A broad range of actors such as businesses, nonprofits,and governments alike currently attest a coming time of rapid economic change, which may spur corresponding, profound social change.
While the degree and impact of economic and social change may differ between geographic regions, sectors, and so forth, higher education currently emerges as a central topic in debates about competitiveness in today’s and the future economy. Though the content of such debates, mostly originating from the global West, might be worth a separate discussion, one can nonetheless already see how the use of Artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, and analytics impacts industrial production and service work across the world today, with business processes being automated and new production and service models emerging. In global debates about competitiveness in today’s and the future economy, experts therefore invoke education, and higher education in particular, as one of the most important instruments to achieve — or sustain — competitiveness, as well as to create new business and production models. Education takes centre stage in global debates because of such invocations by experts and politicians alike, arguing that better qualified people will be the ones capable of driving necessary change, and that qualified people are also needed as such change requires skills like critical and analytical thinking, complex problem-solving abilities, or also creativity.
In some countries, such debates relating higher education to economic competitiveness are conducted with particular vigour, especially because the skills mentioned above are believed to require what one could call Western-style higher education and research involving some time and conditions to develop. A specific category here are countries labelling (or having labelled) themselves as education hubs — countries which are often also known as hubs in other areas. These countries are particularly keen on partnering up with foreign knowledge partners to import and apply the desired styles of education, mostly to address gaps in their own systems. For instance, you might have heard of Hong Kong, Singapore, or the UAE (Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular) as hubs in the context of business, finance, or air travel already. This is because the meaning of a “hub” boils down to a central node with a certain pull factor in a global or regional network, often of a specific kind such as the financial industry. These hubs and their pull factor(s) are then the area-specific central destinations in which exchange is being facilitated at a higher rate in comparison to other, peripheral locations.
The idea of an education hub, which concerns all three countries, is then to replicate such an effect within the area of higher education and research — becoming a central location for teaching, learning, and research. The creation of an education hub as the pursuit of becoming a global centre for higher education and research, however, signals some implications for higher education policy and also for higher education provision more directly.
When realising a hub project on a national or regional scale, the magnitude of this project — if deliberately intended or not — most likely embeds higher education in a larger geostrategic project. For instance, viewing policy in Singapore from an analytical perspective, Goh Chok Tong’s “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation”, or also Tony Tan’s “Boston of the East” speeches in 1997 can be regarded as the starting point of one larger, ongoing project of this magnitude, later connected to the Global Schoolhouse and SkillsFuture initiatives.
Today, however, the term “hub” is not so deliberately used in the foregoing contexts anymore. In the UAE, the starting point of a project attempting to achieve a comparable improvement in the higher education and research sectors such as has happened in Singapore, or another East Asian hub, Hong Kong, may be seen in Vision 2021. Vision 2021 as a larger project attempts to strengthen the UAE’s position as a global hub for business by the year 2021 — to a great extent by establishing strong higher education and research sectors, and by advancing industrial and service sectors through absorbing potential graduates and making use of research.
Though the embedding of higher education in geostrategic projects might not be regarded as problematic per se, (or some might even argue that this has been the case for a very long time in history), policy makers should be aware of some consequences, of which I will articulate only a small number below due to the scope of this article.
When comparing developments in the higher education and research sectors across multiple education hub countries in Southeast and West Asia, such as Singapore and the UAE, one sees that these geostrategic projects are (un)intendedly related to wider, global (economic, social, cultural, political) relations, the centre point of which appears not to be higher education policy, though, but rather economic, regional, or industrial policy. Through these relations, higher education becomes a direct component of international or inter-regional competition; so the rationales for governing higher education often shift from social or educational categories (such as accessibility, affordability, equity, quality, mobility, open research, progress, and so forth) to economic categories (such as revenue generation, the production of patentable, non-open research and knowledge, as well as economic competitiveness).
Content-wise, we see a concentration of disciplines and study programmes related to business, law, engineering, or technology, and we also see for-profit, private offerings increasing across countries, putting more financial pressure on learners who are not aided by government funds. Though there are a large number of questions left to ask, I like to close this short piece by questioning whether the sheer pursuit of education hub strategies that we see today — mostly partnering with foreign knowledge partners and believing that this will causally generate the desired effects — will actually address the existing or emerging needs of local communities, and importantly, learners and researchers. A good start might be to develop a coherent model of an educational system that specifies how achieving social and economic progress for a country or region is possible, and to then think about whether a hub strategy — as a means, not an end, and a later step in an iterative process of deliberate decisions — might be the best way to achieve medium- to long-term progress.
Marvin Erfurth is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Research Department, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates.