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In Conversation: Anthony Welch (with S. Gopinathan)

hesb-06-08-anthony welch with s gopinathan-featured image

On 6 June 2019, Professor Anthony Welch, Professor of Education from The University of Sydney, gave a presentation on “The Rise (and Rise) of Asian Higher Education” at The HEAD Foundation in Singapore to an esteemed audience from the education arena. On the sidelines of the event, Professor S. Gopinathan, Academic Advisor at The HEAD Foundation, interviewed him about higher education in Southeast Asia and other related issues.

S. Gopinathan (SG): I am intrigued to hear about what you have to say about the history and context of higher education, both in colonial rule, and pre-colonial, and postcolonial rule. If I were to ask you to give me three core insights you had as a result of almost 20 years of work in this area, what would you say those three are?

 

Anthony Welch (AW): I think diversity would certainly be one of them, even within our own region of ASEAN. The range of languages and cultures and histories and colonial experiences and levels of development are really quite diverse.

 

I think growth would be another. We tend to think of quantitative growth, or the expansion of the system and so on. But I think qualitative growth is also evident, more in some systems than others, spectacularly in Singapore. Some of the tensions we talked about [during my presentation on “The Rise (and Rise) of Asian Higher Education”]: the tension between, on the one hand, the quest, the pressure for performance, and on the other, attending, for example, to local needs.

 

SG: Yes, the idea of relevance. And how one balances the two would be a big policy dilemma. And because once you have an equilibrium between the two, but something else happens, and you have to rethink those things again. Singapore’s universities are key institutions in the education system, they are state institutions, they are the jewels in the education crop and the government is prepared to fund them adequately, but therefore expects that the bigger societal projects — the economic, social, cultural — will also be of concern to the universities.

 

But I think we have tended to invest a lot more on the economically relevant role rather than the social, religious, cultural role of the University. Coming back now, at one time, it was economic competitiveness that was the big, big agenda. Now it’s how you hold societies together, how do you remain cohesive? Singapore is very vulnerable because the diversity within a small island is so great.

 

What is your own experience when you look at other countries that are diverse? What does Singapore’s experience of how its positioning of the University have to say to these countries, and is there something from these countries that Singapore can learn?

 

AW: In terms of lessons that can be drawn from the Singaporean experience, it would be: having a clear vision, a set of goals, and a long-term strategy to achieve them, something that I think China also does fairly well. But some systems don’t, including Australia’s. I think that’s certainly one that many systems look to Singapore as a model for.

 

Some of the difficulties in some places have to do with cohesion. If we take Myanmar for example, there are major problems with ethnic tensions. Indeed, when we did the comprehensive sector review, we were told explicitly that we cannot mention ethnicity as it was too sensitive an issue as far as the government is concerned. In Indonesia and Malaysia, some issues around rising Islamism also presented some challenges.

 

President Widodo has recently announced a special-purpose university to promote a more moderate Islam. I think in China and in some other places in Asia, there is concern about rising nationalism and what that means for diversity within China. There are 55 designated ethnic groups, but in places like Tibet and Xinjiang, it’s an issue and there is a concern about the potential for Han chauvinism.

 

SG: And the other area obviously is to what extent is massification an inevitable thing? How does one handle the pressure of students wanting access to post-secondary education, which need not be university education, it can be polytechnic? And Singapore to some extent, in my view, has created an ecology. For a very long time there were only two universities. Then there were four, but they were very different from the two universities. Six world-class polytechnics whose graduates fit into the evolving labour market and evolving economic areas and an ITE (2-year certificate) — bridges and ladders — if you do well in ITE, you have some access to polytechnics, and so on. We have one ministry of education. We do not have separate ministries for higher education.

 

In a sense, policy development is not “siloed”. Policy development has to be cohesive, and that’s the strength. But there is a heavy “government hand” on it.

 

What might be some things that Singapore might have to look out for, in terms of a government that is competent, capable of resourcing education? But what are some things that we might have missed because we serve a national agenda?

 

AW: I think that those sorts of agenda and plans have less of a problem in areas that are more applied — in tech and applied sciences, even the basic sciences — I think that’s less contentious. If we take the case of China, for example, there are some issues that have been raised within China, and by others outside of China who are studying it, reservations expressed about the future development of social sciences and humanities, given the extent of government control. The argument is how can intellectuals develop and flourish with a strong hand of government in place?

 

SG: What can Australia and Singapore’s education systems learn from each other?

 

AW: I think from the Australian point of view, one of the big issues is regional integration. It’s always been seen as something as an outlier in Asia including Southeast Asia. Even if we are part of Asia, we are a rather odd member. That is the big challenge and increasingly it has been recognised. We have substantial communities, much of our migration, probably 40 percent of migrants come from Asia. But we have a long way to go in terms of developing a more equal and reciprocal [relationship]. We are very good at attracting students, we are pretty poor at sending students and scholars to the region.

 

SG: And I think one of the issues for Singapore is that we are in the heart of the ASEAN region, yet our knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia, or Burmese or Vietnamese is zilch. And we use English and a mother tongue, which is understandable. What would a third language look like and how would one manage it within the curriculum, is one of the issues that we have to face. And it seems to be like Australia, that used to look to the US, now has to look to China, to ASEAN, and it seems to be that the opening up of the way in which social sciences are conceived of, thought about, and researched, is going to become very important. Would you agree?

 

AW: I think so. I think it would be a major challenge. One of the examples is the pattern where people may come from, Vietnam or Malaysia or China, to Australia, and want their children still to be schooled in their mother tongue. But the kids are coping with the pressure to be like everybody else and to succeed in the new system. So, ten years later the parents are still talking to them in their mother tongue, and the kids are answering in English. So, there is a tremendous loss of local culture and local language, sometimes as the child matures, perhaps in their 20s, they will start to reacquaint themselves.

 

SG: There is an interest, but sometimes I think it’s the economic argument — you need to learn Mandarin because China is emerging, you need to learn Hindi or Tamil because India is emerging. Sometimes that could be an incentive, but sometimes you lose out because if, for example, you spend years and years mastering Mandarin or Hindi, and you don’t become a businessman, but a successful Singapore lawyer, you ask, why did I put in so much effort? So, it’s hard to predict, but I think policy needs to be less prescriptive and more open, so choices are made within a framework. But I think the prospects from my own point of view of Singapore is that we see higher education has had positive benefits for Singapore schools, and that’s always a great virtue for policymakers. And Australia has its own set of issues now?

 

AW: Yes. I think higher education doesn’t have the priority or centrality in the overall policy agenda as it does have in many parts of Asia and certainly here in Singapore. And I think that’s unfortunate. It is reflective in government policy. They tend to take higher education for granted, rather than seeing it as a pillar for development. Sadly, I don’t see that likely to change anytime soon. I wish it would.

SEPTEMBER 2019 | ISSUE 6

Education Hubs in Southeast and West Asia

About

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

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

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

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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