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Asian Universities: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges

reviewed by David Pang - 2005

coverTitle: Asian Universities: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges
Author(s): Philip G. Altbach and Toru Umaskoshi
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801880378, Pages: 377, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

Asian Universities: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges is “an expansion and an update” of an earlier effort in 1989 by researchers from around Asia to study and think about Asian higher education (p. 7). Its aim is to “highlight the realities of contemporary higher education in the Asian context” (p. 10). The volume’s editors, Philip Altbach and Toru Umakoshi, are professors of higher education in the United States and Japan, respectively. The chapter authors are Asian academics or practitioners with substantial in-country experience and insider knowledge about higher education in Asia. Thus, the book represents a plurality of authentic voices and different perspectives, imparting a strong indigenous flavor to the contents.

The “mosaic of Asian realities” provides the organizing principle for the book (p. 9). The editors caution readers that this is “not a reference book” (p. 9), preempting any rising of hopes and expectations among readers of finding the book filled with easy generalizations about Asian universities, especially given that the term “Asia” is such an amorphous one. Also, the editors intend the volume to offer “a detailed comparative study of the emergence of the modern university in Asia” and explore “similarities and differences among the different systems” (back cover). But the authors of the individual case studies authors appear not to have written their chapters with these editorial objectives in mind or with any eye to encouraging comparative reading as strongly as the editors’ stated intentions might have led one to expect. Their chapters simply stand alone.

As occasionally occurs in multi-author volumes, the editors’ introduction is rather brief (two pages), given that there are 11 case studies in the book’s 377 pages. I would have liked, for example, a preview of each chapter highlighting the major themes and drawing readers’ attention to the great diversity of issues and the emerging trajectories of Asian universities. (Alternatively, the editors could have written short introductions to each of parts II–VI.)

Beyond the introduction, the book is a compilation of 13 chapters arranged thematically into six parts. Part I consists of two chapters by the editors. Altbach’s chapter, “The Past and Future of Asian Universities,” provides a cogent panoramic assessment of the “potentials and the challenges” (p. 14) of Asian universities. However, given the tasks the book sets for itself, the chapter should also have provided some theoretical grounding as to how comparative education has helped us understand Asian universities and how writing about and researching higher education in Asia can contribute to the advancement of the field. Umakoshi’s chapter, “Private Higher Education in Asia,” is a topical chapter and appears to be connected only distantly with book’s focus of providing a comparative country-specific study. Although the chapter is ably crafted, a brief explanation of the rationale behind singling out private higher education, and not other equally important themes, for special single-chapter treatment would have enhanced its place in the book.

Parts II–VI present case studies. Part II—“Asian Giants” includes a chapter each on China and India. The three chapters in part III—“Economic Prosperity and Academic Development” are devoted to Japan, Korea, and Singapore, respectively. Part IV—“Middle-Income Countries and Higher Education Investment” gives a chapter each to Thailand and Malaysia. Two chapters, one each on Indonesia and the Philippines, constitute part V—“Development in the Context of Massification.” Part VI—“Building Universities in Low Per Capita Income Countries” offers two chapters covering Vietnam and Cambodia, respectively. The chapter authors follow a set framework and address the historical perspectives, issues and realities, and trends and challenges of higher education in the Asian country they are portraying. This structural sequence gives the chapters (and the book) a coherent feel.

The 13 chapters are informative and worthy of perusal. An interesting feature is the inclusion of less-talked-about countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam. The chapters succinctly demonstrate that Asian universities operate in a complex domestic, regional, and international context and that the development of higher education in the region is uneven. Broadly speaking, universities in more mature economies such as China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore are inclined to focus on macro issues like internationalization, world class status, research capacity, innovation, and change. Paramount concerns in less developed economies like Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia, on the other hand, tend to arise from the need to address fundamental issues such as infrastructure, massification, finance, curriculum, faculty, and quality assurance.

Though diverse in content, the case study chapters share some recurring themes. That the West is the basis for the policy and organizational models for Asian universities comes through very strongly in all the chapters. Either these models were imposed on the universities as part of a colonial system of higher education or they were voluntarily adopted, along with Western educational practices, by noncolonized countries such as Japan, Thailand, and China. As some countries have found out, the wholesale copying of a foreign system of higher education does not always ensure a satisfactory outcome. For example, Lee describes the Korean experience: “One mistake Korea may have made in the course of developing its higher education was in treating the American system as a compelling example, rather than as a source of data” (p. 171). In the same vein, Altbach challenges Asian policymakers and educationists to “examine the experience of other Asian countries rather than always looking toward the West for answers to pressing questions of higher education development” (p. 27). But as the chapters show, this does not signal a retreat from engaging and learning from the West. In reality, a hybrid system of higher education is already emerging in Asia in which “importing” the best practices from around the world, making them more relevant to the Asian context, and adapting them to local needs has attracted considerable attention in educational reform and innovation. In particular, Singapore’s attempt to become the “Boston of the East” (p. 185) and Malaysia’s ambition to be a regional educational hub (p. 243) are excellent examples of the creation of a new synergy between the East and the West. The transformation of Asian countries from recipients of educational aid from the West to partners with the West, however, is not without its concerns. Most chapter authors focus special attention on the trade-offs between and tensions inherent in globalizing standards and knowledge, fostering social cohesion, and preserving national identity. Min’s description of China’s dilemma—“How to become an integral part of the international higher education community and at the same time keep their own cultural identity will also be a challenge for Chinese universities in the years to come” (p. 82)—is probably representative of this concern.

As one of the book’s central themes is contemporary challenges, I opened it expecting to read an analysis of the Asian economic crisis in 1997–1999, which has been described elsewhere as the foremost event hanging over Asia in the past few years, and the impact it has had on higher education in the region. Sinlarat pointedly asks, “How could the [Asian financial] crisis occur in Thailand when it has so many leading universities that offer courses in business administration and international business and faculties of business administration that offer master of business administration courses?” (p. 214). This same question could be asked of any of the case study countries. However, despite Altbach’s reference, early in the volume, to the Asian economic miracle (pp. 19–22), and even though the relationship between education and economic development is identified by every author in the book as essential to universities’ missions, the volume misses altogether the opportunity to examine the significance and implications of the economic crisis for Asian universities. In a 2004 edition of a book entitled Asian Universities, this represents a valuable opportunity that has been missed to contribute to a critical understanding of the issues, realities, trends, and challenges confronting Asian universities.

Regardless of the criticisms I have offered, the editors and authors of Asian Universities deserve great credit for producing a volume consisting of first-hand, in-depth observations rather than recycled articles already published elsewhere. The book will interest policymakers and scholars, as well as tertiary students in comparative and international education and related fields. The straightforward and descriptive style of writing will also make it attractive for general readers who wish to gain a quick overview of Asian universities. As this book, again like some other edited books, has no concluding chapter, the foundation of comparative analysis and synthesis is there for serious readers to build upon. And the volume’s ample material and references can provide useful pointers for such an intellectual quest.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2479-2483
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11833, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:10:26 PM

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About the Author
  • David Pang
    Independent Researcher
    E-mail Author
    DAVID PANG is an independent researcher. His current interests centre around comparative and international education with a special focus on education in Asia, Asian studies in Western educational systems, immigration and education, and international (export) education. He has lived and worked in Malaysia and Brunei as an educationist for many years. He holds a PhD degree in education from the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
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