Education in Asia: the Divide of Development

The fourth industrial revolution is coming to Asia, and while rapidly growing technological hubs in big cities like Seoul, Singapore and Jakarta have seen an influx of foreign investors and start-ups, deficits in quality and access to education in the region persist and have led experts to question its readiness compete in the global labor market, once the automation of factory and manual labor jobs begins to ramp up in earnest.

Despite making gains in providing access to education, many Asian countries continue to struggle with teaching quality, prompting some experts to call for a reform of the profession. When it comes to preparing students for the future, many governments are falling short of developing the right policies and emphasizing future-orientated learning and skills because they’re still stuck playing a game of catch-up. Currently there is still 20% of 14 year old’s across East Asia who do not attend high school, 30%of Youth in Bangladesh between ages 15-24 are illiterate, and child labor continues to be a concern in many parts of the region. A recent report about corruption in India even uncovered a trend of demanding bribes for access to educational services.

According to Takehiko Nakao, President of the Asian Development Bank, one of the key challenges Asia now faces is improving the quality and relevance of education and training. He’s calling for fundamental changes to education to provide employment security for the growing labor market in technology and STEM industries, as the availability of jobs begin to shift away from traditional manufacturing industries.

In OECD countries, the disparity is not always visible at first glance. Asian Universities are slowly and surely rising up the ranks of distinguished academic institutions, with Singapore, China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan all boasting schools that rank amongst the world’s top 100. While this illustrates the concerted effort which Asia’s more developed economies have put into developing educational infrastructure and delivering curriculum to an international standard, it only highlights the broader divide between OECD and low and middle-income countries in Asia.

Simply looking at the university rankings for the broader region, the developmental divide becomes more apparent, with institutions from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and India just scraping into the top 300. Not a single university from Bhutan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, or Nepal feature in the top 1000.

Surprisingly, Japan’s universities perform the lowest, amongst Asia’s leading economies. Spending on education in Japan is amongst the lowest in OECD countries, ranking second lowest in the last report, with only a 3.2% ratio of educational expenditure to gross domestic product.

This is in stark contrast to China who have a ratio of over 4%. China spent 565 billion U.S. dollars on education in 2016, an increase in spending of over 7% and a trend that is expected to continue thanks to a drop in international enrollments. More Chinese students are now attending university at home, rather than enrolling in Western universities abroad.

While previously studying abroad was considered one of the best paths to a successful, high-paying role, this is not necessarily the case in today’s job market. And the cost of education has been steadily rising for decades. Overseas education now comes with a hefty price tag, meaning for many students – whose families have made massive financial sacrifices for their education – failure is not an option. Such huge levels of stress and pressure, compounded with the difficulties of transitioning into a new country and the use of a new language, mean that many students turn to essay helper services to achieve high grades and meet the demands and expectations of their parents. This isn’t inherently problematic, until students stop using such services as a tool. In those cases where students rely on paying their way through their degree, resulting in underdeveloped analytical and digital skills which are vital for succeeding in their forward pathway in the rapidly changing Asian labor economy.

OECD countries in the region are leading the way on educational spending and reform, but data from 2016’s Human Development Report shows other countries have also begun working to close the gap. Through 2013-2015, Vietnam spent 6.3% of its GDP on education, with Malaysia following closely behind with 6.1%. Thailand has increased it’s spending to 4.1%, matching China’s growth in the area. But other countries continue to struggle, such as Indonesia whose spending totals 3.3% of its GDP and faces unique challenges surrounding job security within the teaching industry.

If Asia wishes to continue to grow and prosper through the 21st Century, then the region needs to make a collaborative effort to improve access and quality for all students. Some steps have been taken by China and Singapore to partner in technology and entrepreneurship with a focus on student exchanges and internships to boost educational outcomes in the areas for both countries. But more initiatives like this need to be implemented if the region wants to become serious about achieving a comparative standard of education to the West.

Right now, high-Income economies may currently be leading the way, but unless standards are improved amongst underperforming Asia-Pacific nations then the region may find itself adversely affected by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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