Wednesday 30 April 2014

Higher Education in South Asia urged to set out on revolutionary road

A revolutionary change is coming to higher education in South Asia that will transform the future of universities and the student experience, and has the potential to be more significant than the higher education transformation in China over the past decade, concludes new research from the British Council.

A bulging youth population delivering one million new entrants to the regional work force every month for the next twelve years, coupled with a rising demand for higher education and a severe shortage of highly skilled and workplace ready professionals are driving this transformation.

These needs cannot be met by simply expanding the existing higher education system. They demand greater capacity, a new approach to the academic model, to quality assurance, and university funding. The British Council estimates that 2,000 more universities will be built in the next decade, but that each will need to admit 100,000 students to even make a dent in the likely demand. South Asia may remain a ‘frontier market’ for international institutions, but the British Council has issued a call to action to the region’s leaders to meet the urgency of the challenge.

The research will be presented and analysed by experts from across South Asia at the British Council’s annual ‘Going Global’ conference for leaders of international higher education, in Miami, USA, on Wednesday 30 April at 13:30 local time. Failure to find new solutions and to meet the demographic demand for high quality accessible education will see South Asia locked into a spiral of low value skills and even higher graduate unemployment, the research warns.

Michelle Potts, the British Council’s Director of Education in South Asia, said: “The research shows that the time is ripe for South Asia to create a new platform for higher education for the 21st Century, to create positive social and economic impact. Addressing the need to enhance the quality, accessibility, relevance and provision of higher education will take steps towards tackling some of the entrenched issues facing the region (skills, employability, social mobility, equity) and also issues of national critical importance (climate change, energy, poverty, disease).The consequences of getting it wrong are immense, not just for the individual nations, but for the region and globally.”

“The biggest challenge for the future is that we have created a ‘bubble’ (in terms of those who have entered higher education) and now society is asking— what does higher education do for us?” notes Dr. Mukhtar Ahmed, Chairman of the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan, quoted in the research. “There is the expectation that investment in higher education must now lead to a positive societal impact.”

A series of four new research reports and twelve opinion articles, published for the first time together by the British Council, examine seven core challenges facing the higher education sector in South Asia and recommend action to address them. Based on a series of ‘Global Education Dialogues’ held across South Asia in 2013-14, the publication ‘South Asia and Higher Education: Revolution and Realities in the New Economic Order’ aims to be the definitive guide for researchers and policy makers interested in unlocking the region’s potential.

The first of the seven challenges, which the publication calls “dangerous demographics”, involves responding to the needs of the region’s burgeoning youth population (with 37 per cent under the age of 18 in 2011) - including widening participation beyond the current level of 12 per cent of the population, better quality assurance and standards, and improvements in graduate employment rates.

The publication identifies that the maturing of East Asia’s population provides a ‘lift point’ for South Asia to assume a new place in the global economic order. The second challenge therefore is for administrations to encourage flexibility and innovation and not allow interest groups and bureaucracy to hold up change.

A third challenge is for new partnerships to be developed between the public and private sectors in order to stimulate growth and innovation. The cultivation of credible private sector universities renowned for excellence has proved successful elsewhere in Asia, and in South Asia this will need to take place in tandem with efforts to improve regulation and quality assurance.

Issues of quality and accountability is the fourth challenge that must be addressed. Independent regulatory bodies should be established whose responsibilities and motives are distinct from funding bodies, the publication urges.

The fifth challenge is that the model of higher education delivery must be re-thought to meet demand and the need for greater flexibility and relevance for business and industry. This means moving beyond online learning to other developments such as two year degrees, modular course structures and fusing vocational training with academic study.

Finding the faculty is the sixth challenge for the region. There is both a shortage of university faculty and a need for better quality teachers. This area is affected by issues of weak governance and low salaries. There are examples of politicisation of the sector across every country studied, with political affiliations often trumping experience in gaining university posts. Pay is relatively low in public sector universities and careers in academia are not generally sought after.

Finally, in several sections and a separate report within the series, the issue of under-representation of women in South Asian higher education, both as students and as leaders within the sector, is explored.

Other key issues explored include how to meet the needs of employers for skills and workplace ready graduates and reduce high levels of graduate unemployment. In South Asia approaching a third (31.1 per cent) of 15-24 year olds are unemployed or not in education. Possible solutions include creating opportunities for greater engagement and connectivity between the business world and universities, involving employers in the design of courses, and better planning of higher education provision to match skills shortages.

One major barrier to surmount in many countries is that of physical access to higher education. Limited infrastructure and difficult terrain means that rural, remote populations face a huge disadvantage, and financial constraints are also a major hurdle.

There is big potential for foreign providers to help fill the gap between capacity and demand. However, in some countries such as India this potential has been hampered by bureaucratic obstacles and long delays in gaining approval to operate. Nevertheless, demand remains very strong and South Asia continues to represent an exciting “frontier market” for international institutions.

Notes to Editor

‘South Asia’, for the purposes of this work, refers to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

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