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Time of Ferment

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Indeed they are. Asia's universities are in ferment. Governments are pressuring them to raise more money - without increasing tuition fees. They are pushing institutions to ride the globalization wave by recruiting foreign teachers and admitting foreign students. They want to reform the "exam hell" of the all-or-nothing university admission system. And even without government prompting, schools are mulling strategies for the Internet. Some universities, particularly in Australia, already teach classes partly through the web. Coming up: entire degree programs delivered over the new medium. How these trends will affect the quality of Asian higher education is still being debated.

Eventually, we expect the changes to be reflected in our annual best universities survey. For now, the same names continue to dominate the top places (see page 44). Japan's Kyoto University and Tohoku University take the top two slots - but Kyoto now ranks first in the multi-disciplinary list. KAIST retains its No. 1 ranking among science and technology schools. Taiwan University, No. 5 in the multi-disciplinary list in 1999, falls to No. 12 this year, in part because we had to use data from last year's questionnaire. The school, along with others from Taiwan except Sun Yat-sen University and Fu Jen Catholic University, stopped responding to requests from all "commercial institutions" undertaking surveys, including all publications.

The Asiaweek rankings reflect "truly valuable and trustworthy research done with profound investigation and solid critical analysis," Taiwan University president Chen Wei-jao wrote us on behalf of Taiwan's Association of National Universities and Colleges. "However, the universities and academies in Taiwan have the general conviction that we are entitled to develop individually and autonomously according to our different historical backgrounds." As in 1999, University of Tokyo did not participate, along with Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. But seven new multi-disciplinary universities and three technology schools joined. Among them: China's Tianjin University and Xi'an Jiaotong University. They are also ranked in the China-only survey by Internet education portal on page 51.

We again split the list into two to avoid comparing apples and oranges - multi-disciplinary universities have a broad focus while science and technology schools are more specialized. To ensure comparability, all financial numbers are converted into PPP dollars, which take into account purchasing-power parity from one country to another. Twenty percent of the overall score comes from subjective ratings of a university's academic reputation. Each university was asked to rate its peers on a scale of 1 to 5. This year, we also asked top foreign schools and Asian corporations to give academic-reputation ratings. The remaining 80% is allocated to quality of students (25 points), quality of teachers (25 points), research (20 points) and resources (10 points).

Last year, the number of teachers and researchers with PhD degrees accounted for 2 points of the 25 points under quality of teachers. For multi-disciplinary universities this year, we raised the PhD weighting to 5 points. We trimmed the allocation for the number of graduate-degree holders (both master's and PhDs) to 8 points from 13 points in 1999. The reallocation helped several universities that aggressively recruited PhDs shoot up the chart. Among them: City University of Hong Kong, which moved up to No. 27 from No. 50 last year, and Korea's Chonnam National University (No. 34 from No. 48), Kyungpook National University (No. 35 from No. 53) and Kyung Hee University (No. 36 from No. 55).

The reallocation, however, pulled down other schools. All of the University of Malaya's fulltime teachers and researchers have graduate degrees - but only 26% have doctorates. Seven of 10 fulltime faculty at the University of the Philippines (U.P.) have master's degrees. Only 28% of them also have a PhD. Compare this with City University, which says more than 80% of its fulltime teachers and researchers hold a doctorate. Money talks here. Korean universities have been getting extra government aid to help them recruit qualified staff. U.P.'s budget was recently slashed by $2.8 million. The chairman of the Philippine Senate's finance committee insisted on the cut because he says the state university caters more to the rich than to the poor.

This has always been a problem in many Asian countries. Politicians and bureaucrats decide how much money state universities get (and how much they and private schools can charge their students). Even if given funds by private sources, government schools cannot raise salaries because their staff are state employees who must be paid according to the state standardization law. "We're campaigning to get out of this," says U.P. president Francisco Nemenzo. "If salaries are low, it is unlikely that you get good faculty members." As civil servants, U.P. teachers also need government approval to travel abroad. (Salaries and other allowances account for seven points in the Asiaweek survey. Papers presented at international conferences account for four points.)

Some state schools are getting out of the trap. All of Malaysia's 12 state universities have been corporatized. They now enjoy autonomy over most of their financial and academic affairs. But the government still controls decisions on staff salaries and tuition fees. "We wanted to give the staff a salary increase of about 17.5%," says Hassan Said, director of the Department of Higher Education. "But Malaysia was hit by the economic crisis. We are now putting together another paper for the government to review because our economy is getting better."

That is why many of the hoped-for results of corporatization have yet to materialize. "We don't see much difference except longer hours and a heavier workload," says physics professor Rosli Mahat, head of the University of Malaya's academic staff union. "The number of students has increased without a corresponding rise in the number of lecturers. There has been about a 50% increase in teaching load. Before, I worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and half-day on Saturday. Now I work until 11 at night and also on Sundays." The extended hours leave little time for research (which accounts for 20 points in the Asiaweek survey) or for corporate consultancies, now allowed under corporatization.

Thailand's corporatization scheme is more comprehensive. The government is willing to grant complete autonomy even on faculty salaries and tuition fees. "Without autonomy, universities will be ineffective," says Minister of University Affairs Prachuab Chaiyasarn. "How can you have freedom under bureaucracy?" Under the government's proposals, the 24 state universities will get an annual lump sum bigger than what they currently receive. The schools can spend the money as they please, although a yearly accounting is required. After a certain period, the government's contribution will be reduced and the universities will be on their own.

Everyone is watching KMUTT, the first Thai school to be corporatized. Some professors there can now be fired, something very difficult to do when all KMUTT academics were government officials. "Everyone has the option to remain a civil servant or to move over to the new scheme," says Djitt. Three of ten KMUTT personnel, including Djitt, have chosen to get higher pay by giving up their state-employee status. As a government official, a newly minted PhD in KMUTT is paid $315 a month. A corporatized teacher with the same rank will get 1.6 times more - $504 - plus an extra $210 if he or she has brought in research grants. Among the objectives of Thai corporatization are the development of research capabilities and closer ties between academe and industry.

Existing KMUTT staff (but not new hires) can remain civil servants until they retire. Their promotion prospects will be limited and they are ineligible for management posts like a deanship or the university's presidency. But they need not join the tremendous effort to make the school financially self-supporting. KMUTT expects revenue streams from an industrial park it is building with a $10.2-million grant from government and private sector. It projects income from training courses conducted for corporations and adult learners, and fund-raising help from the Suksapattana Foundation, a group of high-powered KMUTT alumni and friends in government and industry.

Will other Thai universities follow? "We are strongly against legislation that will force us to lose our [current] status in four years," says Sompong Chitradab of Chulalongkorn University's faculty of education. "We will decide our own future." Education officials say the corporatization plan is voluntary. Other universities are more open-minded. "Autonomy is the only way because the government system is so bureaucratic it can take two years to make a purchasing decision," says Prinya Chindraprasirt, president of Khon Kaen University. Adds Choti Theetranont, president of Chiang Mai University: "The system has been like this for 70 to 80 years and has to be changed."

Indonesia is also considering granting state schools a measure of independence so they can find their own funding sources. Already, the tentative proposal is raising hackles. "I worry that farmers' children may no longer be able to study at the Bandung Institute of Technology because of high tuition," says student leader Sigit Adi Prasetyo. Fees are an issue everywhere. In India, a student in a post-graduate program at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) pays only 20 rupees - less than $0.50 - a month on tuition. For another 20 rupees, he gets to live in a university hostel, perhaps the cheapest way to live in Delhi. The fee structure is the legacy of 45 years of socialism. Attempts to change it have met strong protests.

Even affluent Hong Kong is not immune. State-funded universities there are supposed to charge just 18% of the cost of education. It now appears that students paid more in 1998 and 1999 because deflation had pushed down actual costs. The financial projection made before the Asian Crisis in 1997 was not revised. The controversy erupted just as the Education Commission proposed changing the admission system and extending by a year current three-year undergraduate programs. "The university system clearly needs to be reformed," says Wong Siu-lun, pro vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Hong Kong. "But to think we will be able to carry out these reforms without extra money from the government is impossible."

Increasing tuition fees, even if politically feasible, cannot help much. The amounts needed for additional classrooms and other facilities - the student population could rise by a third - are far too large. The government will probably raise subsidies. But going forward, Hong Kong's universities will come under pressure to find other funding sources. The University of Hong Kong already has a foundation that helps it raise money. "We've also tried to create incubation centers that nurture the relationship between the university and industry," says Wong. "We think there could be profits in something like Chinese medicine, but we won't see that for a while."

Don't forget the Internet. A number of universities are already offering for-profit programs on the web (see story page 52). The Global University Alliance estimates the market for online and distance education services in Asia at more than $5 billion - and growing 25% annually. Two weeks ago, five schools belonging to the 17-member ASEAN University Network (among them the National University of Singapore and the University of Malaya) designated Manila's private De La Salle University as lead school in an online master's degree program on ASEAN studies. "This is a common area of interest where we feel we have expertise among members," says De La Salle president Rolando Dizon.

Converting traditional learning materials into web-based courses does not have to be expensive. The Global University Alliance is using the software and servers of education-infrastructure company NextEd. "It is certainly cheaper for a university to come to us rather than develop its own platform," says NextEd general manager Steve Koon in Hong Kong. The company offers several payment options, including sharing online revenues. Of course, the university must have an Internet backbone. But almost every school in Asia is rapidly getting wired, even those in poorer countries like the University of Dhaka and U.P., which is getting help from America's Cisco Systems.

But all these changes are raising fears about the quality of instruction. In most of Asia, distance education, whether through the mail, cable TV or the Net, is still seen as inferior to face-to-face learning. Worries about the "commoditization" of diplomas are surfacing. The idea of academics embarking on money-grubbing activities also alarms traditionalists, who say the new emphasis on research could adversely affect teaching. There are worries about the fate of less commercial disciplines. At the U.P., anthropology and linguistics attract few students. "But they are necessary for the country," says Nemenzo. "We are a nation with many languages, so linguistics is something we have to undertake especially at the graduate level."

Private schools are fretting about stiffer competition for private-sector funding. Non-profit universities focus on niche areas and stress community service. "Our mission emphasizes both academic excellence and service," says Jesuit priest Bienvenido Nebres, president of Ateneo de Manila University. Not that state universities could get going immediately. India started cutting grants to its state schools ten years ago. "We're still trying to find out how we can tap the private sector," says JNU vice chancellor Asis Datta. Many Indian universities are hard-pressed to continue subscriptions to academic journals and supplying their labs with chemicals. Science and technology schools are faring better. The Indian Institute of Technology Bombay has raised more than $20 million from computer and other firms run by its graduates.

Australian universities are well along the road to autonomy and self-sufficiency. But they still find it a struggle to raise money. "Is it any wonder that staff-student ratios have skyrocketed, with the consequent denial of research time?" asks John Niland, vice chancellor of the University of New South Wales. One solution: more fee-paying foreign students. Nearly 13% of university students in Australia are non-citizens. "But the maintenance of the high quality of student experience is still paramount," says University of Melbourne vice chancellor Alan Gilbert.

Whatever the doubts, though, reform is unlikely to be rolled back. Japan's University Council, composed of university presidents and business people, has bowed to the inevitable and now recommends recognition of course credits and degrees awarded by overseas Internet universities. It also endorses the Ministry of Education's proposal to overhaul the admission system. South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand are considering similar changes. Australia is also moving on this front. The University of Western Australia, for example, now tests medical-school applicants for motivation, communication skills and the ability to work in groups and help others.

Even countries that are increasing, not cutting, subsidies are bent on change. Despite some local protests, the National University of Singapore is admitting more foreigners - the target is 20% of all students. The objective is to deepen the country's talent pool and expose locals to new ideas. Korea is spending an additional $200 million a year so selected universities can hire more foreign teachers and researchers, and send students abroad. Where will these trends bring us? With luck, to a higher level of academic excellence. And Asiaweek will be there to chart that progress among Asia's best universities.

With reporting by Ian Jarrett/Perth, Maria Cheng/Hong Kong, Sanjay Kapoor/New Delhi, Arif Mustolih/Jakarta, Murakami Mutsuko/Tokyo, Laxmi Nakarmi/Seoul, Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur, Raissa Espinosa-Robles/Manila, Joseph Dawes/Singapore and Julian Gearing/Bangkok


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