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Higher education in East Asia and Singapore: rise of the Confucian Model

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The paper reviews Asia–Pacific higher education and university research, focusing principally on the “Confucian” education nations Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong China, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam. Except for Vietnam, these systems exhibit a special developmental dynamism—still playing out everywhere except Japan—and have created a distinctive model of higher education more effective in some respects than systems in North America, the English-speaking world and Europe where the modern university was incubated. The Confucian Model rests on four interdependent elements: (1) strong nation-state shaping of structures, funding and priorities; (2) a tendency to universal tertiary participation, partly financed by growing levels of household funding of tuition, sustained by a private duty, grounded in Confucian values, to invest in education; (3) “one chance” national examinations that mediate social competition and university hierarchy and focus family commitments to education; (4) accelerated public investment in research and “world-class’ universities. The Model has downsides for social equity in participation, and in the potential for state interference in executive autonomy and academic creativity. But together with economic growth amid low tax regimes, the Confucian Model enables these systems to move forward rapidly and simultaneously in relation to each and all of mass tertiary participation, university quality, and research quantity and quality.

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  1. Includes social sciences.

  2. The annual rankings by the Times Higher Education and QS marketing use composite indexes that cover a range of criteria, of which research is only one. Composite rankings can be criticized on grounds of validity; and these rankings are prone to sharp annual rises and falls that appear unrelated to institutional performance (Marginson 2010b).

  3. “Asia–Pacific” as defined in the Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking includes West Asia, and also Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands.

  4. The World Bank does not list literacy data for the most developed nations.

  5. Neo-Confucianism, which entered Japan in the twelfth century AD, was deployed as part of official state ideology during the Edo/Tokugawa period of 1603–1867. See Marginson (2010a, b).

  6. In the case of China the figure includes provincial government (ADB 2010).

  7. The Carnegie survey of the academic profession found that whereas more than 90% of scholars from other nations believed that it was necessary to read foreign books and journals, only 62% of American scholars agreed (Altbach 2005, pp. 148–149). “American academics do not often cite works by scholars in other countries in their research. The American research system is remarkably insular, especially when compared to scientific communities in other countries… The American system accepts scholars and scientists from abroad, but only if they conform to American academic and scientific norms” (Altbach 2005, p. 149).

  8. A further question arising from the present analysis is that of the scope for regional development in higher education and research in the Asia–Pacific, in the Confucian zone or on a broader basis. Is their potential for an Asian Bologna in higher education? There are four necessary conditions for successful regionalization in higher education and research. First, the parties must be at a threshold level of economic and educational development, or they make unattractive partners. The second condition is geographical proximity. The third is sufficient cultural commonality or coherence. The fourth and most important condition is the sustained political will to establish regional forms. These conditions are not present across the whole of South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Western Pacific. There is already regional organization in Southeast Asia. But ASEAN is inhibited by under-development, weak states and lack of political will. It is marginal to national polities in Southeast Asia.

    On the face of it the most promising potential for regionalization is in the Confucian zone. This is suggested by student mobility, driven by linguistic and cultural commonality between the Confucian nations that use Chinese script: China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. In each country a major source of international students are other parts of East Asia, constituting “a certain de facto integration” (Kuroda 2009). In Japan in 2009, of 1,33,000 international students, 60% were from China, 15% from South Korea and 4% from Taiwan (JSSO 2010). Japan plans to more than double the international student intake to 3,00,000 per year. Taiwan has decided to accept international students from mainland China (Tien 2009; Roberts et al. 2010). Of the smaller number of internationals in Korea most are from China (Sugimura 2009, p. 13). Likewise the largest source countries for China are South Korea and Japan (Verbik and Lasanowski 2007). China plans to more than double international students to about 5,00,000 (Sharam 2010). Japan, China and Korea are discussing the potential for streamlined arrangements for mutual recognition and accreditation (Daily Yomiuri Online 2010) which hints at the potential for an East Asian Erasmus style scheme for student mobility.

    Research is the most important domain of global collaboration in higher education. In 2008 two-thirds of all citations were international citations (NSB 2010). The National Science Board maps global patterns of collaboration. In these data a value greater than 1.00 indicates a rate of nation to nation collaboration higher than expected on an average basis, given the two nations’ overall rate of collaboration. The NSB finds that researcher-scholars in China collaborate especially strongly with counterparts in Singapore and Taiwan, and above average with Japan and South Korea. Researchers from Taiwan collaborate strongly in Singapore and Japan and above average in South Korea. South Koreans have very strong links in Japan. Interestingly, researchers in India have intensive collaboration with researchers in South Korea and Taiwan (especially) and also in Singapore and Japan. Australians have intensive collaboration in Singapore and above average collaboration in China (NSB 2010). These data suggest a broad potential for regionalization in research, perhaps through formation of an Asian Research Area or Asia–Pacific Research Area to parallel the European Research Area.

    However, the constraint on East Asian regionalization is the absence of nation-state political will. The legacies of the 1930s and 1940s have not been overcome. There is a formidable lack of trust between Japan and China and endemic rivalry over primacy in Northeast Asia (Wesley 2007). Neither country wants to discuss regionalization on an equal footing in neutral forums. If governments are unable to advance regionalization in higher education and research, leading research universities can move regionalization forward via personnel mobility and joint programs. This would test the scope for executive action and intellectual freedom in the Confucian systems.


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Correspondence to Simon Marginson.

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The article is a revised version of a keynote address to the international conference of the Higher Education Evaluation and Assessment Council of Taiwan, Taipei, 4 June 2010.

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Marginson, S. Higher education in East Asia and Singapore: rise of the Confucian Model. High Educ 61, 587–611 (2011).

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