Higher education development has resulted in stellar achievements in most East Asian societies, including China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Their achievements are even more remarkable when compared with several non-Western societies. After absorbing Western knowledge for one and a half centuries, a Western styled modern higher education system is now well established throughout East Asia.
East Asia has now become the world’s third great zone of higher education, science and innovation, alongside North America and Western Europe/UK, with its research powerhouses, and impressively the fastest growth in scientific output. While Japan has been a world powerhouse in science and technology for some time, the growth of research in China, South Korea and Singapore is also impressive, and Taiwan is not far behind.
At the institutional level, East Asian universities have been rigorous in setting high standards in quality research. The National University of Singapore, for example, is stronger than all of Australia’s universities in both research paper quantity and citation impact. Some mid-sized East Asian universities of science and technology have higher citation rates than the Australian National University.
While there is consensus on East Asia’s achievements in higher education, its future development is less certain.
To some, East Asian universities are poised at the most exciting phase of their development, leaping ahead to join the distinguished league of the world’s leading universities. To others, although East Asian universities have made tremendous strides in terms of the volume and quality of research output, they generally still lag behind the best universities in the West. The notion of “world-class” status in East Asian societies has been largely imitative rather than creative. Financial and other resources, combined with some innovative strategies, can create progress only so far. East Asian universities are in danger of reaching a kind of glass ceiling soon.
While these two camps cite culture as the reason, neither of them fully understand East Asian culture. Although there is evident pride in the idea that East Asian universities are not willing to assume that Western models alone define excellence, few – both in and beyond the region – have been able to theorise their differences from Western universities.
To many in East Asia, modern universities are foreign transplants. The forging of their own identities is inevitably an arduous task for East Asian universities. What has been lacking is a cultural perspective that gives weight to the impact of traditional ways of cultural thinking on contemporary development.
East Asia’s strikingly different cultural roots and heritages have led to continuous conflicts between their own values and the values of Western higher education imposed on them. The establishment of East Asian universities has been based on Western values on the one hand, and a system supported by traditional culture on the other. The two systems often do not support each other. Instead, constant tension between them reduce the efficiency of university operation.
Although there have been strong attempts to indigenise the Western idea of a university, little
has been achieved. The Western concept of a university had been adopted for its practicality.
This explains why their achievements in science and technology are so much greater than that in the social sciences and humanities. This is precisely the bottleneck of East Asian higher education development. Some even ask whether or not there is a sort of “middle-income trap” in East Asian higher education development.
East Asia has much to learn from its own history. Only twice in history have foreign influences brought to East Asian culture had such a great impact that fundamentally changed its culture. The first time was the introduction of Buddhism to East Asia, which the region took over a millennium to respond to, and reshape East Asian mentalities at both the intellectual and popular levels.
The other, the intrusion of Western culture into East Asia since the 19th century, is ongoing, as the result of large-scale Western expansion. Its magnitude has been far greater than that in the first case of the introduction of Buddhism to East Asia. The 19th century was a time when the vitality of East Asian culture was just about to be exhausted, while the momentum of Western culture was at its zenith.
The process is far from being completed, and the “pain” is felt constantly and regularly. Only when significant aspects of East Asian and Western philosophical heritages are reconciled successfully can East Asian universities truly become truly leading institutions internationally.
Universities can be thought of to be constituted by three layers – their materiality on the surface, social institutions in the middle, and values at the core. So far, East Asia’s import of the Western model has been centred mostly on the material level, with some touches on social institutions, while the core of the Western model has not been understood fully, let alone implemented.
Despite substantial differences and even conflict between East Asian and Western approaches to scholarship, East Asia’s higher education elites and scholars believe that these conflicts can and should be resolved. Confidence in such cultural integration was affirmed repeatedly during my fieldwork at the National University of Singapore, as well as Tsinghua University and the National Tsing Hua University that are on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, for example. East Asia’s long tradition of scholarship has its strengths and a great potential to contribute to the idea of a university.
After painstaking efforts stretching over a century to learn from the West, East Asia universities are now well positioned to get the mix right. The provisional and open perspective of East Asian culture, which may be hard for those from a Judeo-Christian culture to comprehend, allows East Asians to see opportunities in the contradictions found in daily life. Their pragmatic approach to life enables them to use whatever helpful means available to solve problems. As for the idea of a university, this means a choice bet ween the seemingly contradictory East Asian and Western university models. They could utilise ambivalence and flexibility to achieve an integration of both.
Indeed, signs of hope are emerging. The struggles over a century have started to pay off. East Asian universities appear more able to turn their scars into stars. Unlike their prestigious cousins in the West who may tend to have more meagre knowledge of other parts of the world, East Asian academic elites know the West as well as their own societies. While Western universities operate in a largely mono cultural environment, the flagship universities in East Asia work in a culture that, at the very least, includes the East and the West.
Both traditions are deeply incorporated into the daily operation of elite East Asian universities, a globally significant phenomenon never before seen in history. The combination is most evident at the individual level, and is being well-established at the institutional level, as evidenced by recent developments in academic governance in China and Singapore. At the theoretical level though, the combination has yet to be deepened.
East Asia’s top universities will not necessarily achieve their goals without twists and turns, and perhaps they will not succeed. Yet, growing signs remind us that our conventional binary positioning of East Asian and Western ideas of a university need to be rethought.
YANG Rui is Professor, Division of Policy, Administration and Social Sciences Education, Faculty of Education, and Associate Dean (Crossborder/International Engagement), at the University of Hong Kong.