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HEPI 14th Annual Lecture: A perspective from Asia

  • 8 December 2017

Last night, HEPI was honoured to host Professor TAN Chorh Chuan, President of the National University of Singapore, who delivered the 14th HEPI Annual Lecture.

It was striking how many people said afterwards that the Lecture made elements of the UK’s current higher education debate seem rather too parochial.

So we are publishing a précis of the Lecture here. We plan to publish the full Lecture, as usual, in due course


  • For academic institutions to make good decisions on their strategic positioning and goals, they need to understand the major trends and shifts in the global and local higher education landscape, appreciate what they mean generally, and assess which the most relevant specific implications are for themselves.
  • Over the past decade or so, higher education in Asia has experienced several notable shifts, including:
    • ‘massification’;
    • a focus on ‘liberal arts education’ at several leading universities;
    • a powerful impetus to build world-class research;
    • active participation in technology-enhanced learning;
    • strong and continuing broad-based interest in internationalisation; and
    • changes in university governance.


  • In relation to massification, developed economies like Korea and Japan have maintained high post-secondary enrolment rates for many years. So the main story in the past decade has been the unprecedented speed and scale of massification in China, and to a lesser degree, India.
  • The extent and rate of massification has been associated with several challenges, including graduate unemployment, underemployment and un-employability, as well as concerns with big mismatches between the skills that graduates leave university with, and the needs of industry and employers.
  • Notwithstanding this, for small nations like Singapore (and smaller countries), the sheer scale of massification raises an important question for local educators: what is, or will be, the talent edge which National University of Singapore (NUS) graduates will have in Asia and the world, in the future.

Teaching a liberal arts education

  • Massification of higher education in Asia has been accompanied by a desire to improve the quality of teaching. A notable trend, in this context, is that several leading universities have been strongly interested in, or have developed liberal arts education programmes. These typically emphasise broad-based curricula, interactive pedagogies like tutorials and small-group seminars, and extensive residential experience.
  • This approach contrasts with long-standing and entrenched traditions of early deep specialisation, and rote-learning based predominantly around lectures. The goals of these programmes vary but the common thread is to nurture graduates who have deep critical thinking abilities and creativity.
  • While the number of Asian universities that have launched liberal arts programmes is small, this is an indicator of a much wider interest in broader-based education and more interactive pedagogies that engage and activate student learning. The experience of the Yale-NUS College was briefly shared as an illustration.

Research and development

  • Many universities in Asia have invested heavily in building world-class research. In large part, this also reflects changes in national aspirations and funding for research aqnd development (R&D).
  • In terms of R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP, Korea has overtaken Israel as the world’s most R&D intensive country. However, the most impressive strides have been made by China. Between 2004 and 2014, China’s total R&D expenditure increased by 23% a year, and China is on track to be the world’s top R&D spender by 2019. As a consequence, China’s share of the world’s total scientific publications and high-impact works have risen sharply and impressively. In terms of Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI), however, China still lags the world.
  • With these observations as a backdrop, the lecture discussed one key area of present focus in Asia, namely, universities driving their national and regional innovation ecosystems.
  • Universities have talent (both faculty and students) and research strengths. Through the commercialisation of intellectual property, spin-offs/start-ups and collaborations with industry, we can create new products, innovations and services; fuel new enterprise formation; and attract and expand industry and industry clusters in the country.

Innovation and commercialisation

  • A number of notable changes in the research, innovation and enterprise landscape have contributed to such activities and outcomes, including:
    • Factors that have helped reduce the traditional mismatches in time-frame, incentives and culture that have impeded university-industry partnerships.
    • In key fields, such as data science, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, a marked reduction in the time and distance between a fundamental research discovery and its high impact application and/or commercialisation.
    • The scale of support being given by countries, particularly in China and East Asia, for technology-based innovation.
    • Broad-based and more fundamental global shifts that enable small groups, or even single individuals, to innovate and bring their innovations to larger markets, in what might be termed as a new age of empowerment.
    • The growth of Asia continues to create new opportunities, as well as huge needs for solutions to the pressing challenges associated with that growth.
  • In many countries in Asia, we are therefore seeing a greater interest and focus among universities in translating and commercialising their research and technology.
  • One very interesting shift is that in R&D funding in China. Historically, this has been directed mainly at shorter-term developmental and applied research with only a small proportion targeted at basic research. More recently, however, the scale of investment in basic research has been increased very substantially, with the specific aim of building long-term fundamental research strengths that would position China for the future.

Questions for the future

  • In the last section, the lecture highlighted three critical questions for universities for the future, which were illustrated briefly by the perspectives of the National University of Singapore. These were:
  1. How do we nurture truly future-ready graduates for the fast-paced, rapidly-changing world and the future?
  2. How can universities make a truly transformative impact that also benefits the majority of people in society?
  3. How do we integrate this with education so that the university becomes a key place where the future is imagined and shaped, and young people are inspired and empowered to help contribute to the shaping of that future?

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