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How the rise of Asian universities is helping people move from ‘a career for life’ to ‘a lifetime of careers’

  • 1 February 2018

The Higher Education Policy Institute is publishing Major shifts in global higher education: A perspective from Asia by Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, President of the National University of Singapore (NUS) from 2008 to 2017, on Thursday, 1 February (HEPI Report 103).

This is a revised version of the most recent HEPI Annual Lecture, in which Professor Tan discussed the transformation of higher education in Asia. He focused in particular on: the ‘massification’ of higher education; the spread of liberal arts education; the expansion of the quantity of research; the importance of universities to innovation; and the need to provide the skills for the future.

Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, said:

The rise of Asian universities is, without doubt, the single most important current change happening in global higher education. It threatens the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon models in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, while also providing unrivalled opportunities for international co-operation. This HEPI Annual Lecture shows how the rapid changes occurred, considers what they mean and looks ahead to the future.

In the lecture, Professor Tan said:

In the developed economies of Asia, such as South Korea and Japan, high participation rates have been maintained. But the big story in the last decade has been the unprecedented rise in China and, to a lesser extent, India. The numbers involved are remarkable. It is estimated that, by 2020, China alone will have over 37 million students in higher education and India will have over 27 million. This is positive because many more students are having the opportunity to develop intellectually and pursue expanded career options. But it has also brought about significant challenges. The first is graduate unemployment and graduate under-employment. …

One significant trend has been the rise in interest in liberal arts education at several leading Asian universities. Although the numbers of such universities are relatively small, I think they represent a larger trend pushing for a different form of education than that which has traditionally been provided. … NUS decided to partner with Yale on a liberal arts college because we wanted to develop a new form of education which we hope will nurture graduates who have the ability to both zoom out and zoom in. In other words, graduates who can 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. …

Beyond liberal arts education, there has been strong interest among universities in Asia in developing more world-class research. … China today accounts for about 15 per cent of the world’s total scientific publications, including a growing proportion of the high-impact work. For the top 0.1 per cent of papers on Scopus, as rated by citations, China’s share has grown from less than 1 per cent in 1997 to about 20 per cent now. …

We know the nature of work is changing fundamentally, driven by technology, software and artificial intelligence, often covered under the rubric of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We know that people are going to live longer, they are going to work longer, and that many of our graduates will work in many different jobs across many sectors: not so much “a career for life” anymore, but “a lifetime of careers”.

In his Foreword, Professor Sir David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, says:

The first time I met our Lecturer, Professor Tan, I recognised not only a remarkable intellect but also a transformatory university leader. He has a unique perspective on universities, on higher education systems and on global higher education.

As his Lecture shows, Asian universities have changed the paradigm for developing a university. Many have achieved a standing, a stature and a maturity much more rapidly than had previously been thought possible. It is easy but mistaken to think that must primarily be a function of resource. It is also a function of leadership. This Lecture includes challenges that are very familiar to us: challenges of making our universities fit, not just for tomorrow, but for a generation of students who are going to live and work differently. Universities are going to have touchpoints with their graduates over a much longer period of their lives than traditionally has been the case.

Professor Tan’s Lecture includes some challenging questions for us in the UK. It shows our present debate on higher education has become too narrow and is in danger of becoming quite old fashioned.

Notes for Editors

  1. Professor Tan Chorh Chuan was President of the National University of Singapore (NUS) when he delivered this HEPI Annual Lecture. Since then, he has joined the Singaporean Ministry of Health as both Executive Director of the new Office for Healthcare Transformation and the country’s first Chief Health Scientist.
  2. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate as well as through our own events.

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