How Asian Are Asian Universities?

Campus leaders from Abu Dhabi, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore debate whether institutions should be judged by Western or local criteria -- and whether geography defines higher education.
March 14, 2011

HONG KONG -- When new international rankings of universities appear, newspapers in Asia are quick to report the regional angle. People's Daily Online last week covered new rankings from Times Higher Education with the headline "15 Asian Universities Among World's Top 100 in Reputation Ranking." The Hindu, meanwhile, ran a worried headline: "No Indian University in Global Top 200."

All the attention to how Asian universities stack up by international measures raises a series of questions, said Si-Chen Lee, president of National Taiwan University, at a session Saturday of Going Global, the annual international education conference of the British Council. Among them: What is an Asian university? Do global rankings encourage Asian universities to adopt "Western-centric" values? "Is it feasible to simultaneously serve the needs of local communities and emulate the [standards of the] international arena?”

In a discussion involving academic leaders from the Gulf, East Asia and South Asia, some suggested key differences between the evolving universities of those regions, while others pushed back at the idea that there is such a thing as an Asian university (or a Western university for that matter).

To the extent that some spoke of clear differences between Asian and Western universities, they emphasized close alignments in Asia between universities and government goals (and a resulting level of government support that few Western universities are seeing these days). And several spoke with evident pride of the idea that Asian universities were not willing to assume that Western models define excellence.

Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, vice chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia, showed a cartoon toward the start of his talk. It portrayed an American view of the world, with the Middle East labeled "oil and water," India labeled "Nike factory" and China labeled "Microsoft factory." While acknowledging that he was exaggerating to demonstrate his point, Dzulkifli said that the cartoon pointed to Western ignorance of the educational strengths and challenges of Asia.

On education, he said, "we are too beholden to ideas given to us from the West," when "there are other values and norms, not discussed at many conferences" of world academic leaders. "There is almost a one-size-fits-all" idea, supported by the rankings, he said. "The rankings set rules and we are all supposed to aspire to those rules."

In his talk and the question session, he said that the model of Western research universities might lead Asian institutions away from the priorities of the region. He said that Asian nations are vulnerable to issues related to exploding populations, climate change and huge income gaps in which majorities of the population in much of the region live on but a few dollars a day. These are the issues that should capture the attention of Asian academics, he said, even if they do not make those universities more competitive by Western standards.

The idea of the Silk Road -- the trading routes that once connected Asia -- lives on, Dzulkifli said. But whereas it was once viewed as a marvel for bringing Asia's wonders to Europe, it may increasingly be a metaphor for connections within Asia, of ties of universities and governments within Asia -- "of Asia and Asia, not Asia and the West." The key question, he said, was "does Asia dare to stand up for a new beginning?"

Agreeing in large part was Christopher Brown, founding director of the International College of Zayed University, in the United Arab Emirates. The trend in Asian societies and universities, he said, is "the Asianization of Asia," in which definitions of purpose and quality "are no longer mediated through the West." At a time that Western universities are fighting deep budget cuts, he said, many Asian nations are providing large increases in state support.

Brown said that, at its extreme, reliance on government support can be problematic, especially if the government does not respect the autonomy of universities or academic freedom. But he said that he sees Asian universities embracing "a middle way" in which national priorities rise immediately to the top of the agenda, while faculty members are still given freedom to address those priorities in a range of ways. He said this path involves "actively seeking alignment with government priorities and promoting work on the government's needs, but on the university's terms."

As an example, Brown cited a new Korean institute at his university. Noticing that South Korea was becoming an increasingly important trade partner for the United Arab Emirates, the university created the institute and got it up and running within a year -- in the process winning support from the South Korean government and much favor (and more money) at home. Brown emphasized the commitment to moving speedily on such projects as key to continuing the strong government support institutions have valued.

That support, in turn, allows the universities to build up all programs. "The future belongs to Asia," he said, predicting that discussions of "brain drain" would soon be replaced by talk of "brain reclaim" as the environment being created for faculty members attracts expats back home.

Edgar A. Porter, pro vice president for international affairs and faculty development at Japan's Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, said his remarks were focused on Japan, not Asia as a whole, and his comments stressed different attitudes at universities there. As examples, he noted that faculty members are paid based on age, not merit; that salary is not negotiable; and that rank at the time of appointment is determined by age.

On the administrative side, he noted that bureaucrats at Japanese universities make financial decisions -- and that faculty members and deans do not control pots of money that they can use for new programs. Further, he said that Japanese administrators tend to be more deliberative than their counterparts in the West, so things don't happen quickly. All of these features, he said, seem to confuse Western academics trying to negotiate deals with Japanese universities.

Lily Kong, vice president for university and global relations of the National University of Singapore, offered the strongest critique of the idea that there is a category of higher education called "Asian universities."

She noted an article much discussed among Asian academic leaders, by Simon Marginson, a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. The article makes the case that a group of Asian universities are finding success by embracing "a Confucian model" for higher education. Marginson argues that there are common elements to the success of Asian universities, such as a strong central government, a reliance on tuition and on families' willingness to invest in their children's education, a push toward universal education, and the use of high stakes exams in admissions.

Kong said that there are many examples to counter that description, noting that Japan's government is relatively weak, and that many countries in the region aren't close to meeting current demand for higher education, let alone providing universal access. She also argued that the term "Asian universities" seems to suggest that they exist in contrast to a Western model. "But what is the Western model?" she asked. Is it research universities? Is it the liberal arts college? The community college? Is the Western model based on the American or European model of higher education?

"All institutions are unique. It is futile to conceive of any model" as representing a particular region, she said.

Another divide is that some would contrast "purist" ideals about education (learning for the sake of learning) and more practical goals (higher education to train people for jobs or conduct research that would create jobs), Kong said. And while many would associate Asian universities with more practical goals, Kong said that she viewed the idea of learning for learning's sake as "Buddha-inspired," so she would not cede that to the West. The reality, she said, is that most universities don't embrace one or the other choice anyway, but "seek the right balance" between the two.

Balance may also be needed, she said, for global rankings. "I used to think until recently that we had rankings mania, out of control," she said. But the problem may not be rankings per se, but that "we have a few dominant rankings systems" that they tend to value similar things (specifically, research that is recognized by the West), and so "institutions modify their behavior" to do better.

Kong said she would like to see "a proliferation of systems" to rank universities around the world, provided that they don't all just find ways to repackage a similar set of values used by existing rankings. She would like to see international rankings that value "giving back to the society in which [universities] are a part ... contributing to the development of the people in that particular society," she said. "These kinds of measures would be quite different."

With more rankings, universities might feel free to stick to their own values, rather than trying to win the favor of a rankings outfit, she said. "I never thought I would say this, but maybe, the more rankings the better."


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