Category Archives: Higher Education

The ups and downs of Asia’s universities

The recent release of the Times Higher Ed rankings for Asian universities makes for interesting reading. A summary heading of the most conspicuous developments would go something like: Singapore on top, Japan slides and Southeast Asia rises.

But it is worth digging deeper, as for all the heartache ranking schemes cause university administrators, they do contain a treasure trove of data and insight. This is the second time THE has conducted a ranking focused exclusively on Asian universities, and the number of institutions covered has expanded from 200 to 300.

This speaks to what is perhaps the most basic point: the very rapid expansion and upgrading of higher education institutions across Asia. This is not a sudden or startling development; it has been coming for a long time, driven by decades of rapid economic development.

Money, of course, matters. Wealthier Asian countries are concentrated towards the top of the list and poorer countries towards the bottom. And within any given country, older institutions that are more firmly established, tend to rank more highly than younger ones.

But there is more to it than this. Two other variables suggest themselves: intensity of government investment and the openness of a society to the flow of people and ideas.

Singapore comes out on top, with the National University of Singapore securing the #1 billing for the second time in a row, and Nanyang University of Technology coming in at #4. This is a spectacular achievement and reflects a determined drive by the Singaporean government and its university leaders over several decades, and particularly the last dozen years or so.

As anyone familiar with the Singaporean higher education scene knows, the level of government investment has been truly eye-watering. But although money is fundamental, it is not enough. Singapore has also become much more open to the flow of people and ideas — particularly in the broad science and technology domain.

Contrast this with Japan. As a wealthy and highly advanced economy, Japan is home to a range of magnificent universities, with lengthy and distinguished histories. However, as in many other of the advanced economies of the OECD, government investment in higher education has become increasingly stretched. Important too, is the fact Japan has been less outward-looking in terms of the international flow of people and ideas. Young Japanese are less likely to travel and language seems to be a bigger barrier in Japan than in many other non-English speaking countries. A more comprehensive discussion would add that the regulatory constraints on Japanese universities – although certainly changing – make it hard for them to compete and adapt.


Chinese universities, of course, feature prominently as do South Korean institutions. In both cases, the scale and intensity of government investment, supported by relatively strong flow of people and ideas (again, especially in the science and technology domain). An interesting case to watch will be #3 ranking Hong Kong University, as it seeks to find a way to maintain its long record of academic excellence – including in the social sciences and humanities – with evolving political context of Hong Kong’s integration with China.

Perhaps the most encouraging feature of the Asian university rankings is the way other Southeast Asian universities are beginning to fire. The same underlying drivers are at play. The governments of, for instance, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, have not made the sustained major strategic efforts that have underpinned the meteoric rise of the likes of Singapore, South Korea and China. Nevertheless they are all coming up – reflecting the foundational reality of sustained rapid economic development.

Of Southeast Asian nations, Thailand has the largest number of institutions listed (ten), Malaysia has the most highly placed (#59: University of Malaya) and Indonesia emerges as the country with the greatest potential. International education specialist, Simon Marginson, dubs Indonesia the “Brazil of Southeast Asia”.

Viewed across the greater Asian region, university rankings emerge as a fascinating barometer of the interplay of economics, politics and culture, together with institutional leadership. You can be sure that the number of institutions covered in the next THE ranking will expand yet again. The intriguing part will be to see how the rankings progress, both in terms of individual insitutions and national systems of higher education as a whole.

Visiting Gunditjmara country

Visiting Gunditjmara Country

I recently returned from one of the most mind-opening trips on which I have ever been: a visit to Gunditjmara country in western Victoria (pink territory, bottom left on map).img_0024

Along with nine other members of the University’s executive, I got to spend two days meeting with both elders and young people, being shown around their traditional lands and hearing their stories. The visit was undertaken as one small, but significant, component of the University’s intensifying commitment to the national need to advance the cause of reconciliation.

Reconciling the hopes and narratives of the first inhabitants of a land with those of the people who came later is a major challenge almost everywhere the issue exists. In Australia we still struggle mightily with it. This university has recently taken major steps to intensify its efforts to accelerate the process of reconciliation. And the inspirational Stacey Campton who heads RMIT’s Ngarara Willim Centre is a powerful catalyst for action and optimism.

Our visit was deeply moving. All of us were emotionally affected by accounts of the tragedies and suffering that followed the arrival of European settlers. Perhaps the most graphic episode of this was the massacre of Aboriginal people in 1834 following a clash over rights to a whale harpooned by settlers and brought ashore to a beach just outside Portland.

Also striking were accounts of the harsh realities of life for Aboriginal people forced to live on missions, such as the Lake Condah Mission (opened in 1867). And yet harsher still were the realities of life for those excluded from the missions and other sanctioned settlements. Having sorrowfully outlined the hardships and enduring consequences of mission life, Gunditjmara elder Auntie Maude went on to say “But if it wasn’t for the mission, we might not have survived at all.”

Our discussions were not all about past tragedies and their enduring consequences. We also learned about fullsizerender the remarkable remnant stone dwellings and sophisticated seasonal stone fish traps in Gunditjmara country – a surprise given the conventional wisdom about the nomadic existence of Aboriginal people in Australia (see story and recontruction).

I was especially interested to learn how the local Aboriginal community centre, Winda Mara, is structured as a company and operates to provide local health and welfare services and help launch Aboriginal into labour market. This challenged some of my preconceptions. Meeting the young men and women working at and with Winda Mara, and hearing their stories and outlooks on life was a source of hope and optimism for a better future.

Running through everything in our visit to Gunditjmara country were the intertwined issues of race, identity and the possibilities of reconciliation. For me, perhaps the most powerful comment of our visit was the stark declaration of visiting elder, Uncle Mick (himself a survivor of being stolen or kidnapped from his parents at an early age): “There is only one race on this planet, and that is the red-blooded human race.”
I left Gunditjmara country with whole different outlook. Certainly I have a much sharper appreciation of the suffering Aboriginal people have endured, but I also have a clearer sense of hope and possibility.

Let me give the last word to my wonderful colleague, Stacey Campton. In a short clip, she spoke with me in a moving way on the shore of beautiful Lake Bridgewater, and we ended on a theme to which I will return: how we hold together the imperative of embracing Uncle Mick’s injunction about there being only one human race, with our desire for also belonging to particular cultures and communities.


Employment, education and back to that new Adidas plant

For many years it has been widely accepted that there is a strong causal connection between additional years of formal education and likely future income.  Simply put, data from around the world showed that, on average, university graduates could be expected to earn significantly more than those who did not proceed to university.

That connection is becoming weaker. At the same time as the actual cost to students of higher education has been rising in many countries, the returns have become less clear cut.  The data from the US are particularly stark: whereas in the latter twentieth century the average wages of university graduates rose significantly, the average wages of those who only completed secondary school were static; however between 2002-14 while the average wages of high school graduates remained almost static, the average wages of college graduates actually declined.

Data of this sort underscores complaints frequently heard in Australia, the United States and many other countries, that universities are failing to prepare graduates adequately for the world of work. Such concerns have come to take on a sharper edge as the actual cost to students (or their families) of attending university has risen sharply.

Recent articles by the The Economist on Learning and earning and Established education providers vs new contenders provide a handy digest of some of the main causal factors at play here and the wider implications for tertiary education.  The central message is that whether one is in higher or lower skilled work, employees need to be continually reskilling themselves over the course of their working lives if they want to remain competitive in the labour market.

How this ongoing education need will be met is a key question, for at the same time universities around the world are being assailed for underperformance in preparing students for employment, employers themselves are funding much less on-the-job training than in the past.

The net effect of this is large scale unment demand from prospective and current employees seeking to enhance their work-related skills. And technology is enabling new and and existing education providers to experiment with new ways of addressing this unment demand.

I’m particularly interested in thinking about the implications of the evolving relationship between education and employment, and the business model of universities.  And this is where my post last week my previous post on a new Adidas plant in Germany may tie in to the changing economics of post-secondary education.

For some years we’ve been talking about digital disruption in higher education, the rise of for-profit providers, the ‘unbundling’ of the university experience and the emergence of micro-credentials and digital badging.  This is playing out in different ways in different countries, depending on the local regulatory context. But a critical common ingredient is the interplay of economic pressures and technological enablement resulting in increased specialisation in the internal operations of educational organizations and greater responsiveness to market demand.

In the for-profit space, the likes of Coursera, Udacity and have received a good deal of attention in recent years. Newer to me at least, is the rapid rise of firms like General Assembly (offering intensive in-class courses in coding) and  Pluralsight (offering intensive online video-based professional courses).

Universities are experimenting too.  Arizona State’s much acclaimed success with online delivery has earned it the US News and World Report’s most innovative university award for two successive years. Here at RMIT, we’re also launching new initiatives – in collaboration with specialist private sector partners – for online masters programs, digital badging of employment-enhancing skills for our current students and industry-specific stackable micro-credentials for workers looking to acquire new skills in response to changing labour market requirements.

Increasingly, a key differentiator for all education providers looking to serve people worried about employment, seems likely to be how quickly and effectively they can respond to the changing needs of particular industries. Just as Adidas is beginning to replace labour-intensive sports factories with 3D printing and robotics driven plants that enable it to be much more responsive to changing customer preferences, so too education providers are likely to focus increasingly on the  responsiveness of their operating models.

The for-profits will be the first movers. The earlier mentioned Pluralsight, for instance, seeks to optimize its catalogue of educational  videos by compensating the subject experts who create them on the basis of the number of subscribers per video. A model of that sort might suit a highly focused start-up educational venture, but what about universities with their wider social mission and dual focus on education and research?

It may not yet be a large scale phenomenon, we are likely to see growing numbers of universities releasing academics from traditional teaching responsibilities and instead asking them just to develop the content for new (hopefully) sought after courses.  Once developed, delivery of this course content will be handled by a different set of online pedagogy specialists – for so long as there is sufficient demand. This would give the academic greater time to specialize in research and the conception of courses.  And it may allow universities (like high-end sports shoe manufacturers) to conceive, design and bring to market new course offerings much more rapidly.

Over time, a model of this sort seems likely to see the number of academics a university needs decline and the number of online pedagogy specialists grow. It’s a model marked by greater specialization of function in which universities – and individuals academics – focus increasingly on only those activities they can perform more effectively than any other provider.  And it’s a model marked by the increasing embeddedness of for-profit practices and specialist sub-contractors in what have core tenured academic functions within traditional universities.

Brave new world.




What does a new Adidas plant have to do with the future of higher education?

Reading a story in The Economist last week about a new high tech production plant in Germany got me thinking about possible parallels in the evolution of some parts of higher education.



The Adidas story is fascinating in its own right. I hadn’t realized the sports shoe industry is worth $80 billion a year; though I did know manufacturing was quite labour-intensive and largely took place in Asia because of labour costs.   But this new plant is being built in high-cost Germany (with a second like it to follow in the US).

Under established production practices, The Economist reports that it takes up to eighteen months from conception of a new pairs of shoes until they start arriving in retail outlets.  The catch, however, is that about 75% of shoe models only survive in the market for one year.  This opens up a window of opportunity for manufacturers able to respond to shifting fashion preferences quickly.  (If I’m not mistaken, the Spanish clothing company Zara, rose to global heights by being able to respond much more quickly than its competitors.)

But back to Adidas.  The design, testing and production-simulation will all be done digitally and then the constituent elements (plastics, fibres and other stuff) will be brought together as latest-style shoes via a process that integrates computerized knitting, cutting by robots and layered spraying of material by 3D printers.  Not only is this vastly faster than existing processes, but it can also shift immediately from one shoe model to another – without the need for costly and time-consuming retooling.

The big advantage of this system is responding to customer preferences in particular locations quickly.  The thinking, apparently, is that these plants can be spread around the world, close to concentrations of customers.  The article’s author is clear about the implications of this for current production operations in countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam:

…as advanced manufacturing expands, the need for armies of manual workers in Asian factories will surely diminish.

Which doesn’t mean Adidas will leave Asia – inconceivable, given that huge and expanding Asian middle class – but it does mean, that the current production facilities will be progressively superseded by this emerging production model and the dramatically increased capability for customer responsiveness it promises.

So then, what does this story about 3D printing (well, 3D printing plus digital technology more broadly) have to do with possible futures for higher education? Rather than making this a very long post, I’ll try make that case in a separate post in a couple of days.  Hold the Adidas story in your head, and mean time ask yourself whether you think any reasonable parallels can be drawn with at least some parts of contemporary higher education.