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Rethinking Massification

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The growth in gross enrolment ratios (GER) in higher education in Southeast Asia reflects an increasing level of economic, social and political confidence within the region. As the countries of Southeast Asia become integrated into the global economy, the expansion of their systems of higher education is inevitably considered necessary for them to take advantage of the global flows of capital, the shifting modes of production and the global supply chains.

 

Not surprisingly therefore, governments throughout Southeast Asia have been prepared to allocate large sums of public money to higher education, facilitate greater private investment in the development of new universities and colleges, and encourage the public to view an investment in higher education as an outlay that is likely to bring good returns to both the individuals and to the nation.

 

In view of this line of thinking, the massification of higher education should clearly be welcomed. It is however important to consider whether the speed of growth has not in fact been too rapid, and its form too ad hoc. We need to ask if the systems of higher education in Southeast Asia been able to cope with the pace of change. To what extent has the drive towards massification been driven more by demand than by a proper consideration of the issues of supply – by opportunism rather than systematic processes of policy development?

 

As the demand for higher education among the rapidly growing middle class in Southeast Asia has grown, we need to ask what kind of a job the governments have done to adequately prepare their public higher education institutions (HEIs) to expand, with appropriate levels of support, resource allocation and capacity building. Has a pool of appropriately trained academic staff been available or has been prepared to look after the needs of new cohorts of students, many of whom hail from families that lack traditions of higher learning?

 

Most governments in Southeast Asia have tried to “soak up the demand” by allowing the entry of a range of private providers, with varying degrees of commitment, expertise and resources to provide quality higher education. And yet the approval and quality assurance processes to which these hastily established private institutions are subjected, have been at best uneven. Indeed, it is also important to ask if the government bureaucracies themselves have the expertise to develop and implement the mechanisms to coordinate the work of private HEIs. In Southeast Asia, the use of technology has often been considered as a viable option for meeting the growing demand for higher education at a reasonable cost. Experience around the world has shown, however, that online learning can often be much more expensive and complex, if it is to be done properly. Lacking pedagogic traditions in this area, it is a folly to assume that pedagogic expertise in this area can be developed cheaply and quickly, without scarifying quality and making sure that the online learning systems are sustainable.

 

A number of universities in Southeast Asia, both public and private, have been created as a result of rebadging or rebranding the existing technical schools, polytechnics and teachers colleges, without any substantial shifts in the ways in which they are expected to operate, or the type of students they recruit. Many are grossly underfunded, and are widely regarded as “overcrowded factories”.

 

They lack the libraries and laboratories that any decent HEI should possess. At the same time, little is often done to forge systems designed to develop their staff professionally. It is true that not every staff employed at HEIs needs to be a researcher or publish in international journals.

 

But an institution that is committed to higher learning cannot ignore its responsibility to insist that its staff possess advanced level of knowledge in their subject area, and have a scholarly disposition. In this way, the task of capacity building should be regarded as central in any attempts at massification.

 

In the haste to establish new universities and expand the existing ones, without any substantial focus on capacity building, curriculum options at most HEIs in Southeast Asia have inevitably been narrow, often restricted to subjects that do not require expensive laboratories, extensive libraries and highly qualified staff. For example, programmes in Business and Management, which are assumed to be cost effective and affordable to many new students, have thus experienced explosive growth, while growth in programmes in much-needed STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas has been limited.

 

As a result, there has been an oversupply of graduates in some subjects, along with a shortage in others. Many graduates moreover do not possess the knowledge and skills that employers consider necessary in the changing labour market geared towards the global economy. The students are often unable to secure a job in their area of study, creating a risk therefore that, in the longer term, this is likely to generate a legitimation and motivation crisis among the graduates.

 

Nor would these graduates be able to make the kind of contribution to national economic development that governments hope from the massification of their systems of higher education. What this suggests is that massification is not inevitably a good thing. Much depends on what its outcomes are, how it is organised and coordinated, and what contribution it makes to the development of the knowledge and skills needed in the global economy.

 

An increase in GER in higher education may be necessary but is not sufficient to drive economic growth and prosperity. What is required additionally is a more comprehensive program of higher education reform. This involves re-imagining and renewing curriculum and teaching methods, as well as the ways in which HEIs are governed. Above all, it involves capacity building and adequate measures in quality assurance.

 

The question of the forms in which massification of higher education is achieved should therefore lie at the heart of debates over the expansion of systems of higher education in Southeast Asia – as should indeed the broader questions about the purposes of higher learning, not only in relation to economic growth, but also social and cultural development.

 

This article was written as a contribution to the debate in The HEAD Foundation’s Policy Brief No. 1: Massification, Globalisation and the Global Knowledge Economy: Policy Challenges and Opportunities for Universities in Southeast Asia (available for download at: www.headfoundation.org/publications-reports/)

FAZAL RIZVI

Fazal Rizvi is Professor in Global Studies in Education, The University of Melbourne, Australia, and Emeritus Professor, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

JANUARY 2018 | ISSUE 3

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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