Capacity and Quality

Leaders of Asian universities brief American counterparts on top issues -- with considerable commonality from country to country.
February 14, 2006

Enrollments are booming, but the government can't find money to pay for new universities. Lawmakers want to know if taxpayers are getting value in their higher education systems while colleges fear excessive regulation. Private higher education -- much of it from for-profit entities -- is growing rapidly, and facing skepticism from traditional providers of higher education.

It turns out that college presidents have a lot in common -- whether in the United States or Asia.

A special session of the annual meeting of the American Council on Education Monday featured presentations from leaders of three Asian universities, who were asked to provide an overview of the changes that have been taking place and the difficulties facing institutions in their countries.

Deepak Nayyar, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and former vice chancellor of the University of Delhi, said that he sees Indian higher education facing a "quiet crisis," in which the rapid growth it is experiencing hides many significant problems.

The failure of the government to expand universities to meet student need has led to "higher education being privatized, de facto, on a massive scale," Nayyar said. This is especially the case in professional training, where over the last 15 years, the country has seen the percentage of students educated outside of the public sector grow from less than 15 percent to well over 50 percent.

As Nayyar described the new private higher education sector, it bears little resemblance to private nonprofit colleges or to established for-profit entities in the United States. "Quality is somewhat ambiguous," yet institutions can thrive because of what Indian educators call "diploma disease" -- the demand by students for a credential, even of dubious value, he said.

It's not that there aren't plenty of government officials charged with overseeing higher education, Nayyar said, but they focus on the wrong things. Higher education in India, he said, is "overregulated but undergoverned."

A related development, he said, is the huge growth in the number of Indian students who -- unable to find places at universities at home -- enroll at institutions abroad. While this is in many ways a natural extension of a long tradition of India's best and brightest heading to the Ivies or Oxbridge, Nayyar warned that these are different students.

"We are seeing a much larger exodus of less talented students than we've seen before," he said.

Binglin Zhong, president of Beijing Normal University, also spoke of the need to balance growth with quality control. Zhong said that the rapid growth of recent years has prompted more interest from academics in evaluating both the quality of what students learn and of what professors teach. China is increasingly putting an emphasis not just on creating universities, but having them reach "world class" status, he said, adding to the interest in quality.

Puruhito, rector of Airlangga University, in Indonesia, said that his country is engaged in a similar balancing act. Universities need more autonomy from the government, he said, to do better hiring, to plan new programs, and to avoid the corruption that is evident in parts of Indonesian society. At the same time, Puruhito said that there is more need for "stake holders" to have a sense of what higher education is accomplishing.

Nancy E. Cantor, president of Syracuse University, moderated the session and urged her fellow American presidents to pay attention to the "thriving, growing and changing" higher education landscape in Asia. She said that interactions between American and Asian institutions "used to be a one-way street" and can't operate in that way any longer.

That was a theme echoed by the panelists, when they were asked about the messages they have for American educational leaders.

Nayyar said that American colleges should work with the many Indian academics in the United States or the American-educated professors back in India. Along these lines, he urged American colleges not to try to set up free-standing programs, on the model of American University in Beirut, but to pursue partnerships.

Puruhito said Indonesian academe also has numerous faculty members -- on many campuses, a majority -- who have deep ties to American colleges. He said that he needed American colleges to not "think about the financial differences" between the countries. An American professor's salary is at least three times what Indonesia pays, limiting the ability to recruit, he said.

Zhong summed up his thoughts on what Americans should think about in terms of international collaboration succinctly: "It must be that both sides benefit."


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