The fourth industrial revolution presents unique challenges for ASEAN’s universities

Bangkok University Photo:UT

ASEAN’s universities are struggling to compete. But the same forces that are pushing them to the brink can pull them to safety.

Editorial

By the turn of the twentieth century, universities across Europe and the US were in trouble. Following the industrialization of the nineteenth century and the transition of Western economies from agricultural to industrial, higher education institutions were increasingly seen as out of step with labour demands. They failed to provide students with the skills required to thrive in a machine-driven economy.

The global higher education system was at a crossroads. It could persevere with the academic function of education or it could embrace a new function of social efficiency, preparing students for the industrial world that was shaping society.

The academic foundations that had underpinned both secondary and tertiary education throughout the nineteenth century would be torn down between 1890 and 1920. The structure that replaced it sought to better bridge the gap between academia and practical application. Employment opportunities and preparation for the working world became more significant. The role of schooling and higher education moved away from academia for academia’s sake and provided students with the skills they would need to succeed in a job.

ASEAN’s universities are struggling to compete

The challenges that plagued European and American universities at the turn of the twentieth century are creeping into the Southeast Asian higher education landscape more than a century later.

Technological advances have drastically altered employers’ needs. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are transforming industries. Even manual positions now require basic computer literacy skills.

Universities have been slow to adapt. They are not producing graduates equipped to meet the tech demands of the modern workforce. 93% of IT leaders in Singapore are concerned by the shortage of available IT talent.

To ensure candidates have the necessary skills, tech firms are bypassing universities altogether. Microsoft and Linux have developed their own courses to teach candidates the skills that will land them a job at Facebook, Google and Amazon. Tech giants are increasingly looking for candidates that hold industry-specific qualifications rather than generic computer science degrees from universities due to the waning relevance of the content on university courses.

Alongside the assault on higher education from the tech industry, universities in the region have to contend with aging populations and increased competition from abroad. Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese and Chinese universities have targeted ASEAN’s student pool in an attempt to expand their markets.

Generous scholarships from Chinese universities, awarded to ASEAN students under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), are drawing ASEAN’s students north for their higher education.

There is also a reduced pool of students to attract. Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Brunei all have fertility rates below the global average. By 2050, 38% of Singapore’s population will be over 60, up from 13.5% in 2007. Vietnam (25.5% up from 7.4%) and Thailand (27.8% up from 11%) are not far behind.

This demographic shift is contributing to falling university enrollment rates across many of ASEAN’s higher education institutions. Universities have to adapt and reform their business models, or many will be forced to close their doors in the coming years.

The fourth industrial revolution holds the key to survival

The same disruptive forces that threaten ASEAN’s universities can hold the key to their survival, but only if they are willing to adapt.

Around one-fifth of jobs could undergo displacement from technology by 2028. As AI and machine learning becomes ubiquitous, there will be plenty of educational opportunities upskilling the existing workforce.

Pipop Udorn, dean of the Faculty of Commerce and Accountancy at Thammasat University in Thailand, said: “Universities will have to expand their customer base, be more flexible and focus on more than just attracting secondary graduates.”

They must be willing to broaden their mission to include re-learning as well as first learning. As universities did a century ago, institutions have to reevaluate the ways they can better prepare candidates for the modern workforce. This will mean reforming both the content and the delivery of courses.

Flexibility will be critical

In order to design courses with relevant content, universities will need to deepen cooperation with industry players. By bringing university courses in line with industry demands and creating qualifications with the employers’ needs in mind, universities can make inroads to fill the void of regional IT talent.

ASEAN’s universities will also have to modernise delivery approaches to expand their markets. In Singapore, a postgraduate student can study at Australia’s James Cook University or New York’s Columbia University through online graduate courses. Channelling efforts into expanding regional universities online offerings will be essential to avoid losing out to overseas competitors.

Columbia Univerity
Photo: Vitor Pamplona

Embracing remote learning opportunities will not only broaden universities’ reaches in international markets, it will also strengthen their regional presence. In countries like Vietnam, tertiary education enrolment is now lower than the country’s internet penetration rate. If universities can find a way to provide affordable higher education courses online, they can tap into a rapidly expanding regional market.

Finally, regional universities will need to embrace English to stay relevant in an increasingly globalized world. Outside of Singapore and Malaysia, universities use their national language as the language of instruction, making them less desirable for international students who see the language barrier as an obstacle.

Changing the language of instruction overnight is not the solution. Many local students would find themselves unable to fully benefit from their nation’s universities. However, dual language education programs would unlock international markets, while preserving the local market.

It won’t be enough to save them all

Like the Western universities of the early 1900s, ASEAN’s universities stand at a perilous crossroads. The disruptive powers of the fourth industrial revolution have arrived at the gates of higher education and universities, like players in other industries, will have to adapt or fail.

Universities cannot afford to be complacent. They must meet the challenge head-on and leverage the same disruptive technologies that threaten their survival to reach new consumers and markets. It is unlikely that all the region’s universities will survive the transition. But for those that can reform, new technologies will supply a steady stream of workers in need of the latest skills to thrive in the workplace and they will be ready to meet them.