Higher education throughout much of the world is expanding and changing at a dizzying pace — the situation in Southeast Asia is no exception.
The states of this vital region vary dramatically, beginning with population: from the giant Indonesia and the populous countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar to smaller countries of Laos, Singapore and Brunei. They also differ in economic heft and per-capita income, with Singapore and Brunei at a level commensurate with the world’s leading industrialised economies, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines as middle-income, and the remainder of the region as low-income or developing economies.
And the higher education systems also vary widely, with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar still highly centralised and state-controlled, and others, most notably the Philippines, with substantial sectors of private colleges and universities including non-profit, for-profit and shades inbetween that are prevalent in many countries in which governments rely on private institutions to absorb higher educational demand that their public sectors are unable (or unwilling) to accommodate.
The changes — many of which are politically and even ideologically contested — include the creation of new public campuses, many of them featuring accessible, short-cycle, vocationally-oriented programs, allowing and partially subsidising new private institutions, installing accreditation agencies, and introducing or expanding measures of cost-sharing, or the shifting of some of the burden of the rising instructional costs from governments to parents and students. This shift can entail the introduction of, or sharp increase in, tuition fees or the privatisation of student lodging or food services, or both. And along with the expansion of costsharing come efforts to preserve and enhance higher educational accessibility through the introduction of means-tested grants and governmentally-sponsored student loan programs.
Fuelling this expansion and these changes in the countries of Southeast Asia (and most other countries as well) are such forces as economic and political liberalisation, the globalisation of
the world economy, changing labour markets and employment opportunities and surging numbers of youth completing secondary school and aspiring to further education. These forces feed upon each other. For example, increasing enrolments are fuelled not only by demographics and increasing youth cohorts, but also by changing labour markets and rising higher educational aspirations, as agricultural and low skilled industrial jobs give way to service and high knowledge content employment opportunities requiring education beyond the high school level. Higher education is thus seen by students and their families as a means to social and economic advancement and is similarly viewed by governments as necessary to compete in an increasingly globalised world economy.
But with the expansion and change in tertiary education come economic, social, and educational dilemmas that may seem intractable — or at least impossible to solve simultaneously, as solutions to some problems become contributors to others.
For example, the rapidly increasing enrolments that are meeting the rising aspirations of students and families, especially in the lower income countries of Southeast Asia, almost inevitably mean surging instructional costs — and with them rapidly rising college and university revenue needs. These rising needs are proving in the countries of Southeast Asia and elsewhere to be beyond the capabilities of public budgets alone to meet. Even those highmiddle income countries are facing increasing demands from elementary and secondary education, public health, infrastructure, social welfare and other politically and socially compelling needs.
The result in the region (as in most of the rest of the world) has been turning to parents and students for increasing shares of these escalating costs — with all of the consequent problems to access, persistence, and social equity as well as political opposition caused by increasing tuition fees and privatised provision of student living arrangements.
Even with the expanded revenue from increasing cost-sharing, the enrolment expansion puts strains on higher educational sectors and individual institutions that are unable to keep up with the needed increases in trained faculty (not quickly produced), lecture theatres, laboratories, residence halls and entire new institutions. And the economic political and individual demand for new academic programs to meet the changing needs of the regional economies and the demands of students place even greater strains on faculty and institutional leaders. The shift away from the humanities and social science toward business, management, and computer science, while responsive to the changing interests of students and many political and business leaders, is dismaying to academic traditionalists and to some on the political left who decry the shift as a pernicious marketisation and commodification of higher education.
Another example of an unintended consequence and a political dilemma that can arise from meeting the surging demand for more higher education — ironically often seen especially in countries with rapidly changing economies and rising levels of per-capita income (which describes many of those in Southeast Asia) is that the rapidly increasing numbers of college and university graduates can greatly outpace even the growing numbers of high knowledge content jobs. The result is increasing numbers of graduates without employment opportunities commensurate with their education and training even in the high growth countries of the region.
And finally, the worldwide expansion of higher educational opportunities to students who had in the past been largely excluded from education beyond the secondary level (or even beyond the primary grades) has done little to close — and in some countries may have contributed to a widening of — the gap between the incomes, wealth and political influence of those families at the top, in contrast to the rural and urban poor and those marginalised by ethnic and linguistic minority status. Higher education works well for those benefitting from good secondary schools, from parents and peers who value learning and aspire to further education, and from families that have the financial resources to afford the necessary fees, living expenses and the foregone earnings associated with higher education. Thus, higher education’s natural tendency is to perpetuate and even to accelerate the intergenerational transmission of income, status, and influence. And the gap is not simply in academic preparedness, or in the aspiration to go on to education beyond the secondary level, or even being accepted and enrolling. The gap, as well, is in the choice of institution (elite or non-elite and open access) or major programme (selective, prestigious, and remunerative like medicine or advanced business, or minimally selective and less remunerative like teaching or the civil service).
D. BRUCE JOHNSTONE
D. Bruce Johnstone is SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Higher and Comparative Education at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo.
LOKE HOE YEONG
Loke Hoe Yeong is Research Manager at The HEAD Foundation, Singapore.