to 53 percent in 2005. The foundation attributed the change to an increase in filings by Asian inventors.
The U.S. share of "highly influential" papers published in peer-reviewed journals also fell, from 63 percent in 1992 to 58 percent in 2003—a drop that reflects the rise of China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, the report's authors noted.
"Innovation and its handmaiden, R&D, is driving the global economy," they continued, "and we are seeing more nations recognize this by creating their own version of U.S. research institutions and infrastructure."
The United States continues to lead the world by most measures, including financial support for higher education, top scholarly work, and the production of patents. But Asia is emerging as an increasingly strong competitor.
"It's not so much that the U.S. is on the decline but that the Asian universities are rising," says Gerard A. Postiglione, an expert on Chinese education at the University of Hong Kong. "They're rising along with their economies."
A Shift in Power
Those economies, like their Western counterparts, have foundered in the past year. The South Korean won plunged to an 11-year low in March. Singapore's economy is in a crippling slump, with its Trade and Industry Ministry predicting a contraction of 4 to 6 percent by the end of the year. Hong Kong will probably show a similar drop, and Taiwan has seen a double-digit dip in exports over the previous year. Only China posts continued growth, but the country's future is uncertain, with development likely to augur the death of its manufacturing economy as China prices itself out of the cheap-labor market.
But while many U.S. states slash their higher-education budgets, East Asian countries have faced the crisis by funneling more resources into the future. Certainly the stimulus bill approved by the U.S. Congress this year earmarked millions of dollars for higher education. But that money will run out in the next couple of years.
In contrast, recovery financing in China, South Korea, and Singapore supports basic research and the creation of programs in key fields for innovation. The assumption is that such projects will boost economic growth.
"What we see out here is that if we can get a better educated population it will attract the higher-value industries," says Mr. Srivastava. "We're trying to move up the growth ladder."
Whether investment in higher education directly translates into a robust economy, which also depends on factors like tax and trade policies, and an overall culture of innovation, is debatable. But Asia is steaming ahead on faith.
Intent on repositioning its economy around biotechnology and medical sciences, Singapore has invited graduate programs from leading American universities, including the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Duke University, to set up in the tiny city-state, housing them in campuses near state-of-the-art science parks to facilitate the development of spin-off companies.
South Korea hopes do the same with undergraduate institutions. Its Songdo Global University Campus, a new development on Songdo, a man-made island in the Yellow Sea, is designed to entice foreign universities to establish branch campuses, with the goal of enrolling 12,000 students by 2012. The project's developer hopes the universities will interact with the research arms of multinational companies, turning Songdo into a global business hub.
In 2005, Taiwan allocated $1.6-billion for elite universities, aiming to have 10 of Asia's top universities or departments by 2010.
"Every university here is putting a lot of effort into increasing the number of English-language programs," says Angela Fan, deputy dean of international affairs at National Yang-Ming University, in Taipei.
In its bid to become "Asia's world city," Hong Kong is advertising generous research money and relaxing caps on international enrollment. In 2012 its universities will switch from a three-year system inherited from the British to a four-year program with a broader curriculum—a move designed to make them more competitive.
And China is doing everything at once. The country has attracted attention for its success in jump-starting its top universities through a plan known as the 985 Project. But the country's policy makers are equally focused on improving access and overhauling vocational education. Plans include expanding access to higher education on a scale comparable only with postwar America. "They're developing a strategy of walking on two legs," says Qiang Zha, an expert on Chinese higher education at York University, in Toronto.
A Shifting Power Dynamic
The effectiveness of these campaigns varies, but few dispute that East Asia's higher-education push has produced some notable results. With the exception of Taiwan, all the East Asian upstarts now have universities in the top 100 on the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings (although they rank much lower on the more research-focused "Academic Ranking of World Universities," by Shanghai Jiao Tong University).
One measure of Asia's impact is its effect on countries that traditionally dominate global higher education. In 2006 experts at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development prepared a report for the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based research group, praising South Korea for near-universal high-school education and noting the rise of China and India. The report stressed, "There is no way for Europe to stop these rapidly developing countries from producing wave after wave of highly skilled graduates."
Ma Wanhua, a professor at Peking University Graduate School of Education, spent last year on a fellowship in Germany, where she says she was frequently approached with questions about Chinese policy. "Many European countries are starting to think about the 985 Project as they try to build up their own research universities," she says.
The power dynamic is shifting within the region as well, with China making the biggest waves. Analysts say Japan unveiled its Centers of Excellence program, which entails generous grants to select institutions, in response to China's reforms.
Michael Spence, vice chancellor of the University of Sydney, recently said he fears losing Chinese students—which at his institution make up 40 percent of international students—not to universities in the West but to China's own.
Regional development is not a zero-sum game. Discoveries published in international journals are available to all researchers, and strong Asian universities can be a boon for Western academics seeking collaborators. Better training also means more qualified candidates for U.S. graduate programs.
But while it is impossible to know how many Chinese students now choose China over, say, Australia, it is clear that more now elect to stay close to home. Unesco's "2009 Global Education Digest" found 42 percent of mobile students in East Asia and the Pacific remained within the region in 2007—up from 36 percent in 1999.
No Choice but to Change
Concern over Asia's rise is hardly new. "The idea that the U.S. is falling behind Asia in education is an old one," says Ann White, director of the Institute of International Education, in Hong Kong. "I remember hearing it when I was in university 25 years ago."
Hysteria about the loss of U.S. dominance dates to the 1950s, when pundits sounded alarms about the rise of Soviet universities. Five decades later, Ms. White says, the evidence doesn't bear out the claim that the United States is being eclipsed, pointing out that inquiries at her office from students in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Macau who want to study in the States are at an all-time high.
But others note that even if the United States remains the gold standard for now, Asia already outpaces the States in some important areas. As American administrators fret over a "dropout crisis," Asian countries report graduation rates in the 90th percentile.
Many of those graduates are in fields of strategic importance, like science and engineering. The long-term vision across the continent is of producing students who can contribute to indigenous research.
Asia has few alternatives, policy makers say. Small countries like South Korea may be fine for the next two decades, but beyond that the outlook is grim unless they can spur innovation, says Hee Yhon Song, a longtime economic planner for the Korean government who is spearheading the Songdo Global University Campus project.
"We need to improve the quality of Korean universities fast enough to preserve the technology gap between Korea and China and India," says Mr. Song. "The Chinese tiger is growing fast. If we are too slow, the Korean horse will be attacked."
Demographics are another pressure. Birth rates have plummeted across Asia in the past few decades. Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Macau have the lowest birth rates in the world, and South Korea is not far behind.
With the number of graduating high-school seniors dwindling, these countries have to look abroad merely to keep enrollment steady.
Hong Kong has steadily raised its cap on international and mainland-Chinese students at public universities, from 2 percent of the total student body in 1993 to 20 percent today. The famously cramped territory has also marked two swaths of land for the establishment of private universities. The new institutions, which won't be subject to caps, may take students that have been locked out of other universities.
The shrinking number of native-born students is behind Taiwan's internationalization as well. More foreign students will not be enough to save some universities, however; in 2006, the Ministry of Education stipulated that institutions that receive low scores in periodic evaluations will be shut down.
But educators and administrators across Asia talk about the enrollment bind as a positive thing. A sense of urgency persuades leaders to preserve resources for education when policy decisions get tough, says Mr. Song. "If they understand that it's a survival strategy, they allocate the money."
The United States, by contrast, often appears slow to act, in the eyes of Asian administrators.
"The United States has been dominant for so long that it tends to take its position for granted," says Jongryn Mo, dean of Underwood International College at Yonsei University, in Seoul. "I am not sure if it understands the challenges arising as the rest of the world catches up."
U.S. Example, Asia Autocracy
It helps that several East Asian powers are governed by technocrats who are adept at making sense of economic forecasts. These leaders were educated at American universities, where they saw how the higher-education system worked firsthand. Now they hope to replicate it.
In China, policy makers looked closely at the California system's master plan before coming up with their two-pronged approach of simultaneously developing mass and elite institutions, says Mr. Zha, the Chinese higher-education expert in Toronto.
Others say infusions of cash to elite universities in Korea, Taiwan, and China are a nod to America's hierarchy of universities.
"The Korean system is very much the U.S. system," says Nam Pyo Suh, president of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, explaining that the country's private universities outnumber its public institutions, and only a small number of those are allowed to excel.
But the abrupt creation of an elite group of universities in South Korea, China, and Taiwan has yielded resentment at institutions excluded from the financial trough.
"We were given a lot of money," says Ms. Ma, referring to Peking University, "and people say, 'What have you done with it?'"
And while Asia's rise may be cut on a U.S. model, the continent's strong commitment to education grows out of a very different style of governance.
Autocratic governments like China and Singapore have the luxury of planning two or three decades in advance. China, which routinely maps out targets to 2050, is expected to unveil a long-term plan for higher education soon—a document that would be unthinkable in the United States. Such countries also have an easier time pushing through unpopular measures, such as mandates that universities offer a set portion of courses in English, which tend not to sit well with faculty members who didn't study overseas.
"In Asia, there's a belief that you need strong government intervention to create good universities," says Mr. Mahbubani, of the National University of Singapore. "In the U.S. there is an assumption that the government does not need to intervene because society will somehow work things out."
Some Asian observers now hold up the global economic crisis as proof that government intervention is necessary. A financial mix that includes substantial endowment money, for example, is feasible only when an economy is in full swing. U.S. universities, Mr. Mahbubani points out, are suffering: "I don't know how they're going to cope in hard times."
An Asian Model?
Beyond a financial and policy commitment, however, it is difficult to discern a larger pattern in Asia's education push. At the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education meeting in Beijing this past spring, some representatives hinted at developing an Asian answer to the Bologna Process, the European effort to adopt uniform degree standards. But most agreed such a process is still far off.
"Asia has always put a lot of emphasis on education for economic development," said Anthony Cheung, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, as he prepared to host a group of Asian university presidents in May. "Now we need to see whether there are any commonalities in our approaches."
At the national level, those approaches have their detractors. Professors in South Korea complain that students study hard in high school—and then abruptly stop.
"They speed up and up until they pass the gate of the university," says Shin-wha Lee, professor of international relations at Korea University. "They don't read Tolstoy, they don't read about democracy, they don't read Marx."
Asia's high graduation rates may simply reflect a lack of academic rigor. In Korea degree attainment is such a sure bet that in the early 1980s the country briefly instituted a "graduation quota" that, before popular protest forced the government to drop it, required universities to fail a specific number of students.
And some say China's push has happened too fast. In the past 10 years, universities were cut loose from central-government financing and encouraged to balance their books. But tuition remains tightly controlled by the government, a gap that forced many universities to take out high-interest loans from local banks. Today many are in debt.
China's student-faculty ratio has skyrocketed, meanwhile. Even with millions of young people vying for scarce jobs, employers complain about the quality of recent graduates.
"China has moved from an elite system to a mass one in five or six years," says Mr. Zha. "In other countries it took 15 or 20 years to accomplish that jump."
In a report released this May that contrasted in tone with its earlier warning about the rise of Asia, the OECD said China needed to raise its spending on higher education to ensure quality. Similarly, in 2003, the consulting firm McKinsey emphasized that quantity is not everything, estimating that only 10 percent of China's 1.6 billion engineers are qualified to work in multinational companies.
Cooperating Across Borders
But in the long run, financing across the region seems secure. The East Asian countries are moving closer, meanwhile, by cooperating on research and dual-degree programs. In crafting a fourth public university, Singapore has settled on two collaborators that reflect the city-state's dual orientation, courting an unnamed Chinese university along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And Taiwan is debating whether to admit students from China, a potentially historic move for two countries that still have no diplomatic ties.
Hong Kong's leading universities, meanwhile, are building branch campuses across the border with mainland China in Shenzhen, in an area once dominated by low-end manufacturing. The goal is to take advantage of Chinese-government funds for basic research, says Thomas Wu, director of academic links at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"The government is trying to redo southern China as an area of technology transfer," he explains, adding that his university's Shenzhen program will enroll up to 200 mainland Ph.D. students. "If that succeeds, then increasingly we will have a role as a center of applied research."
Like administrators and policy makers across Asia, he connects his predictions to the economy. "What's very interesting," he adds, "is how the Chinese economy recovers."