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The Myth – and the Promise – of Southeast Asian Higher Education

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Southeast Asia is a highly diverse region of 11 countries with a population of over 650 million — and contemporary higher education realities are just as diverse. There is diversity in religion, culture, political systems, economic development and systems and, of course, higher education. It is worth reflecting on the region’s higher education realities and asking if there is, indeed, anything in common among these 11 national realities. Rather than focusing on aspects that unite the region, it is perhaps useful to reflect on the significant differences — and discussing if there are any points of constructive regional collaboration for higher education. 

 

A Complex History and Its Impact on Higher Education 

Southeast Asia has, of course, a rich history. It has also been subject to a range of foreign influences and conquests. The region can claim higher education traditions, including Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian and Islamic, dating back many centuries — all of which were external to Southeast Asia. Contemporary higher education is also the result of external forces. Indeed, the region was subject to every Western colonial incursion except that of Germany. The most influential colonial power in terms of higher education was British — Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, and Singapore — and in the longer term the impact of the English language. But France in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the Netherlands in Indonesia, Spain, and then the United States in the Philippines all established higher education institutions in their colonies. Portugal in Timor-Leste largely ignored higher education as was common in its colonies. The only country to escape Western colonial rule was Thailand — but Western patterns were imported when the Thais established modern higher education in the 19th century and English became common. 

Rather than focusing on aspects that unite the region, it is perhaps useful to reflect on the significant differences — and discussing if there are any points of constructive regional collaboration for higher education.

As was common under colonialism, higher education was modelled on institutions in the metropole, and used the language of the colonisers. The purpose of higher education was to serve the colonial power through building an administrative cadre that could use the colonial language. Local population groups sought Western education to improve their economic and social status. As in all colonies, higher education was available to only a very small percentage of the population, typically 1% or less. In some colonies, Christian missionary societies and churches were engaged in sponsoring universities — and in the Philippines higher education was largely the responsibility of the Catholic Church during the Spanish colonial period. 

 

The impact of the colonisers varied. Perhaps the largest and most lasting influence was that of the British colonial authorities and of other mainly missionary sponsors in the British colonies. The Dutch established just a few institutions in Indonesia, as did the French in Indochina. In the Philippines, where the Spanish established the first universities in 1611, and when the United States became the governing authority in 1898, they changed the language of higher education from Spanish to English, and dramatically expanded higher education in the American model.

 

Post-colonial Realities 

Independence came to Southeast Asian nations at different times following the Second World War, and under varied circumstances. Indonesia fought a short war of independence from the Dutch in 1945, and soon changed the medium of instruction in higher education from Dutch to Bahasa Indonesia — which allowed the rapid expansion of the very small Dutch colonial system. The French departed from Indochina in 1954, and the three countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) were unstable and engaged in conflict for more than an additional two decades — with higher education getting little attention. North Vietnam was influenced by the Soviet Union and South Vietnam by the United States. Not much was happening in Cambodia or Laos. The British left the region in 1963 and the Malaysian Federation was established — Singapore left the Federation in 1965. The Philippines gained its independence from the United States in 1946. 

In all of these cases, higher education was seen an important part of national development, and academic systems moved, at differing speeds, away from the tiny enrolments and small number of institutions that characterised the pre-World War Two period to larger systems — made possible by the expansion of literacy and the expansion of schools systems. Only the Philippines and to some extent Thailand had fairly significant higher education enrolments prior to this period. 

 

Countries in the region have all expanded access to post-secondary education, but have significantly different enrolment rates. In Singapore, 89% of the age group participate in post-secondary education, at the top of the Southeast Asian countries, while fewer than 15% attend in Cambodia and Laos. Thailand and Malaysia educate a bit under half, while three of most populous countries in the region, Indonesia (36%), the Philippines (35%), and Vietnam (28%) still educate fairly modest proportions of their populations — but all are expanding rapidly. These figures indicate that most of the countries in the region lag behind the majority of middle-income countries globally. 

 

The Interesting Case of Language

The language of higher education is, in much of Southeast Asia, complex and related both to the colonial past and the realities of the 21st century. The global impact of English is very much an issue in every country in the region. English is the sole medium of instruction in Singapore, Myanmar and the Philippines. Malaysia inherited an English-medium university system from the British, but decided to shift mostly to Bahasa Malaysia soon after independence, painstakingly developing textbooks and other infrastructure. The language issue was, however, the source of some conflict — and since the early 2000s the country has reemphasised English. The other countries in the region use the main national language, but with increasing emphasis on English as an important second language and in some cases the main language in some universities or faculties. Language policy remains a topic of importance and sometimes of conflict in the region, reflecting debates about national cultures, ethnic relations, engagement with the global environment and other issues.

 

The Rise of Private Higher Education

With rapid higher education expansion and the unwillingness or inability of government to provide access in public institutions, a private higher education sector has grown to be a substantial force in most countries in the region. In the Philippines, for example, 80% of post-secondary students are in the private sector. Several of the Philippines’ top universities are private, mainly Catholic, institutions. Other countries in the region have lower proportions of students in the private sector, although more than half of enrolments in Indonesia are in private higher education — and with some exceptions the private sector is of lower quality than public institutions. Even Communist Vietnam has a growing and diverse private higher education sector. Only in Singapore and Brunei is private higher education a very small part of the system. Little is known regionally about the private higher education sector.

Language policy remains a topic of importance and sometimes of conflict in the region, reflecting debates about national cultures, ethnic relations, engagement with the global environment and other issues.

International Branch Campuses and Programmes

Another recent phenomenon in the region has been the development of international branch campuses. While no one has carefully catalogued all of them, there seem to more than 20, and the region, along with the Middle East, is probably the largest location for branch campuses. Australia has been especially active in the branch campus movement, but there are institutions from the United States, Britain, China and other countries active in the region. Singapore and Malaysia seem to be the main locations for branches, but institutions can be found in many countries, including Chinese branch campuses in Malaysia and Laos. There are also a large number of joint degree programmes with foreign universities located in Southeast Asian institutions. The Yale-National University of Singapore collaboration is a prominent example, as are the Singapore Management University and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), both of which were founded with the assistance of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology respectively (Zhejiang University was also actively engaged in setting up the SUTD). Several Australian and British universities have joint programmes and branch campuses in Malaysia. 

 

Southeast Asian Higher Education in the 21st Century

One might think that the region might have moved toward some common higher education elements in light of regional organisations such as SEAMEO and ASEAN, and a variety of regional education-related such as the Regional Institute for Higher Education and Development (RIHED) generally linked to ASEAN. But by and large this has not been the case. The higher education systems and academic institutions in the region remain nationally-focused and if there are external links, they are more often with universities outside of the region than within it. And there are significant variations among countries. Singapore is the only country in the region that has “world-class” universities recognised by the global rankings. Malaysia has made significant efforts to build its top universities. Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have several universities that participate in global science and scholarship. Several of the countries in the region, for diverse reasons, underperform in higher education — in terms of access, quality, and the scope of their systems. 

 

There have been a small number of initiatives to build effective collaboration among the region’s universities, including efforts in the areas of quality assurance and degree recognition, but overall accomplishments have been modest. 

 

The reality of the early 21st century is that Southeast Asia is a geographical region of significant size and importance on the world stage, and with a number of countries with impressive rates of economic and social development, but in terms of higher education, despite some discussion and frequent conferences, there are few joint initiatives or research, and many variations among the countries in the region. 

PHILIP G. ALTBACH

Philip G. Altbach is Research Professor and Distinguished Fellow, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US.

APRIL 2021 | ISSUE 10

State of the Region: The Commemorative 10th Issue

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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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