The long history of higher learning in Asia, together with its extraordinary diversity, presents dual challenges to the scholar and analyst. While its past still haunts its present, the diversity is reflected in various religious influences and ethnicities, as well as an array of more current developments and challenges. Two common themes that prevail are: the attempt to balance local traditions while incorporating the best knowledge from outside, largely the West; and the differential development of individual Asian higher education systems, that is now forcing revisions to earlier core-periphery distinctions.
On 6 June 2019, Professor Anthony Welch, Professor of Education from The University of Sydney, gave an insightful presentation on “The Rise (and Rise) of Asian Higher Education” to an esteemed audience from the education arena in Singapore. The presentation was followed by an intellectual exchange of ideas and experiences among the attendees.
Dialogue attendees (from left to right): Mr Vignesh Naidu, Director of Operation at The HEAD Foundation’s, Dr N Varaprasad, Former Vice President of NUS, Mr Chng Kai Jin, CEO of The HEAD Foundation, Prof S. Gopinathan, Academic Advisor to The HEAD Foundation, Prof Anthony Welch, Professor of Education from The University of Sydney, Dr Maitrii Aung-Thwin, Associate Professor of the Department of History in NUS, Dr Teofilo Daquila, Associate Professor of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies in NUS, Dr Adrian Kuah, Director of the Futures Office, Office of the President of National University of Singapore (NUS), and Dr Calvin Chan, Director of the Office of Graduate Studies in Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).
At the start of the session, Professor Welch highlighted the fundamental difficulty in defining Asia, both geographically and conceptually. With some 45 to 50 nations included in this category — however the definition of Asia is construed — this gives us a sense of the complexity of Asia as a concept, and by extension the difficulties of doing justice to the growth and diversity of higher education within the region. Nonetheless, Professor Welch walked the audience through the long history of higher education institutions in the region. From the early ideologies such as Confucianism and the spirit of Nalanda that continue to influence present higher learning, to the onset of the modern Asian universities, the impact of colonialism, and subsequently the various intellectual repressions that formed attacks on higher education — for example, higher education systems in Cambodia, Afghanistan and China which were entirely co-opted in the service of a utopian ideology aimed at total societal integration — the differential growth and maturation processes experienced throughout Asia was carefully dissected.
Professor Welch concluded his presentation by elaborating on the contradictory legacy of growth and modernity of the Asian higher education institutions. Whilst these institutions have undoubtedly attained a greater presence globally, a further longstanding legacy issue, that is the problematic attempt to synthesise the East and West, has remained. Ambitious agendas such as the goal of establishing “world class” higher education institutions also continue to suffer from a lack of fundamental definition of the term “world class”. With this, Professor Welch and the audience proceeded to dialogue around the issues within the higher education scene in Singapore, including but not limited to, the different models of education adopted by different universities in the country, the challenges in equipping students with relevant skills and knowledge that will prepare them for an ever-changing world, the inherent difficulties in measuring the real-life impact of academic research and hence, the need for a better performance review metrics for academics.
The HEAD Foundation is honoured to host the dialogue between Professor Anthony Welch and all participants, and sincerely thanks all attendees for their meaningful contribution to the session.