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Higher education sees rapid change

Facing an unprecedented expansion, Asian centres of higher education are looking for ways to diversify the opportunities for learning, concluded the Asia-Pacific Sub-regional Preparatory Conference for the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education held recently in Macao, China.

The Asia-Pacific zone is the largest of the Unesco regions, containing over three billion people, or 60 percent of the world's population. Its diverse geography, population, income and culture are reflected in the size and types of higher education institutions operating in the region.

However, demand for higher education is rising nearly everywhere, regardless of income or culture. Growing affluence in the region and the increasing numbers of 18- to 23-year-olds are fuel-ling this demand - with the exception of Australia, Korea and Japan, because of the low birth rates in those countries.

In China, recent growth in the numbers of higher education enrolments and institutions have been spectacular.

"The past decade has been a decade of higher education expansion in China. The gross enrolment ratio of higher education has increased from nine percent in 1998 to 23 percent in 2007. Total enrolment has risen from 6.23 million to 27 million during this period," Dr Libing Wang, a professor at Zhejiang University, said at the conference.

At present, there are many higher education institutions in Thailand, made up of public and private universities, institutions, colleges and community colleges. According to the country report presented at the conference, there are 146 higher education institutions and 19 community colleges under the jurisdiction of the Commission on Higher Education.

The institutions can be categorised according to their establishment legislations. There are 78 public higher education institutions, consisting of 13 autonomous universities, 15 traditional universities, 40 Rajabhat universities, nine Rajamangala Technology universities and one Pathumwan Institute of Technology.

There are 19 community colleges and 68 private higher education institutions, including 39 universities/institutions and 29 colleges. In addition to these are specialised higher education institutions under the jurisdiction of other ministries and which are not included in the report.

In the 2007 academic year, the number of students enrolled in Thailand's higher education institutions was 2,048,997, of which 1,765,409 were in public universities and 283,588 in private universities and colleges.

According to Thailand's country report, in the 2006 academic year, the number of graduates was 337,369. Of this figure, 285,941 completed their study from public universities and 51,428 from private universities and colleges.

According to Unesco Institute for Statistics, the higher education sector in Thailand has been growing steadily since the late 1980s. The gross enrolment rates (GER) of higher education institutions rose from 20 percent in 1985 to 46 percent in 2005.

It is projected that, due to the introduction of nine-year compulsory education and 12-year free basic education as a result of the 1999 National Education Act, the higher education sector will continue to expand.

The massive expansion of higher education in the region has brought about a differentiation among institutions. An increasing number of them have become specialists in different areas and amenities to cater to the needs and tastes of the diverse groups of students.

In Japan, government deregulation has given universities greater flexibility in offering new types of education. An example mentioned in Japan's country report is the increasing number of cross-border or IT (information technology)-driven higher education institutions.

Not only are there different types of higher education institutions, there are also different types of higher education providers, e.g., for-profit corporations, non-profit organisations and religious bodies.

Dr Chealy Chet, Cambodia's deputy secretary general of the Office of the Council of Ministers, told the conference, "The current [Cambodian government] policy is building toward increased private sector participation. It generally hopes that with private sector participation, market forces can generate the expansion and can be more responsive to demand."

The conference report concluded that during the last decade, Asian countries have met the ever-increasing demand for higher education.

Furthermore, considering that higher education is often cited as a potential contributor to the reduction of poverty, inequality and other broader social ills, Asian higher education has to deal with the issue of managing the expansion of higher education systems while preserving equity, raising quality and controlling costs.

These challenges and lessons from the Asia-Pacific region will be tabled for discussion at the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, to be held in July in Paris, France.

Materials from the Macao conference are available at the webpage of the Conference.

HYE-RIM KIM - for the Bangkok Post

Hye-Rim Kim is an associate expert in higher education working in the Asia-Pacific Programme of Educational Innovation for Development Unit at Unesco's Bangkok office. Contact her at

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