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South Asian higher education and region’s socio-economic development

The immense power of knowledge to change societies’ fortune has motivated many countries to build “knowledge-based economies.” The South Asian (SA) policymakers now increasingly realise that building such economic systems require humans and dedicated investment in producing and updating quality human, intellectual and knowledge capital. This places the South Asian universities and higher education institutions (U&HEIs) at the center as one of the most important actors in the creation, functioning and sustaining of a knowledge-based economy. Here are five challenges that the South Asian U&HEIs confront while responding to the demand for contributing to the socioeconomic development of the region.

Challenge 1: Population – the SA region has the highest human concentration on earth. While making just 3% of the world’s total land area, South Asia is the home to nearly one-fourth of global population. The positive side of population problem is its age composition where nearly 30% (or 516 million) South Asians fall within the age group 0-14 years, 27.5% (or 504 million) within age group 10-24 years and in total nearly 46% (or 842 million) are under the age of 25 years. When looked demographically, the South Asian HE systems are too small (currently accommodating about 30 million students) to satisfy HE demands and socioeconomic needs of their respective economies. This implies speedy enhancement U&HEIs’ capacity to absorb hundreds of millions of new candidates not only in the fields that are required to build a knowledge-based economy but also in the fields which can help in building environmentally and socially responsible human societies.

Challenge 2: Low economic productivity – Although SA embodies some of the world’s fastest growing economies, its share in the global GDP is mere 4.1% and the region’s GDP per capita is only 17% of the world average. In 2018, the agriculture average contribution to the member countries’ GDP was 16.5%, to their total employment was 20%. None of the SA members stands among top 50 on global competitiveness index and among top 70 on global skill sub-index. Low productivity is largely an outcome of neoliberal reforms of the 1990s when the South Asian governments (excluding Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) held HE as a private and non-merit good and withdrew most of their budgetary supports. Consequently, the U&HEIs started charging hefty fees to students and effectively closed their doors to many who were ultimately absorbed by primary and low paying sectors. Thus, the second major challenge is how to make education accessible and affordable to all including marginalized and poor section of society amid the fiscal constraints that U&HEIs currently face.

Challenge 3: Focusing on local socioeconomic development – Neoliberal reforms facilitated not only the proliferation of private universities in the SA region (except Nepal and Sri Lanka) but converted almost all public universities in “entrepreneurial entities” whose survival depends on constant search of new funding avenues. Two obvious outcomes of such entrepreneurial engagement of private and public universities are obvious: (1) U&HEIs’ inclination for academic programmes and research activities with highest commercial potential; (2) lack of responsibility towards contributing to the socio-economic development of the nation as their top priority and strategic objective. The latter in particular is the third most important challenge confronted by the U&HEIs in the South Asia.

Challenge 4: Quest for quality – Ironically, none of the universities in the SA region figures among the top 250 universities in the world. Quality higher education is an extremely rare commodity in the SA region and such demand is generally satisfied through “invisible imports.” According to UNISCO’s statistics (UIS), Asian students (including from China) accounted for 92% of international outbound mobility for tertiary education in 2017. Asian quest for quality education contributed US$39 billion in the US economy besides supporting nearly half a million jobs. Higher education was also the 3rd largest export of Australia in 2017, contributing US$ 22 billion to its economy. Similarly, the UK’s economy earned US$ 25 billion from HE exports to Asia in 2016. Students from the SA region constitute more than 10% of the outbound student mobility in the world and spent billions of dollars on HE imports. The negligible inbound international mobility for higher education in SA implies a net trade deficit in HE. Thus, the third challenge for SA U&HEIs is to uplift the quality of their higher education delivery at par with the advanced countries.

Challenge 5: Nature of ongoing HE reforms – SA countries’ U&HEIs are urged to transform almost every aspect of their institutional existence and strategic latitude. The reforms in U&HEIs essentially mean neoliberal reforms such as: financial efficiency which mainly implies cutting down financial cost no matter at what actual social cost; curriculum changes leading to shifting towards marketable programs and disciplines; managerial restructuring resulting in introduction of new public management principles and corporate culture in public universities’ governance; and quality enhancement means academic limiting freedom in teaching and research priorities. This drive mean that the U&HEIs have to completely abandon their traditional value system that views higher education as a public and merit good, as a social investment, as a human right and a prestigious social mission. In such times, how realistically the SA regions U&HEIs may set the local and regional socioeconomic development as strategic objective of their academic and research activities.

South Asia must recognise common internal and external challenges confronted by U&HEIs. Therefore, there is a great potential value for academicians, higher education experts and leaders, researchers and policymakers to sit together to overcome these challenges. This requires south Asian cooperation and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) forum seems the most appropriate forum to start this dialogue.

Junaid Alam Memon, "South Asian higher education and region’s socio-economic development," Business recorder. 2021-09-26.
Keywords: Economics , Economic growth , Economic zones , Economic activity , Economic conditions , US Economy Economic , Policy , Nepal , Sri Lanka , IMF , UNISCO , SAARC , GDP

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