Asia’s impact on global higher education

NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan delivered a keynote lecture to higher education leaders in London on 7 December in which he underscored the need for academic institutions to understand the major shifts in global higher education — specifically those that have taken place in Asia over the last decade — if they are to make the right decisions in the future.

Delivering the prestigious Higher Education Policy Institute 2017 Lecture at the Royal Society, Prof Tan highlighted how notable shifts in Asian higher education over the last decade, including massification, a focus on liberal arts education, and a powerful impetus to build world class research, carried implications for universities both locally and worldwide.

While developed economies like Korea and Japan have maintained high post-secondary enrolment rates for many years, Prof Tan pointed out that the story of the past decade has been the speed and scale of massification in China and India. Enrolments are estimated to hit over 37 million in China and over 27 million in India by 2020, leading to more opportunities for intellectual and career development but also challenges such as graduate unemployment.

“There are also concerns over mismatches between the skills graduates leave university with, and the needs of industry and employers, as well as questions about the quality of teaching and learning,” said Prof Tan.

For smaller countries like Singapore, Prof Tan continued, massification raises an important question of how to ensure Singapore graduates retain a talent edge, given the growing number of graduates in the region.

Massification in Asia has been accompanied by a growing desire to improve the quality of teaching, a notable trend being the rise in interest in liberal arts education programmes. “The interest in liberal arts programmes in Asia represents a move from an education model of early deep specialisation towards one which encompasses greater academic breadth,” said Prof Tan.

NUS partnered with Yale University to launch Yale-NUS College in 2013, motivated by a joint vision of developing a new model of liberal arts education which brings together the best elements from western liberal arts and the intellectual traditions, contexts and culture of Asia. “We want students to have a strong ‘zoom out - zoom in’ ability — in other words, they are able to ‘zoom out’ to see the big picture and the connections between issues, and also ‘zoom in’ to go deep and rigorously into specific issues, and to think of different approaches and solutions,” Prof Tan elaborated.


The audience at the Higher Education Policy Institute annual lecture (Photo: Leah Kelton, Whispers of Light Photography)

Prof Tan also spoke about the huge growth in investment in world-class research in Asia. South Korea has overtaken Israel in terms of R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP. However, the most impressive strides have been taken by China, which today accounts for 15 per cent of the world’s scientific publications. While China still lags the world in terms of field-weighted citation index, Prof Tan noted that there is clear evidence of a shift in China to invest heavily in fundamental research.

Turning to how universities in Asia are driving innovation ecosystems, Professor Tan talked about the mismatches that have impeded close partnership between universities and industry.

“Academics tend to like publishing papers, while industry is largely concerned about commercial outcomes and profits. Our academic colleagues like the freedom to explore and pursue long-term research, while industry is often about timelines, schedules and deliverables. But the landscape is changing. Industry players are adopting open innovation approaches and strategies, and universities are embracing enterprise and innovation,” said Prof Tan.

In fields such as artificial intelligence, computer science and data analytics, Prof Tan pointed out that the time and barriers to move from basic research discovery to application and commercialisation have been markedly reduced, and thus “more universities are placing greater emphasis on such sweet spots that encompass both high academic and translational value.”

It is critical to encourage our students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, not in the narrow sense of starting a business, but about having the imagination to see new possibilities and the boldness to seize new opportunities.

These sweeping changes raise critical questions for universities for the future, added Prof Tan. These include how we can nurture future-ready graduates for a changing world, how universities can make transformative impact that benefits society, and become key places where the future is shaped and young people are inspired and empowered to contribute to the shaping of that future.

“We need to consider what are the essential skills our graduates need to be successful and employable across a lifetime,” said Prof Tan. Speaking on the NUS experience, Prof Tan elaborated that the University has introduced innovations that foster the ability to ‘zoom out - zoom in’ across the large and diverse student population.

“Beyond these, it is critical to encourage our students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, not in the narrow sense of starting a business, but about having the imagination to see new possibilities and the boldness to seize new opportunities,” added Prof Tan.

Mr Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, expressed delight at having hosted Prof Tan. “The HEPI lecture has never before focused on Asia, but we put that right on Thursday. As Prof Tan made clear, universities in Singapore and across Asia are growing fast, increasingly offering liberal arts options and investing unprecedented amounts in research and development. If we stand still in response, we shall fall behind.”

Read Prof Tan's commentary on the topic here.


Prof Tan taking a question from the audience during the lecture in London (Photo: Leah Kelton, Whispers of Light Photography)