Enrolment growth forces Asian universities to expand, diversify

national June 02, 2014 00:00

By Chularat Saengpassa
The Natio

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But experts warn that countries need to focus on quality and aim for top standards

THE NUMBER of enrolments in higher education has risen across Asia with developing nations such as Laos and Pakistan and more advanced countries like Japan all reporting a significant increase. 
The explosive growth, according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS), has much to do with the fact that higher education benefits not just socio-economic development but also aids the well-being and prospects of those who enrol. 
To accommodate the enrolment hike, higher education systems have had to “expand out” by constructing new universities, hiring new faculty members, diversifying delivery mechanisms, and encouraging the entry of private higher education providers. In many Asian countries, there has also been a tendency to “expand up” with the widespread introduction of new graduate programmes in response to growing socio-economic demand for highly skilled professionals.
It is widely agreed that both the “expand out” and “expand up” components are necessary. So far, it remains unclear how each nation can find the right balance. 
The Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS) this year published a report titled “Higher Education in Asia: Expanding Out, Expanding Up” to help countries adapt to the new circumstances. 
“This report represents nearly two years of work by an international team and is one of the first studies to deal with the dynamic of graduate education in the region,” said Chiao-Ling Chen, a research and data analyst on higher education at the UIS. She was speak-ing at an event held to launch the |report in Thailand two weeks ago.
The event was held by Thailand’s Office of Higher Education, Mahidol University, and Unesco (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation).
While the report addresses higher education in Asia as a whole, it devotes a chapter to a study on Malaysia and Thailand. 
The chapter describes how the two countries have become leaders in the development of graduate education among middle-income nations. 
According to the report, enrolment at graduate level in Thailand has increased from about 193,000 in 2007 to 196,000 in 2012, particularly at doctoral level. One reason for the focus on graduate education in Thailand is that the birth rate in the country is declining so undergraduate enrolment may slow in the future. Consequently, both the government and universities are keen to place a focus on the development of graduate education in the here and now. 
Speaking at the report launch in Thailand, Prof David Chapman from the University of Minnesota warned that “expanding-up” had created downward pressure on quality in many countries. 
Prof Peter Haddawy from the Mahidol University, meanwhile, emphasised that if a nation wanted to integrate itself into the global economy it must promote top quality graduate programmes and research. 
“Only by keeping standards at a peak will countries attract the world’s finest minds,” he said.
Prof Rajata Rajatanavin, president |of Mahidol University and the Council of University Presidents of Thailand, said that Asian universities have an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to and harness the benefits of the global intellectual marketplace.
The key, he said, however, lay with whether those involved had the courage and wisdom to make the necessary investments. 
Overall, the Malaysian government spends about twice the amount per higher education student than Thailand. On the other hand, Thai universities have a broader resource base and more administrative autonomy than their counterparts in Malaysia. 
Reluctance to use the English language is a recognised obstacle in Thailand’s case. According to the report, administrators at Thai universities noted considerable scepticism among some faculty members about the importance of publishing in top-tier international journals. Interviewees noted the fact that these journals require articles in English, which make them largely inaccessible to wider Thai society. 


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