In conversation with S. Gopinathan
HESB Editor Loke Hoe Yeong (LHY) interviewed Professor S. Gopinathan (SG), Consultant Editor and Founding Editor of HESB, about the role of the publication, university ranking systems, and the fate of higher education in the face of the pandemic, in Singapore and Southeast Asia.
LHY: What spurred you on to start HESB, and what did you envision it to be?
SG: Two things, I think. Firstly, there was a model of a publication, which Professor Philip Altbach and the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College had been doing, which I was familiar with — the International Higher Education (IHE) journal. It was a publication intended to serve the international higher education community and to provide a source of ideas, and a platform for networking. CIHE continues to be our partner for HESB. Secondly, I was also aware that in most Southeast Asian countries, K-12 education had reached a stage of reasonable maturity. This is not to say there are no more issues around access, equity, quality, and so on. But by and large, primary, high school, and even some post-secondary education were already available in all these countries. In my view, the next stage of development was likely to be in higher education, and in particular, universities.
When I joined The HEAD Foundation, I was thinking, “How could The HEAD Foundation be of use to a new generation of scholars, who are building up higher education systems in their own countries? What were the policy and practice implications? What would be a good platform for sharing best practices?” We concluded that a publication similar to IHE was the answer, especially since there were no such publications available in Southeast Asia, as far as we were aware.
LHY: Since your PhD, you have built an academic career as a leading expert on Singapore’s K-12 education policies. It would appear the project of starting HESB was a return to your first love of research on higher education. What drew you to do research on higher education all those years ago?
SG: To tell you the truth, and this is a very prosaic answer — it wasn’t as if I woke up in the middle of the night with an epiphany. After several years of teaching at the Institute of Education, I decided that I should do a doctorate. Philip Altbach offered me an opportunity to go to SUNY Buffalo [State University of New York at Buffalo] to study with him. And my initial connection with Philip was not through the academic study of higher education but through the book publishing industry.
In my early days as a book editor with the Oxford University Press in Singapore, I had written in the Bookseller, a British book publishing journal, about an inaugural series of bookfairs in Singapore. Libraries and bookshops were not widespread at that time. Philip read it and invited me to contribute a chapter on book publishing in Singapore, to his edited volume, Publishing in the Third World.
When I decided to do my PhD, I chose to go to America as I was already familiar with the British academic tradition. I then remembered Philip and asked him for some advice. He said, “What advice? Come to Buffalo!” I didn’t know anything much about Buffalo at that time, but they had a fantastic education department, where I was exposed to critical discourses about education — which I did not encounter during my Masters in Singapore. And so, as they say, the rest is history. Philip was very interested in the centre-periphery model [from dependency theories in academia] — in terms of what constituted inequality in knowledge production and knowledge distribution around the world. Because the major publishing houses, universities, and libraries were all in the Western world. We are talking here about the 1970s, when he came up with this concept of the inequities in knowledge production.
I am probably the first person in Singapore to have done a doctorate in comparative higher education. I did a comparative study between the then University of Singapore and Universiti Kebangansan Malaysia (UKM) — the former a British-style colonial university, the latter a Malay-medium national university that was established as a response of sorts to the University of Malaya (which was the colonial university of the time). A fundamental difference between the two universities was that University of Singapore was an English medium university and UKM was a Malay medium university.
LHY: That was the 1970s, when Singapore had two universities, which were then merged into one. What are your reflections on the development of higher education in Singapore ever since?
SG: In the 1960s, with regard to K-12 education, one major policy dilemma was: what should Singapore do with the medium of instruction in a differentiated system of education, the latter a colonial legacy? Singapore then had Chinese-medium schools, Malay-medium schools, Tamil-medium schools, and of course English-medium schools. The country later opted, controversially, for a national public system of education, in which English would be the medium of instruction. And so the language issue was fundamental in thinking about education policy, including medium of instruction issues at the university level.
In the 1970s, as industrialisation and economic growth gained pace in Singapore, the government became aware that the best students were going to English-medium education institutions. The Chinese-medium Nanyang University was in danger of not getting the best students. The government argued that if this trend continued, then Nanyang University was not going to be viable; that, if Singapore was going to survive at all, it was going to survive in terms of quality. Nanyang was a private university, but it couldn’t be allowed to die because the government would then be accused of trying to destroy Chinese-medium education. The government policy response was for Nanyang University to be converted into NTI [Nanyang Technological Institute] in the first instance, and then NTU [Nanyang Technological University].
So issues about language, identity and competing educational traditions were all, and continue to be, part of my thinking and research in terms of education policy. In a sense, my work at The HEAD Foundation now is the culmination of my early work on higher education.
LHY: Interesting that you mentioned the issue of the medium of instruction. Fast forward to today, let’s look at Southeast Asia more broadly. Obviously, the language issue has become very important for higher education in the past 10 to 20 years, perhaps due more to globalisation with the use of English in university classrooms. HESB, as an English language publication, is seeking to be the platform for higher education practitioners and researchers in the region to have dialogue lines in English. What are your comments in regard to this?
SG: The medium of instruction issue in education in Singapore was resolved a long time ago. But it is still an issue of tension in many other Southeast Asian countries. I think the tension between national and international continues to preoccupy many policy makers. In the drive to establish universities as key national institutions, national languages had to become the main medium of instruction. But countries also wanted these institutions to be recognised internationally. Because the question was: how would these academics in, say, Vietnam, or Thailand, or Laos, communicate with the international academic community, if only a few in those universities spoke English?
So I see the emergence of many institutions where the faculty are bilingual. We can look at Malaysia, for example, which probably has the best example of a top-tier set of institutions, where large numbers of the faculty are bilingual. So in a sense, HESB as an English language publication isn’t attempting to meet the needs of all university faculty in the Southeast Asia region and beyond. It is able to say, in so far as language is not an obstacle for certain types of faculty, that its publication would be both relevant and useful.
Nevertheless, my wish further down the line would be for some of HESB’s articles to be translated into, say, Vietnamese or Thai, and have two issues of that per year. I still feel that these languages, which are very much a part of the linguistic culture of these countries, must have enough materials in their national languages. I don’t foresee a time soon when everything would be in English, and that everybody would be able to access it in English. But I think HESB, as it stands, is really just the first cut of what we are trying to achieve.
I think institutions such as The HEAD Foundation have a role to play in providing access to information, insights and best practices, and making them as universally available as possible.
LHY: In discussing Southeast Asia and issues of regional integration, what comes to mind is the European Union’s Erasmus programme of student exchange. Do you think that is ultimately the model that Southeast Asia should emulate?
SG: We are a long way away from that. I think the Erasmus programme provides a model of what is possible. But then when we talk about regional integration today, Britain has already left the EU.
Euroscepticism in countries, such as Poland, is growing. There is tension and friction, and I’m not sure Southeast Asia even has the same degree of solidarity and common purpose as the EU. I think there are a lot of issues to work out. More bilateral exchanges may be a first step, perhaps.
I’m still perhaps the only person in NIE’s history [National Institute of Education, Singapore] to have done fieldwork in a Southeast Asian country for a doctorate. This is in part because of the preoccupation today with university rankings, which drive the patterns in research collaboration. If you said in your CV that you obtained your PhD or a research grant from, say, Oxford University or Teacher’s College at Columbia University, that counts for more than, say, a more modest research grant from a university in Southeast Asia, unfortunately.
Now, if there isn’t enough collaboration between Southeast Asia universities at the level of joint research, faculty exchanges and sabbaticals, are we even able to talk about the mutual recognition of qualifications?
LHY: I want to pick up on your point of faculty exchanges and student exchanges in the context of COVID-19 a bit later, but first — university ranking league tables. This is, of course, a major preoccupation today. It is an affliction for some, or a marker of progress and prestige for others, depending on whom you speak to. And here, I’m thinking of their impact on Southeast Asia, where some national systems are just not well-equipped to deal with the kind of pressure. Even Russia, a former superpower with universities that excel in scientific research, has not performed well in the ranking tables — to a very large extent because the Soviet legacy of university and faculty structures is simply just so different from the Anglo-Saxon university model, which the ranking tables favour. How do you get the kind of citation numbers if you’re not even writing in English? Do you think this is going to be a huge problem for Southeast Asia as a whole, in terms of university rankings?
SG: Yes, I think so. As I noted earlier, I believe that countries in Southeast Asia have to come to a greater consensus around what it means to be a part of this region, and the core principles of state behaviour within this region.
There is tremendous diversity within this region, in terms of political histories and structures, size and complexity of education systems, including media of instruction, variety of post-secondary institutions and so on.
So, the question then would be, is it sensible, wise, feasible to think in terms of a Southeast Asian Erasmus where there is a mutual recognition of qualifications? I would think that earlier steps would be faculty exchange, or joint research. If, for example, there is a Southeast Asia-wide consensus that climate change and rising sea levels are going to be major challenges, then how could that be an opportunity for curriculum and/or research collaboration? So my wish would be for greater faculty exchange and for joint research around a certain set of commonalities.
Another area could be the emergence of the digital economy and what this could mean for countries — who’s doing the thinking collectively around, not just what Singapore does as a digital nation, but also what lessons there might be for countries like Cambodia or Brunei.
What we need to do is build greater connectivity between ISEAS-like institutions and greater efforts on the part of ASAIHL [the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning], RIHED [SEAMEO Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development], and so on.
LHY: There are two more themes I wanted to cover, which have emerged in the past nine issues of HESB. Student mobility and faculty mobility in the context of COVID-19 now face huge challenges. Obviously, the digital solution shouldn’t supersede the whole face-to-face, classroom experience. But also in a region such as Southeast Asia, greater technology utilisation is inevitable. Yet it is likely that the use of technology will only accentuate the disparities and inequalities across the region, especially within some larger countries. What’s the roadmap here for technology use for the next five years for Southeast Asian higher education?
SG: Singapore universities will have to figure out what the true strengths and weaknesses of online learning are. How do we begin to understand what is lost in online learning, which we take for granted in the face-to-face classroom experience? But then, when you have 400 students in an auditorium and one lecturer in front of them, can we really say that is the true nature of learning? That’s not the Oxbridge style of tutorials, for sure — that is mass higher education!
Given that Singapore receives many foreign students, it could be more severely impacted than Laos or Cambodia. Singapore’s universities had to scramble to create many more places for Singaporean students unable to travel to attend overseas universities. So in general, I think it’s hard to predict what will happen. Universities are going to be chasing a moving target. And it will require a lot of contingency planning and flexibility.
LHY: The final theme I wanted to discuss — the role of private higher education and foreign branch campuses. What’s their future looking like right now, given the COVID-19 situation?
SG: Private universities are going to be under tremendous stress, because the ability of students and their families to pay tuition fees is being compromised. A lot of students can’t afford to pay tuition fees because of the declining economy. And in the UK, there’s going to be huge consequences for British universities, because if they don’t get EU students, and the domestic economy is declining, they are going to be in severe financial difficulties. And not just students. Faculty positions will be in jeopardy and funding for research may also decline.
So I think the relationships between public and private universities will change. If private universities are not financially viable, what happens to the students still in the middle of their courses? Are they going to transfer to the public universities perhaps? Is the state then able to expand the places in public universities? But state budgets will also suffer; if there is a decline in national economic growth, education budgets are going to shrink.
It’s not quite a bitter winter for universities, though certainly not a spring or a summer for them either. The pandemic has brought on much reflection on the role of the state in these challenging times, and higher education has surely got to be part of this strategic, major rethink.
APRIL 2021 | ISSUE 10
State of the Region:
The Commemorative 10th Issue
APRIL 2021 | ISSUE 10