Monday, October 11, 2010

The Rise of Asia’s Universities by Richard C. Levin

The subject of this article, "The Rise of Asia’s Universities," is the Asian thrust to create universities on a par with the best in the world. In the process, the author details what it is that makes the U.S. universities as successful as they are. After an endless stream of articles criticizing K-12 and undergraduate education in the U.S., it was comforting to hear something positive. The author, Richard C. Levin, is President of Yale University. This article appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of “Foreign Affairs.”

Levin has a lofty description of what a great university contributes to society.
“ universities are the ideal place to educate students for careers in science, industry, government, and civil society—creating people who have the intellectual breadth and critical-thinking skills to solve problems, to innovate, and to lead.”
However, the bottom line seems to be—the bottom line.
“Having made tremendous progress in expanding access to higher education, the leading countries of Asia are now focused on an even more challenging goal: building universities that can compete with the finest in the world. The governments of China, India, Singapore, and South Korea are explicitly seeking to elevate some of their universities to this exalted status because they recognize the important role that university-based scientific research has played in driving economic growth in the United States, western Europe, and Japan.”
This process is neither quick nor cheap.
“Most of all, building universities capable of world-class research means attracting scholars of the highest quality. In the sciences, this requires first-class facilities, adequate funding, and competitive salaries and benefits.”
If this research is to take place it requires an enlightened federal contribution. Since research is often a long and arduous journey with no guarantee of success, industry has little incentive to invest in other than short-term projects and directly applicable R&D. The author attributes the determination and definition of the federal role to a report Vannevar Bush produced for Harry Truman.
“Bush's 1945 report established the framework for U.S. government support for scientific research. It was founded on three principles, which still govern today. First, the federal government bears the primary responsibility for funding basic science. Second, universities—rather than government-run laboratories, nonteaching research institutions, or private companies—are the primary institutions responsible for carrying out this government-funded research. Third, although the government determines the total amount of funding available for different scientific fields, specific projects and programs are assessed not on political or commercial grounds but through an intensely competitive process of peer review, in which independent experts judge proposals on their scientific merit alone.”
The author describes Japan as the Asian pioneer in the upgrading of national education systems. Japan followed the development path that is common to most Asian countries: moving from agriculture to low-skilled manufacturing and then on to high-skilled manufacturing. To make that transition they needed an educated work force. Their goal then was to attain universal literacy and then make the equivalent of a college-level education widely available. Japan grew faster than the U.S. while these transitions were taking place but then growth slowed and began to lag that of the U.S. The author provides this explanation.
“It was innovation based on science that propelled the United States past Japan during the two decades prior to the crash of 2008. It was Japan's failure to innovate that caused it to lag behind.”
The author says that Japan and the other Asian countries have learned from this experience and are planning to address it by creating the equivalent of the great universities of the U.S. and Europe. Major cultural changes will be required in order to accomplish that goal. Traditional Asian education has not been focused on developing what we might call a good liberal arts background, nor has it encouraged independent critical thinking.
“Asian universities.... have traditionally been highly specialized. Students pick a discipline or a profession at age 18 and study little else thereafter. And unlike in elite European and U.S. universities, pedagogy in China, Japan, and South Korea relies heavily on rote learning; students are passive listeners, and they rarely challenge one another or their professors in classes. Learning focuses on the mastery of content, not on the development of the capacity for independent and critical thinking....The traditional Asian approaches to curricula and pedagogy may work well for training line engineers and midlevel government officials, but they are less suited to fostering leadership and innovation.”
Levin believes the Asian countries must also change their approach to funding R&D.
“Historically, most scientific research there has taken place apart from universities, in research institutes and government laboratories. In China, Japan, and South Korea, funding has been directed primarily toward applied research and development (R & D), with a very small share devoted to basic science. In China, for instance, only about five percent of R & D spending is aimed at basic research, compared with 10-30 percent in most developed countries. As a share of GDP, the United States spends seven times as much as China on basic research.”

“Moreover, peer review is barely used for grant funding in most of Asia. Japan has historically placed the bulk of its research resources in the hands of its most senior scientists. Despite Tokyo's acknowledging several years ago that a greater share of research funding should be subjected to peer review, only 14 percent of the Japanese government's spending on non-defense-related research in 2008 was subjected to competitive review, compared with 73 percent in the United States.”
The author sees the various countries taking action to correct these deficiencies, and making the required investments. He expects them to attain their goals, although he has some concern that China’s lack of freedom of expression may be inconsistent with the sought-after creativity and innovation. He also views India as lagging behind the other states and consequently it will require much longer for success.

Should we be worried about hordes of highly creative and innovative Asians pouring out of these universities and upending the world economy? Levin is not concerned. He coins the term “Mutually Assured Progression,” and suggests that the advances in knowledge that will come from this increased emphasis on pure research will benefit everyone. He compares the sharing of knowledge across national borders to the globalization of economies—a perhaps unfortunate analogy. Levin ends on this very positive note.
“Finally, increasing the quality of education around the world translates into better-informed and more productive citizens everywhere. The fate of the planet depends on humanity's ability to collaborate across borders to solve society's most pressing problems—the persistence of poverty, the prevalence of disease, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the shortage of fresh water, and the danger of global warming. Having better-educated citizens and leaders can only help.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged