Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Asian PSE

October 06

Of No Fixed Address

Most people usually think of universities as being particularly stable, physically speaking.  Sure, they grow a bit: if they are really ambitious they add a satellite campus here and there – maybe even set one up overseas.  But by and large, the centre of the university itself stays put, right?

Well, not always.  There are some interesting exceptions.

In the first place, the idea of a “university” as a physical place where teaching gets done is not a universal one.  In many places, a university was a place that offered examinations and degrees while the teaching was done somewhere else, like in colleges.  The University of Manitoba started off that way, for instance: individual colleges were scattered around Winnipeg, and U of M just handed out the degrees.  UBC and the University of Victoria, famously, started their lives as colleges which prepared people to take McGill degrees; ditto Brandon and McMaster.  And all of this was more or less based on an example back in England, where the University of London played the same role right across the Empire (a number of African colleges started life as prep colleges for University of London degrees).

Some universities had to move because of wartime exigencies.  After the Japanese invasion of 1937, the majority of Chinese universities – the public ones, anyway – hightailed it to the interior, to Wuhan and then later to Chongking or Yunnan.  There, many universities would share campuses and what little bits of laboratories and libraries the universities had managed to bring with them.  Peking, Tsinghua and Nanking universities actually merged temporarily to form the South-west Associated University.  Similarly, during the Korean War, the main universities in Seoul (Yonsei, Korea, and Seoul National) all left town and headed to the (relative) safety of Busan, only returning to the capital when the war was over.  As in China there was a great deal of co-operation between fugitive universities; some observers say the big prestigious Korean universities have never been as willing to accept credits from other schools as they were at the start of the 1950s.  And sometimes, fugitive universities never make it home.  A number of religious universities in Taiwan for instance (e.g. Soochow University, Fu Jen Catholic University) were originally located in mainland China but left ahead of the Communist take-over in 1949.

Domestic politics can lead to changes as well.  In Seoul, the challenge of locating a major campus quite close to the centre of political power was brought home to authorities when students from Seoul National University helped overthrow the Syngman Rhee government in 1960.  Rhee’s successor, Park Chung-hee, put a safe distance between students and the regime by relocating the entire campus south of the river the following decade.   In Belgium until the 1960s, the Catholic University of Leuven was in tricky situation – a prestigious, historically French institution in an area that was mostly Flemish-speaking.  Eventually, being Belgians, they decided that the best course of action was to split the university; basically, the Flemish got the site and the infrastructure while most of the professoriate decamped 20 mile to the south to a greenfield site in a French speaking province.  Thank God no one’s suggested that at McGill.

And finally, some universities aren’t where they used to be because, well, they aren’t the same university, even though they may share a name.  Visitors to Salerno might want to visit the local university, thinking it has some connection with the ancient medical school there.  Unfortunately, that university disappeared about 700 years ago; the modern thing up the hill is an expansion of a teacher training college created during the Second World War.

So, yes, universities on the whole are pretty durable, staid and stable institutions.  Doesn’t mean they don’t wander around on occasion.

February 10

Four Megatrends in International Higher Education – Demographics

Last week I noted that one of the big factors in international education was the big increase in enrolments around the world, particularly in developing countries.  Part of that big increase had to do with a significant increase in the number of youth around the world who were of “normal” age for higher education – that is, between about 20 and 24.  Between 2000 and 2010, that age-cohort grew by almost 20%, from a little over 500 million to a little over 600 million.  Nearly all (95%) of that growth came from Asia and Africa.

Figure 1: Number of People Aged 20-24, by Continent, 2000 to 2030


But as figure 1 shows, 2010 was a peak year for the 20-24 age group.  Over the course of the 2010s, numbers globally will decline by 10%, and not reach 2010 levels again until 2030 (intriguingly, this is almost exactly true for Canada, as well).  A problem for international higher education?  Well, maybe.  Demography isn’t destiny.  But to get a bit more insight, let’s look at what’s happening to the demographics within each region.

In Europe, the numbers for the 20-24 year old group are falling drastically.  In Western Europe, the decline is relatively moderate and reflects a gradual drop in the birth rate which has been going on for about fifty years.  In Eastern Europe, the fall is more precipitous, a reflection the fall in the birth rate during the occasionally catastrophic years of the switch from socialism to capitalism.  In Russia, youth numbers are set to drop by – ready for this? – fifty per cent (or six million people) between 2010 and 2020.

Figure 2: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Europe, 2000 to 2030


In East Asia, the story of the first ten years of the century was the huge increase in youth numbers in China (yes, the one-child rule was in effect, but the previous generation was so large that raw numbers continued to increase anyway).  But once we reach 2010, the process reverses itself.  China’s youth cohort drops by 40% between 2010 and 2020. Similarly, Vietnam’s drops by 20%, as does Japan’s (which additionally lost another 20% between 2000 and 2010).  Of the countries in the region, only Indonesia is still seeing some gentle growth.

Figure 3:  Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in East Asia, 2000 to 2030


The story changes as we head west in Asia.  India will continue to see rises – albeit small ones – in the number of youth through to 2030 at least.  Pakistan will see an increase of 50%, albeit from a much smaller base.  Numbers in Bangladesh will rise fractionally, while those in Turkey will stay constant.  Iran, however, is heading in the other direction; there, because of the precipitous fall in the birth rate in the 1990s, youth numbers will fall by 40% between 2010 and 2020 (i.e. on a similar scale to China) before recovering slightly by 2030.

Figure 4: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Southern & Western Asia, 2000 to 2030


I’m going to skip the Americas, because numbers there stay pretty constant over the whole period and the graphs therefore look pretty boring (just a bunch of lines as flat as a Keanu Reeves performance).  But here comes Africa, where youth numbers are expanding relentlessly.

Figure 5: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Africa, 2000 to 2030


The six countries portrayed here – Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania – make up just 40% of the continent’s population, but they are quite representative of the continent as a whole.  By 2030, there will be more 20-24 year-olds in Nigeria than there are in North America, and growth in numbers in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia (as well as Nigeria) between 2015 and 2030 will exceed 50%.  The outliers here are South Africa, where youth cohort numbers are going to stay more or less constant, and Egypt, where the numbers drop in the 2010s before starting to grow again in the 2020s.

So what can we learn from all this?  Well, what it means is that overall, youth numbers are shifting from richer and middle-income countries to poorer ones.  While many developed countries like the US, France, Canada and the UK are more or less holding their numbers constant (or, more often, showing a dip in the 2010s and a subsequent rise in the 2020s), we are seeing big, permanent drops in numbers in places like Russia, Iran, China and Vietnam and big increases in places like Nigeria, Pakistan and Kenya.

Ceteris paribus, this is bad news for international student flows because on average, the potential client base is going to be coming from poorer countries.  But keep in mind two things: first, international education is by and large the preserve of the top five percent of the income strata anyway, so national average income may not be that big a deal.  Second, while the size of the base populations may be changing, what really matters for total numbers is the fraction of the total population which chooses to study abroad.  China is a good example here: as our data shows, the youth population is falling drastically but international student numbers are up because an increasing proportion of students are choosing to study abroad.

Bottom line: the world youth population is now more or less stable, after decades of growth.  For international education to continue to grow means finding ways to convince people further down the income strata that study abroad is a good investment.

November 23

The Nature of Universities: Multicultural Edition

I find myself increasingly annoyed with particular a line of rhetoric that academics sometimes use when they want to make a point.  “The university is not a corporation”, they say, “it is a community of scholars dedicated to the truth – if it is not that it is nothing.” You know, the Steffan Collini-types.

Two things here.  First, a modern university actually is demonstrably a corporation, which is indeed a very good thing for everyone who likes to get a steady paycheque.  I’ll come back to that issue in another blog post relatively soon, but what I want to get at here is this whole notion of the “university-as-truth-seeking- community-of-scholars” thing, because it’s really only true in some parts of the world, and even there it’s not 100% true.

Let’s start with Europe.  There, the first “universitas” (the word means “a whole” in Latin), was not a universitas of scholars, but rather of students.  Back in Bologna in the 11th century, students basically formed a union in order to bargain collectively both with Bolognese landlords (town-gown relations being a fairly important thing at the time) and with professors (over fees and professors’ responsibility to show up to class on time – things have turned around a bit on that one).  Gradually, scholars themselves started to band together, and often fought with civic or, more often, ecclesiastical patrons about the right to self-organize.  And there were certainly occasions when professors themselves founded a university on their own (Cambridge, for instance).  This is one of the reasons why, until quite recently, in much of Europe the governing boards of universities were entirely internal to the university, and did not include non-academics. So, close to 100% true here.

But it was a different story in North America.  Here, universities were set up by local communities, and governing boards and Presidents were put in place before academics were hired.  Unlike Europe, therefore, in North America professors have always been employees of universities.  True, after WWII, they obtained a lot of the trappings of self-governing communities of scholars, but that’s not how they started out, and they remain to a considerable degree under the control of boards, which are either made up of state appointees or a self-perpetuating group of local worthies.  So mostly true here, if not quite as much as in Europe.

Now, consider some different traditions.  If you go back to the earliest precursors of higher education in Asia and the Middle East, the “community of scholars seeking the truth thing” is fairly hard to discern.  The scholars at the Imperial Academies of China, for instance (which I wrote about back here), were concerned more about imparting the minutiae of Confucian ideology to future civil servants than they were about opening up these ideas to scrutiny.  The great medieval Islamic universities like Al-Azhar are basically madrassas, and certainly by the late 10th century and the “closure of the door of ijtihad”, there wasn’t a whole lot of new thinking going on; the belief was that everything useful with respect to the Qu’ran and the Sunna had already been learned, and so it was simply a matter of preserving this wisdom for future generations.  The great Indian “university” of Nalanda taught a broader set of courses (including very applied stuff like archery) and was more open to discussion, but it was still a community of priests rather than a community of scholars.

And those traditions continue today, to some extent.  In many parts of the world, universities main functions were – and are – to provide career-oriented instruction and to perpetuate official ideologies.  In Communist China, universities are very definitely under the control of the Party (if not the State), and the search for “the Truth” is necessarily somewhat circumscribed.  Does that mean Chinese universities don’t deserve to be called universities?  Similarly, were there no universities in Russia between 1918 and 1992?  What about the many universities in the oil states of the Gulf?  In none of these places would universities appear to meet the description that Western idealists claim is the bare minimum; does this mean there are no “real” universities there, either?  I bet there are a lot of people in those countries who, while wishing for more academic freedom like their western colleagues, would nonetheless bristle at the claim that their universities – and hence their scholarship – is any less real than ours.

There are good historical reasons why western universities look the way they do, and we are not wrong to treasure them.  But maybe, if we are going to use universalizing rhetoric about what universities are, we should have the decency to test the validity of our generalizations.

October 30

Times Higher Rankings, Weak Methodologies, and the Vastly Overblown “Rise of Asia”

I’m about a month late with this one (apologies), but I did want to mention something about the most recent version of the Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings.  You probably saw it linked to headlines that read, “The Rise of Asia”, or some such thing.

As some of you may know, I am inherently suspicious about year-on-year changes in rankings.  Universities are slow-moving creatures.  Quality is built over decades, not months.  If you see huge shifts from one year to another, it usually means the methodology is flimsy.  So I looked at the data for evidence of this “rise of Asia”.

The evidence clearly isn’t there in the top 50.  Tokyo and Hong Kong are unchanged in their position.  Tsinghua Beijing and National University of Singapore are all within a place or two of where they were last year.  In fact, if you just look at the top 50, you’d think Asia might be going backwards, since one of their big unis (Seoul National) fell out of the top 50, going from 44th to 52nd in a single year.

Well, what about if you look at the top 100?  Not much different.  In Korea, KAIST is up a bit, but Pohang is down.  Both the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Nanyang were up sharply, though, which is a bit of a boost; however, only one new “Asian” university came into the rankings, and that was the Middle Eastern Technical University in Turkey, which rose spectacularly from the 201-225 band last year, to 85th this year.

OK, what about the next 100?  Here it gets interesting.  There are bad news stories for Asian universities.  National Taiwan and Osaka each fell 13 places. Tohoku fell 15, Tokyo Tech 16, Chinese University Hong Kong 20, and Yonsei University fell out of the top 200 altogether.  But there is good news too: Bogazici University in Turkey jumped 60 places to 139th, and five new universities – two from China, two from Turkey and one from Korea – entered the top 200 for the first time.

So here’s the problem with the THE narrative.  The best part of the evidence for all this “rise of Asia” stuff rests on events in Turkey (which, like Israel, is often considered as being European rather than Asian – at least if membership in UEFA and Eurovision is anything to go by).  The only reason THE goes on with its “rise of Asia” tagline is because it has a lot of advertisers and a big conference business in East Asia, and its good business to flatter them, and damn the facts.

But there’s another issue here: how the hell did Turkey do so well this year, anyway?  Well, for that you need to check in with my friend Richard Holmes, who runs the University Ranking Watch blog.  He points out that a single paper (the one in Physics Letters B, which announced the confirmation of the Higgs Boson, and which immediately got cited in a bazillion places) was responsible for most of the movement in this year’s rankings.  And, because the paper had over 2,800 co-authors (including from those suddenly big Turkish universities), and because THE doesn’t fractionally count multiple-authored articles, and because THE’s methodology gives tons of bonus points to universities located in countries where scientific publications are low, this absolutely blew some schools’ numbers into the stratosphere.  Other examples of this are Scuola Normale di Pisa, which came out of nowhere to be ranked 65th in the world, or Federica Santa Maria Technical University in Chile, which somehow became the 4th ranked university in Latin America.

So basically, this year’s “rise of Asia” story was based almost entirely on the fact that a few of the 2,800 co-authors on the “Observation of a new boson…” paper happened to work in Turkey.

THE needs a new methodology.  Soon.

May 30

Valuing Foreign Degrees

There was an interesting Statscan paper out yesterday that made some fascinating observations about education, immigration, and human capital.  With the totally hip title, The Human Capital Model of Selection and the Economic Outcomes of Immigrants (authors: Picot, Hou and Qiu), it’s a good example both of what Statscan-type analyses do well, and do poorly.

At one level, it’s a very good study.  It uses the Longitudinal Administrative Databank (Statscan’s coolest database – it’s a longitudinal 20% sample of all of the country’s taxfilers) to follow the fates of newcomers to Canada in terms of earnings.  What they find is that in the first few years after entry, the very large wage premiums that “economic class” immigrants (as opposed to “family class”) with degrees used to have over immigrants without degrees has shrunk substantially.  However, over the longer term, the study also finds that educated immigrants have a much steeper earnings slope than those with less education – which is to say that if you shift the lens from “what are immigrants’ labour market experiences in their first three years in Canada”, to “what are immigrants’ labour market experiences in the first ten-to-fifteen years in Canada”, you get a much different, and more positive story.

Now, a lot of people want to know why immigrants with degrees aren’t doing as well in the short term, even if the decline in long-term fortunes isn’t as severe as first thought.  The authors don’t answer this question, but many others have come up with hypotheses.  When you hear stories about immigrants doing worse than they used to in the labour market, even holding education constant, it’s easy to jump to conclusions.  Canadian immigration since the 1980s has increasingly been from Asian countries, so it’s easy enough to conjure up some racism-related theories about the decline.  But I want to point something else out.  Below I reproduce a table from a this recent UNESCO report on higher education systems in Asia.  It shows the distribution of university professors by various levels of qualifications.

Table 1: Highest Level of Higher Education Instructors’ Academic Attainment, Selected Asian Countries







Here’s the problem: Should we really assume that a Bachelor’s degree from Indonesia confers the same skills that one from the US or Europe does?  Probably not.  And yet every single Statscan study that looks at education, immigration, and earnings assumes that a degree is a degree, no matter where it’s earned. I understand why they would do that; how else would one judge equivalencies? And yet choosing to ignore it doesn’t help either.  The reason today’s university-educated immigrants are doing worse than the ones of 30 years ago may simply be that they have lower average levels of skills because of where they went to school.

None of this is to suggest racism isn’t a factor in deteriorating incomes for new immigrants, or that Canadian employers aren’t ridiculous and discriminatory in their demands that new hires have “Canadian experience”.  It’s simply to say that degrees aren’t all made the same, and it would be nice if some of our research on the subject acknowledged this.

October 30

The Cultural Determinants of Student Debt Policy

With the school year now back in full swing, one of the things you’ve undoubtedly heard, and will continue to hear, is the question of student debt, and how it has become “out of control”.  And in that spirit, I wanted to relay a little anecdote.

A few months ago, as part of a student loans-related project that I was working on in a Southeast-Asian country, I led a session for government and bank officials looking at possible loan parameters, and their potential cost implications.  One of the parameters, obviously, was the repayment period of the loan.  In most of my sample models, I had assumed that the period would look something like Canada’s – about 10 years.  But in most of the models the participants developed, the period was only 4-6 years.

Shorter repayment periods on student loans are pretty common in Asia – in China, 4-6 years is also the norm. The policy implications of shorter periods are straightforward.  If the government is providing interest subsidies, then shorter repayment periods will reduce those subsidies; if not, then shorter repayment periods reduce the total amount of interest paid by students.  Either way, the shorter the period, the greater the repayment burden to students, as they must distribute the repayment of a given principal over a shorter period of time.

None of this was an issue for the participants, who just viewed debt as something young people had to repay quickly in order to get on with their lives.  When I pointed out that, in some cases, this would mean repayments would take up between a quarter and a third of graduates’ income, there were shrugs.  Borrowers were, for the most part, young and unmarried, participants said, they can just live at home and pay it off quickly.  What about getting married, I asked?  Or buying a car, or a house?  Almost unanimously, the reaction was: “pay this one down first, then borrow again if you need to”.

At this point it occurred to me that the entire narrative around student debt in the developed world is based on the notion that post-secondary graduates ought to immediately be able to join the middle-class, with all the consumption privileges that implies.  Data suggesting that graduates are putting off purchases because of student debt are treated as prima facie evidence that student loan debt is out of control.  In Asia, on the other hand, this might be considered a sign of policy success.

I am not saying the Asian way is right and ours is wrong.  I am just saying it’s worth understanding the cultural biases behind our own policies – and occasionally asking ourselves how much we want to pay to keep those biases intact.

September 27

Better Know a Higher Ed System – Malaysia

If you pay attention to internationalization in higher education, you’ve probably come across laudatory stuff about Malaysia, either as a source country for international students, or as a higher education hub.  But what you may not know is the extent to which Malaysian internationalization is a result of the country’s deep-seated racial divisions.

Malays are the majority in the country, but there is a very large Chinese minority, and a smaller Tamil one.  Since independence, Malays have kept control of politics by voting en bloc, but the Chinese have tended to be wealthier and better educated, and so have dominated commerce.  To remedy this, the ruling coalition created a series of affirmative action plans for Malays – in higher education, this meant the introduction of ethnic quotas.  Upon introduction, the proportion of new, entering students of Chinese descent at the flagship University of Malaya fell from 60 to 20%.

In response, the Chinese sent their kids to study abroad, which is how Malaysia became a major source country for international students.  Eventually, the government understood that chasing out talented young people was a bad idea, so they permitted the creation of a new, private university sector not subject to the quotas.  Private colleges sprung up at a furious rate.  Even though tuition was several times higher in the private sector than in the public one, the quota system ensured it would not lack for customers; by 2010, 58% of all students were in private universities.  Foreign institutions like Nottingham and Monash – usually in partnership with Malaysian-Chinese holding companies – began setting up branch campuses, as well.  Both domestic and foreign privates also started looking abroad for students.  Since Malaysia is a cheap place to study, in a moderate Islamic environment, it pulls in a lot of students from Iran and East Africa, and has thus become something of an education hub.

That said, the “prestige institutions” are still the five public sector research universities, with University of Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia at the top – this despite brutal overstaffing, unnecessary bureaucracy due to tight state control (government controls staffing, since professors are ultimately state employees), and active discrimination against non-Malay faculty.  But they have med schools and research budgets and that’s about all you need for prestige, so…

One interesting side effect of all this has been a vast increase in educational spending.  Infected by the Asia-wide “world-class university” mania, the government has been pumping ludicrous amounts of money into the higher education sector (proportionately, Malaysia’s research excellence initiative dwarfs its more famous German and Japanese cousins).  Add to that skyrocketing enrolments in the fee-heavy private system, and what you get is a country spending roughly 4% of its GDP on higher education – more than any other country in the world.

A heartening outcome, perhaps.  Just never forget it’s ultimately the product of some fairly unpleasant racial politics.

April 25

Autonomy, Quality and World-Class Universities

My colleague Pam Marcucci and I have been spending some time in Jakarta recently on a USAID project relating to improving the country’s higher education system. One of the key issues the project is facing is that of “autonomy.”

If you read the policy literature on higher education, you’ll know that university autonomy is seen as a kind if sine qua non of educational quality: you can’t really have a great university without it. The first paragraph of pretty much any set of recommendations – from an international body on improving higher education in some country in Eastern Europe or Asia – usually contains the phrase “universities must be given greater autonomy.”

But autonomy comes in many dimensions: curriculum, hiring, finances, setting of fees, etc. As a result, there isn’t really one single measure of autonomy; there are lots of ways to be autonomous (the EUA, for instance, has an excellent website showing different arrays of autonomy all across Europe). That actually makes discussions about autonomy somewhat complicated, as proponents and opponents often end up talking about entirely different things.

Regardless of the definition of autonomy one uses, it doesn’t mean anything unless leaders are prepared to use it by taking responsibility for significant decisions. That may sound simple, but it’s really alien to some cultures. The Japanese “Big Bang” of university autonomy reforms in 2004, for instance, was at best a partial success because very few institutional leaders really wanted the responsibility of making decisions on their own. Japan got the form of autonomy but not the substance.

But this kind of leadership, it seems to me, is tied up with cultural understandings about institutions. It’s probably not a coincidence that 78 of the top 100 universities in the Shanghai rankings are from jurisdictions without civil codes (79 if you include McGill, which is a bit of an odd case). There’s bound to be a difference between leadership in cultures that believe you can do whatever laws don’t specifically prohibit, and that in cultures where you can only do what the rules specify is possible.

Being a great university isn’t just a function of pumping out ludicrous numbers of scientific papers; it’s a product of the ability to deploy resources strategically to take advantage of emerging academic opportunities. But autonomy is less a legal relationship between state and university and more a state of mind. It’s why we should be skeptical of claims that large numbers of Asian universities are on the verge of reaching “world-classness.” The financial gap may be closing, but the cultural one may take longer to shrink.