The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) recently published a special report on ‘Higher Education in South Asia’. According to this report, higher education in South Asia is at a crossroads.
Driven by a confluence of demographic, political and economic factors, governments across the region are recognising the need for higher education as a matter of global competitiveness, and as an important catalyst towards the development of a knowledge economy.
The issues are all very similar and the main challenge to increase accessibility to higher education. With an increasing middle-class population, the rising demand for higher education is currently not being met, despite its growing importance on the economic development agenda. Already struggling to meet the demand of its 318 million 15-24 year olds in 2010, South Asia will add another 15 million to the pool by 2020, according to projections by the UN.
With this increase, it also becomes necessary for governments to ensure equitable access so that those who are disadvantaged economically or on the basis of their gender have equal access and opportunities in higher education. A major barrier in many of these countries is that of physical access.
Despite the rapid urbanisation that is taking place in some of these countries, poor infrastructure leads to remote and rural populations facing difficulties in accessing higher education. However, distance learning and online or e-learning could work well in some countries, particularly those with high mobile penetration rates – such as India and Pakistan. The private sector has the potential to increase and improve the quality of higher education provided robust regulation is enforced to stop the growth of substandard institutions.
Increased access may also lead to high unemployment especially if there is a disconnect between the needs of the market and the courses offered. As a result, issues of skill gaps, skill shortages and unemployable graduates still persist. There is, therefore, much benefit in involving the employment sector in curriculum and programme development. There is also need for industrial representation in the governing bodies of universities and regulatory bodies.
The second challenge is that of quality. A major boost is that there is a new generation of PhD-degree holders and local talent to bolster the ranks of academic leadership. However, South Asian universities still rank poorly globally, with the exception of India and Pakistan.
If gains are to be made in quality education, there is need to de-politicise and de-bureaucratise the higher education sector and make it autonomous, like higher education reforms in Pakistan. India and Bangladesh are in the process of passing new legislation to restructure their university grants commission into higher education commissions – much like what Pakistan did in 2002.
The third challenge is that of relevance of research in building a knowledge economy. With a few exceptions (most notably India’s elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institutes of Management), the postgraduate education landscape in South Asia is at an early stage of development. Research-based postgraduate programmes and universities are in short supply, a symptom of the region’s reliance on teaching-focused colleges.
However, despite this deficiency, Pakistan has demonstrated a surge in research, with a 50 percent increase in the number of research publications within the last two years – the second-highest increase worldwide – and has started developing its higher education sector as a regional knowledge hub, in the manner of countries such as Malaysia and Turkey.
The country has also made remarkable progress recently with the launching of ‘outreach, research, innovation and commercialisation programmes’, and establishing ‘business and IT incubators’, which will help take the economy to a higher trajectory. Pakistan aspires for its higher education sector to become a regional hub and a knowledge economy.
The final challenge is that of funding. Commenting on Pakistan, the report says that after a large boost in funding between 2002 and 2008, the HEC’s budget was drastically slashed in 2009 and universities were told to reduce their dependence on the government and generate their own funding. Only recently has the new government boosted funding to the higher education sector by 10 percent.
India, on the other hand, has recognized the importance of higher education and therefore the central government’s economic strategy, the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12), included a nine-fold increase in public spending on tertiary education. India is the only country in South Asia to have done this.
Even in the current financial year, India has approved an 18 percent increase in its higher education budget. Some estimates say that India will need a thousand new universities by 2020 if it is to meet its current development goals. The most immediate manifestation of this is the renewed drive to boost capacity and find new ways of injecting funds into the higher education sector.
However, increased funding alone is insufficient to improve university quality; effective governance and management of institutions is equally important, and the two must work together in tandem. In recent years, Pakistan has embarked on a university leadership and governance programme in which the HEC provides training through foreign partners to newly-inducted vice chancellors and senior management of the universities to build up their capacities.
The EIU report concludes by emphasising that empowering higher education commissions and universities by giving them more autonomy, good governance and increased funding will go a long way in enhancing the quality of education and developing the region as a knowledge economy.