The state of education in Asia has made great leaps, in areas from school attendance rates to the ranking of its universities. However, yawning gaps still exist and they need to be addressed. On 31 March, four distinguished panelists – Dr. Mohd Waheed Hassan, Dr. Molly Lee, Prof. Mok Ka Ho and Dr. Sheldon Shaeffer – spoke at The HEAD Foundation and engaged in lively discussions with the audience.
Asia is of course a large and diverse continent, with all the disparities that entails. Reaching out to the most disadvantaged, such as children with disabilities and those who live in remote areas, is still a major challenge. There are also the perennial challenges pertaining to poverty and gender discrimination.
Engaging with students in schools, to making learning a meaningful and interesting process, is vital for ensuring optimal outcomes. As noted by Dr. Shaeffer, assessment studies found that a number of students in Grades 5 and 6 in some Asian countries still cannot read properly. Learning and teaching methods were found to be largely unchanged in the past century or so. All these factors have led to student dropouts which could have been avoided. On the other hand, there has been a rapid expansion of the university sector in most of Asia, as highlighted by Dr. Molly Lee. More Asian universities are also featuring highly in international league tables in the past five years. These developments are certainly worth celebrating, but they have also brought up concerns for developed and developing countries to address. For instance, advanced economies like Japan, Korea and Taiwan are now faced with a glut of university spaces, due to declining birth rates.
Moreover, the drive for universities to attain ever higher rankings in international league tables have led to the phenomenon of standardization of the university experience. Rather, what may be needed among universities within a country is a differentiation of its roles, such as in terms of the specialization of their faculties. It does not make economic sense for every university to have the same collection of a law, medical and engineering faculties, especially at the expense of quality. This has consequences too for the employability of graduates in an increasingly competitive and tight job market in Asia.
Universities also need “excellence with a soul”, Prof. Mok said. Most employers have emphasized the shortage of graduates with the right soft skills that are key to the jobs of the future.
All in all, education systems exist not in a vacuum but in an economic and societal context, Dr. Waheed said. They cannot be conceived in isolation from other challenges and opportunities in the real world.