The next level

The region’s tertiary education sector has received an ‘A’ for effort in recent decades and, while there is certainly room for improvement, the future looks even brighter

Bridget Di Certo
October 9, 2014
The next level
Bangkok University campus

It is fair to say that visiting a Thai hospital to be treated by a Thai doctor who had been educated at a Thai university was once a risky endeavour. It is also testament to the Kingdom’s education reform that, nowadays, after nearly two decades of liberalised tertiary education, Thai-educated doctors in Thai hospitals are synonymous with premier healthcare.

The trend has been similar across Southeast Asia, where a booming middle class and decades of international assistance has helped dramatically improve the quality and quantity of tertiary education providers. In the past five years, Southeast Asian universities have begun to infiltrate the upper echelons of worldwide university indexes. Research departments at universities in Singapore and Malaysia in particular have gained accolades for new work and, in turn, attracted an increasing number of international students to their halls.

Last year, the National University of Singapore’s engineering and technology department was the first Asian university to be ranked in the top ten by the renowned QS World University Rankings Index. Of the ten best-ranked Asian universities in the QS Index, Southeast Asia performed well, with four of the top ten in Malaysia and two in Singapore.

“Malaysia has advanced most. It has a differentiated system of universities and polytechnics – public and private institutions. It has a strong quality assurance system and one of the highest levels of public investment in the world,” said Jamil Salmi, a global tertiary education expert who, until recently, served as coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education programme. “Thailand has a diversified system with high enrolment rates but the governance of the public universities has been slow in changing, with resistance to the autonomy plan of previous governments.”

Indeed, the region’s education sector is not all plain sailing. In Cambodia, research departments at universities are almost non-existent and students and media frequently report corruption and bribery.

“Cambodia is certainly less advanced than the likes of Thailand and Malaysia. It has low capacity and low differentiation, as well as low resources. But it does have a development plan and receives financial support through a World Bank credit,” said Salmi.

While Thailand can provide its neighbour with a positive example of how to turn underfunded state-run institutions into a booming and profitable sector – by facilitating the entry of private and international universities into the market – it still has work to do.

With more university graduates than ever from Asean’s thousands of institutions, some onlookers have stated that, even though such rapid progress is largely beneficial, the region needs to begin producing graduates who meet its urgent labour needs.

A 2010 World Bank study on Thailand’s tertiary education system, titled Towards a Competitive Higher Education System in a Global Economy, highlighted a problem relevant to the whole region. With universities rushing to fill demand for boutique degrees such as social media relations, a lack of synergy has been created.

“There has been significant growth in the number of students going to college [in Thailand], as well as in the number of new higher education institutions,” Luis Benveniste, an education expert at the World Bank and the lead author of the report, said at the time. “But there have also been concerns about the quality and the relevance of education at this level.”

The report detailed how Thailand is inundated with social science graduates yet faces a shortfall in fields such as science, technology and health technology – all critical as the Kingdom tries to transition towards becoming a knowledge economy. 

The situation is less pronounced in Malaysia, where the quality of university degrees is more tightly controlled in the private sector and foreign campuses and professors are more neatly woven into the higher education framework. The renowned International Institute for Management Development (IMD) World Competitiveness Yearbook ranked Malaysia 12th in the world in terms of skilled labour last year. Malaysia was the highest ranked Asian nation, coming in 15 places higher than Thailand in 27th spot and Singapore in 30th.

Malaysia was also cited by Gwang-Jo Kim, director of Unesco’s Asia-Pacific Bureau for Education, as one of the key drivers of the three main trends expected in Southeast Asia’s tertiary education sector, which will be massification, diversification and internationalisation.

“There is a pattern of increasing franchises, with Western institutions engaging Asian universities for franchises, twinning programs, joint- or double-degrees and e-learning or distance learning – with outstanding examples from Malaysia and Singapore,” Kim said while speaking in Cambodia in 2012.

Distance learning, in particular, has dramatically transformed the accessibility of higher education for students in China and the model is being replicated with success in Thailand, where every year the number of distance learning students is increasing.

Another step in a similar direction within Asean is the move towards creating harmonious systems that allow students to transfer between universities in different countries. Dr Rahul Choudaha, director of research and advisory services at World Education Services, has called this the development of “glocal” education, where students “have global aspirations, but prefer to stay in their home country or region for education”. He predicts that this trend will take over Asean as the region moves further towards integration.

One plan to provide for cross-credits and to standardise degrees in Southeast Asia has been in the works since 2009. However, with more than 6,500 education institutions and 12 million students across ten countries, it is no easy task. This has resulted in initial priority being given to increasing student mobility, credit transfers, quality assurance and research clusters as the four main ‘pillars’ of the plan.

With a tertiary qualification rapidly becoming a prerequisite for employment in many regional workplaces, the number of school leavers continuing their studies is increasing across the board. In Cambodia, 16% of school leavers enter higher education institutions, according to World Bank and Unesco data, while in Thailand that figure reaches 51%.

George Ghantous, managing director of the Southeast Asian arm of Nord Anglia Education, an operator of 31 international schools in 13 countries, linked the increase in tertiary enrolments to improvements in secondary schools. A proliferation of private international secondary and primary schools has helped attract internationally qualified, experienced teachers, as well as additional resources that better equip students to perform in a university setting. “The percentage of local students attending international schools has risen steadily over the past 15 years and has coincided with rising GDP and increasing disposable income for local families in Southeast Asia,” said Ghantous. 

While it is undeniable that money talks whatever the sector, many regional nations are striking a workable balance between public and private institutions. The Singaporean government, for example, has pumped large sums of money into education to ensure that public institutions such as the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University – which came 2nd and 11th respectively on the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2014 – remain both affordable and competitive.

“Countries such as Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore still have low fees or no fees in public institutions, so affordability is not a huge issue, except of course in the private universities, which tend to cater to middle-class and upper-class students,” said Salmi, who has provided policy advice on tertiary education reform to the governments of more than 60 countries around the world. “Unlike what is happening in Latin America, for example, in Asia the public universities are still the top ones. Yes, private higher education has expanded fast, especially in Malaysia and Thailand, but I would not say it has taken over.”

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