The role of and background to higher education in the Asian ‘tiger economies’

9.1 This section identifies the key themes in higher education in the Asian ‘tiger economies’ of Malaysia, The Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

9.2 The ‘Asian tigers’ have attracted attention largely due to their high, long-term growth rates. Many of the tigers have maintained growth rates of 8-10 per cent over a number of years. For example, South Korea’s growth rate is currently 8 per cent even though its GDP per head is now over $10,000, and Singapore has recently achieved growth of up to 10 per cent p.a. even though its GDP per head is approaching that of the USA.

9.3 The explanations for these high rates of growth are various. There is general agreement that high savings have permitted very high levels of investment in the tiger economies. These is less consensus as to whether the low share of GDP spent by the governments has been a significant factor in growth, or whether social stability and cohesion has been important.

9.4 The development of effective policies for education and training, and the creation of a skilled workforce, have been seen as crucial. For example, a World Bank report on Singapore commented that "the phenomenal development of Singapore...has taken place despite the lack of natural resources and the absence of a large domestic market. This remarkable success has been attributed largely to sensible and effective policies and the early attention paid to Singapore’s infrastructure and manpower resources" (Economic Development Institute of the World Bank, 1992).

9.5 Politically, many of the tiger economies have a recent history of military rule. However, a number of them have liberalised in recent years and Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea are now amongst the most democratic countries in Asia. This political liberalisation may make it more difficult for the tiger governments to resist demands to expand the size of their higher education systems still further.

9.6 There is a close link between the aims and purposes of higher education and the needs of the economy. For example, the most recent Malaysian development plan is predicated on the assumption that the demand for an educated and skilled workforce will increase in tandem with the country’s rapid industrialisation. The main objectives for Malaysian higher education include commitments to:

  • "improve the quality and relevance of courses offered so as to match national manpower requirements";
  • "increase the capacity of enrolment in science, engineering and technical-related courses so as to intensify the production of manpower with scientific and technical knowledge"; and
  • "increase the capacity and capability to undertake research and development, particularly that which is relevant to the requirements of the industrial and service sectors."

9.7 This approach is fairly typical of that of the Asian tigers. A further indication of the emphasis placed on the economic role of higher education is the balance of subjects taken at undergraduate level. In Taiwan, for example, 55 per cent of students are studying either engineering or business administration. There is a similar stress on science and technology in Malaysia and Singapore.

9.8 However, concentrating on how the aims and purposes of higher education are meant to promote economic development is to tell only half of the story. The second aspect of the aims and purposes of higher education which are stressed by the tiger economies is the role of higher education in the development of social and moral values. Again, Malaysia is a good example. The population of 20 million is a diverse mix of Malays, Indians and Chinese. Higher education is seen as having an explicit goal of delivering social and moral objectives in a country where social cohesion is seen as a prerequisite for economic growth. Even in countries with a more homogenous society there are explicit moral objectives for higher education. The Ministry of Education in Taiwan, for example, stresses the need for higher education to promote humanist values and to resist "individualism, relativism, self-indulgence and sensualism".

9.9 The higher education systems in the region divide into those following a US model and those which were based on UK practice. The largest of the higher education systems – that of South Korea – is modelled on the US system. Universities run four year degree courses while there is a substantial Junior College sector offering diploma qualifications after two years of study. The system in Taiwan is a similar Junior College / University one. Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong have systems which are heavily influenced by that of the UK. All three of these systems are binary with universities and polytechnics, while the Singapore system also includes Junior Colleges.

9.10 A common feature of all of the higher education systems is that they are binary and there are significant differences between the two sectors. The main differences are in terms of:

  • Mission – institutions in the two sectors are generally seen as having very different missions. In Singapore, for example, the government has been keen for polytechnics to retain their vocational mission, and so they are not permitted to offer bachelors degrees. For the same reason research is generally confined to the universities.
  • Level of qualification – the polytechnic and junior colleges do not generally offer degree qualifications but a lower level certificate or diploma. For example, a polytechnic diploma from Singapore is accepted by a number of UK universities for entry into the second year of a degree programme.
  • Rigidity – to reinforce these differences there is generally little possibility of transfer between polytechnics / junior college and universities. The main difference between the US and South Korean systems of HE is the ease with which, in the US, students may progress from a junior college into university. Such a route is unusual in the South Korean system.
  • Status – in part because of the qualifications difference, universities are more prestigious institutions. In South Korea, for example, junior colleges generally cater for students who have not been able to enter university. The Graduation Certificate attained after a four year degree is widely perceived as essential not just for employment, but also for social status. Students at Junior College have generally failed to gain admittance to university under the quota system, though some courses for professional qualifications are popular.

9.11 The split between public and private providers differs between countries. In South Korea, for example, a substantial amount of university higher education is in the private sector; the ratio of private sector university enrolments increasing from 55 per cent in 1955 to 78 per cent in 1992. 90 per cent of Junior Colleges are in the private sector. By contrast in Malaysia higher education is carried on for the most part in public institutions. In 1994-95, for example, there were 90,000 students in public institutions of higher education as against 6,000 in private institutions.

9.12 However, in all of the countries under consideration future development is likely to be contingent on an increased role for the private sector in higher education provision. In Malaysia, for example, this involves provision through leading private companies rather than private universities. Telekom, the leading telecommunications company, has recently been granted a license by the Government to establish degree programmes as Universiti Telekom.

9.13 However, the distinctions made in many of the tiger economies between public and private, and indeed between higher education sectors, are not as significant as they might seem. The key reason for this is that the respective Ministries of Education have historically retained fairly tight control over higher education whether it is in the private or public sector. In South Korea, the Ministry of Education has controlled admissions to both public and private sector institutions. In Singapore the Government has until recently been able to exercise more or less complete control over all aspects of higher education. Hong Kong is the exception here as the Universities Grants Committee has acted as an intermediary institution and the autonomy of institutions has been considered important.

9.14 Recent trends, however, are away from this central control. Many of the recent changes in Korean higher education, dating from the 1987 University Autonomy Plan, have increased the autonomy particularly of private sector institutions which previously were subject to detailed control by the Ministry of Education. In Malaysia a Higher Education Council has recently been established which will act as a buffer between the Minister and higher education institutions while a National Accreditation Body will take over responsibility for accrediting institutions and validating courses. However, these changes should not be over-emphasised. The Malaysian Higher Education Minister still retains powers to appoint and oversee these intermediate institutions.

Participation and access

9.15 Recent growth in higher education has been rapid. Participation in the Republic of Korea has risen over the last forty years from 5 per cent (1955) to 18 per cent (1980) and then rapidly to 34 per cent (1984) and to 43.5 per cent (1992). These figures relate to the number of students at 4-year universities. In addition, over 30 per cent of the age group pursue two-year courses at Junior Colleges. In Singapore participation in university has increased from 9 per cent to 20 per cent between 1985 and 1995 with polytechnic participation increasing from 15 per cent to 37 per cent during the same period. Hong Kong, with 18 per cent university participation, and Malaysia, which currently has a participation rate of 11 per cent, lag behind in terms of participation.

9.16 It would appear that Singapore and the Republic of Korea have reached their desired level of higher education participation. It should be noted, however, that the Korean government continues to come under severe pressure, particularly from parents, to increase the number of higher education places. Singapore is planning for only a modest increase to 60 per cent participation (20 per cent universities and 40 per cent polytechnics). However, similar political pressures may mean that within the overall participation targets the Singapore government will face demands to increase the number of university places at the expense of those at polytechnics or junior colleges.

9.17 Malaysia by contrast is planning a significant expansion and has an objective of increasing higher education participation to 30 per cent, or even 40 per cent, by 2020. Within this planned expansion there is an explicit concern to widen access to higher education beyond the middle class towards lower social groups.

9.18 Despite the generally high participation rates the high level of demand for higher education means that entry into higher education is extremely competitive. Over 80 per cent of South Koreans over the age of 21 are high school graduates and the failure rate for the national exam for university entry is high. Almost half of those who take the exam are ‘repeaters’ and the system leads to a culture of ‘cramming’ for the exam with many school pupils attending extra lessons in order to improve their chances of university admittance. It has also led to repeated corruption scandals in which university administrators accepted payments from parents. There are similar problems in Taiwan. Here the Government is planning reforms to the system to make the process of higher education entry less competitive in order to alleviate teacher and student stress.

9.19 Although there are differences between the countries in terms of their plans for future undergraduate enrolment, there are two common themes from the region in terms of participation. First, all of the countries in question have plans to increase the number of postgraduate students as part of their plans to boost research performance. Second, there is an emphasis on the need to develop open, distance and lifelong learning.

Teaching and learning

9.20 Concerns about higher education quality have not primarily been dealt with by the setting up of quality assessment procedures. The traditional approach to guaranteeing standards in the state system in South Korea has been to fix a number of input factors, such as the number of library seats and number of books per student, by Presidential decree. More recent approaches to concern about standards have focused on the issues of relevance and methods of teaching and learning. Examples of such changes are:

  • An attempt in all of the countries to move away from higher education teaching based on lectures and geared to rote memorisation rather than independent thought. This change has particularly been sponsored by employers who, when they have been consulted about the quality of higher education graduates (as in Hong Kong), expressed concern not with the subject knowledge of graduates but with their social and communication skills.
  • A concern for relevance in the curriculum. This has led to an increased role for employers on the governing bodies of institutions and, in the case of Singapore, on curriculum advisory committees. The Ministry of Education also conducts regular surveys of the employability of graduates.
  • The creation of "areas of excellence" within institutions. The strategy has been to identify perceived strengths to produce "areas of excellence" of world class status, which would justify substantial investment in state-of-the-art facilities (Hong Kong).
  • A focus on the teaching skills of staff in higher education institutions (Malaysia).
  • A general move within the region to increase the autonomy of institutions to set their own curriculum free from Ministry of Education control.

9.21 There is, as one might expect, considerable use of information technology in the region. In South Korea, this is based on the individual initiative of students rather than being a co-ordinated national policy objective while in Singapore all of the higher education institutions have embarked on the use of IT in their teaching and learning programmes, including use of the Internet, computer aided instruction packages, and video-conferencing.

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