South Asian higher education and socio-economic development in the region – Opinion

The immense power of knowledge to change the fortunes of societies has motivated many countries to build “knowledge-based economies”. South Asian (SA) policymakers are now increasingly realizing that building such economic systems requires dedicated humans and investments in the production and maintenance of human, intellectual and knowledge capital. quality. This places South Asian universities and higher education institutions (U & HEIs) at the center as one of the most important players in creating, running and sustaining a knowledge-based economy. Here are five challenges facing U & HEIs in South Asia while responding to the demand to contribute to the socio-economic development of the region.

Challenge 1: Population – the South African region has the highest concentration of people on earth. While accounting for just 3% of the world’s total land area, South Asia is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s population. The positive side of the population problem is its age composition where almost 30% (or 516 million) of South Asians are in the 0-14 age group, 27.5% (or 504 million) in the d ‘age 10-24 years and in total almost 46 years. % (or 842 million) are under 25 years old. Demographically, South Asia’s higher education systems are too small (currently accommodating around 30 million students) to meet the higher education demands and socio-economic needs of their respective economies. . This implies a rapid improvement in the capacity of U & HEIs to absorb hundreds of millions of new applicants not only in the fields necessary for the construction of a knowledge-based economy, but also in the fields which can contribute to the construction of human societies. environmentally and socially responsible.

Challenge 2: Low economic productivity – Although South Africa embodies some of the fastest growing economies in the world, its share in global GDP is only 4.1% and the region’s GDP per capita is only 17% of the world average. In 2018, the average contribution of agriculture to the GDP of member countries was 16.5%, their total employment was 20%. None of the SA members are in the top 50 on the Global Competitiveness Index and among the top 70 on the Global Skills Sub-Index. Low productivity is largely the result of neoliberal reforms of the 1990s, when governments in South Asia (with the exception of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) viewed higher education as a private good and without merit and withdrawn most of their budgetary support. Therefore, U & HEIs started charging high fees to students and effectively closed their doors to many students who were eventually absorbed into the primary and low paid sectors. Thus, the second major challenge is how to make education accessible and affordable for all, including the marginalized and poor strata of society amid the fiscal constraints U & HEIs currently face.

Challenge 3: Focus on local socio-economic development – Neoliberal reforms have not only facilitated the proliferation of private universities in the South African region (except Nepal and Sri Lanka) but have converted almost all universities public into “entrepreneurial entities” whose survival depends on the constant search for new funding avenues. Two obvious results of such entrepreneurial engagement of private and public universities are evident: (1) the inclination of U & HEIs for university programs and research activities with high commercial potential; (2) the lack of responsibility for contributing to the socio-economic development of the nation as a top priority and strategic objective. The latter in particular is the third most important challenge facing U & HEIs in South Asia.

Challenge 4: pursuit of quality – Paradoxically, none of the universities in the South African region is among the top 250 universities in the world. Quality higher education is an extremely scarce commodity in the South African region and such a demand is usually met through ‘invisible imports’. According to statistics from UNISCO (ISU), Asian students (including from China) accounted for 92% of international outward mobility for higher education in 2017. Asia’s quest for quality education has contributed to $ 39 billion to the US economy in addition to supporting nearly half a million jobs. Higher education was also Australia’s 3rd largest export in 2017, contributing $ 22 billion to its economy. Likewise, the UK economy gained US $ 25 billion from HE exports to Asia in 2016. Students in the South African region account for over 10% of outgoing student mobility in the world and have spent billions of dollars on I / O imports. The negligible inward international mobility for higher education in South Africa implies a net trade deficit in higher education. Thus, the third challenge for South African U & HEIs is to improve the quality of their higher education offer to the same level as advanced countries.

Challenge 5: Nature of ongoing HE reforms – U & HEIs in South African countries are called upon to transform almost all aspects of their institutional existence and strategic leeway. The reforms in the U & HEI essentially mean neoliberal reforms such as: financial efficiency which mainly involves the reduction of financial costs whatever the real social cost; curriculum changes leading to a transition to marketable programs and disciplines; managerial restructuring leading to the introduction of new principles of public management and a corporate culture in the governance of public universities; and improving quality means academics restrict freedom in teaching and research priorities. This dynamic means that U & HEIs must completely abandon their traditional value system which sees higher education as a public good and deserving, as a social investment, a human right and a prestigious social mission. In such times, how realistically can U & HEIs in South African regions define local and regional socio-economic development as a strategic objective of their academic and research activities.

South Asia needs to recognize the common internal and external challenges facing U & HEIs. Therefore, there is great potential value for academics, higher education experts and leaders, researchers and policy makers to sit down together to overcome these challenges. This requires South Asian cooperation and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (ASACR) forum appears to be the most appropriate forum to initiate this dialogue.

(The author is professor of development studies at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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