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Consultation Meeting on The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Higher Education in Asia and the Pacific


22-23 October 2009, Bangkok, Thailand

The world has experienced many economic crises over the past 80 years, from the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression in the 1930s, the oil crisis in the 1970s, the stock market crash in the 1980s, the burst at the beginning of the 21st century to the current financial meltdown triggered by the housing market bubble burst in the United States. The debacle of large financial institutions in the United States – Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch – has led to fears of a worldwide and prolonged recession, thus prompting governments across the globe to approve massive national fiscal stimulus packages.

The priorities of most governments seem to be safeguarding the banking and financial systems, providing tax cuts to businesses, increasing expenditures for infrastructure and creating jobs, while measures for social sectors, such as education, take a backseat.

Although the rhetoric supports the importance of education in contributing to national wealth, education spending is seen by many policy makers as consumption. It is a customary target for budget cuts in national spending and in aid to education when confronted by a financial crunch, as supported by evidence from past crises. Such actions are likely to lead to a setback in economic competitiveness when the crises are over. Countries which are able to keep their population educated and trained in times of trouble will emerge stronger and better equipped to meet future crisis.

Will it be any different this time around? How much of the stimulus packages will be invested in education?

“Protecting education – and protecting the most vulnerable – is part of the answer to the current crisis,” so noted Mr. Koïchiro Mastuura, the Director-General of UNESCO.

Several reports examining the impact of and responses to this crisis have been published by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Labour Organization and others. However, they do not provide an in-depth analysis of the impact of the crisis on education per se. Recent reports have indicated positive signs of recovery. Yet, there are economists who believe the worst is not yet over.

Regardless of the outcome, crises seem to be increasing in frequency in the past twenty years. It is therefore critical for us to learn from the past to prepare for the future. This is particularly important given the headway that has been made to meet the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All goals.

The trend towards a knowledge-based economy has placed great importance on the role of universities as repositories of valuable human capital for economic growth. Enrolment in tertiary education has increased worldwide by 50 percent since 2000. The Asia-Pacific region has witnessed a rise from 22 million students in 1999 to 44 million in 2006. Still, this represents only a participation rate of 25 percent when 40-50 percent participation rates are considered vital for economic growth.

To address these issues, UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Office for Education organized a consultation meeting to discuss a research study on the impact of the economic crisis on higher education in the Asia and Pacific region.

More specifically, the objectives of the meeting were to:

  • Establish a network of Education Research Institutes in the Asia-Pacific region;
  • Design a research study on the impact of the economic crisis on higher education;
  • Develop a research framework to analyze major issues, examine emerging policies and responses to crises, investigate their impact on educational and economic outcomes, identify key indicators to monitor impact, and suggest recommendations and action plans;
  • Prepare a workplan, expected output, schedule and budget for the study; and
  • Identify researchers to conduct the study.

Experts from research institutions in Australia, China-Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam had been invited to attend this meeting. Their participation helped to foment a network of education research institutes in the region to enhance the exchange of experiences and information among researchers on higher education. The participants had been instrumental in helping to develop the research framework, using their expertise in posing and refining crucial research questions to guide the study.

Meeting documents: