Balancing access, quality in tertiary education

Last year, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called Thank You For 
Being Late examines how much the world has been transformed since the dawn of the new millennium but also reassures that it is possible for everyone to catch up in this “age of accelerations”.

At a panel discussion on Balancing Access and Quality in Tertiary Education held during the Asia Public Policy Forum 2017 in Sunway University, Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Dr Connie K. Chung quoted Friedman and proposed that one of the things students might need to learn at school is how to construct frameworks for seeing the world and how it works.

She suggested that seeing the world as being interconnected would enable them to understand how people and cultures in different contexts are being impacted.

Chung noted scholars as saying that we have moved from being an industrial society to being an information society.

“Simply teaching students how to earn a living is not enough as a goal for learning, it is now not enough to just be educated for employment,” she said.

“How and why we teach is more important than what we teach.

“The purpose of education has moved towards that of understanding the forces that are shaping our world, like technology, politics, globalisation and the environment.”

For that reason, said Chung, the definition of quality education needs to shift from doing well on tests and cognitive tasks to that of teaching how to value and practise individual and social well-being.

“We need to go beyond ‘cognitive’ knowing, to a cultivation of social and emotional competencies, along with values, creativity and innovation,” she said.

“Today’s students need flexibility and the ability to thrive and sustain themselves in diversity and change.”

She said that access and equity are critical components of quality, and having equal access to quality education does not mean equity is achieved across the board for all who qualify.

“It is not enough to just have goals; implementation must take place as well,” she said.

Chung also spoke about nurturing the seeds of wisdom that shape our character and resilience, beyond the quest of attaining knowledge.

“It is more important to have the ability to exercise empathy, thoughtfulness, restraint and to make good judgments.” she said.

Chung added that the 21st century skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity have been in existence since the dawn of man.

“In the past, these skills were reserved for the elites whereas today, they are needed by everyone,” she said.

“Instilling in students the value of thinking beyond the short term will give them the best chance to tackle some of the world’s most daunting challenges.

“Challenging students to imagine their country not five, 10 or 15 years down the road, but 30 years in the future, will help them to grasp the reverberations of their actions and decisions.”

Referring to Friedman’s book, Fulbright University Vietnam Corporation general director Dam Bich Thuy quipped: “We are lucky to be very late.”

Vietnam rejoined the world at the turn of the century, while the world was transforming at an accelerated pace so, although it was late to the party, catching up has not been too difficult, thanks to economic and political reforms.

Dam said that Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) is a way to make institutional change in the country. The private and independent non-profit university was 23 years in the making.

“We wanted autonomy so that we would have not only academic freedom but also the freedom to recruit, appoint staff, set fees, etc,” she said.

“These are the conditions needed to produce high-quality education. As reflected in our motto, we are not building a university, we are ‘reimagining university’.”

She said that good governance is of ultimate importance for quality education to thrive.

“You can throw money at a school but that comes second to reputation which is built through autonomy and academic freedom,” said Dam.

She added that FUV is dedicated to serving Vietnamese society and will enrol students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds as well as provide need-based financial assistance.

“In Vietnam, parents are willing to pay for anything that has quality. It is now up to us to convince parents that the concept of liberal arts is worth pursuing,” she said.

“From a liberal arts curriculum, we will be able to produce the kind of workforce that can change or adjust to change quickly.

“Our students will learn how to be all-round citizens and be ready for those jobs of the future that are yet to be invented.”

Rounding out the panel was Mokhamad Mahdum, director of the Indonesia Endowment Fund for Education (IEFE).

This public service unit under Indonesia’s Finance Ministry manages the national education development fund, which sponsors citizens from all regions and social classes for further studies.

Recipients get full backing from the government to earn post-graduate degrees from both local and overseas universities.

“We view quality education as one of the most important elements in developing a country,” said Mokhamad.

“Our funds are being used to help finance Indonesian students undertaking research projects as well.”

As the fund is partly invested in various financial instruments like government bonds, the investment returns will help the IEFE to maintain and sustain the fund. “More money means more to give to more people,” he said.

Mokhamad added that partnerships with foreign universities will also provide greater access to quality education for Indonesian students, who then would not need to go overseas.

One question from the floor was whether universities would become obsolete as information and knowledge can now be accessed via mobile apps like Google, Wikipedia and MOOCs.

Chung’s reply was that while apps can provide information and knowledge, there are no apps that teach students how to create value for themselves and others. “There is no app replacement for how universities can add value by enabling people to learn from one another and to lead and create opportunities for themselves and others,” she said.

The Asia Public Policy Forum, having grown in scope, scale and quality over the past five years, was being hosted in Malaysia for the first time. The two-day event, themed Improving Education Access and Quality in Asia, was co-hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School and the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

The six-panel sessions addressed the critical and complex education policy challenges for the region. Those who attended included a mix of senior central and subnational government officials, private sector and community-based leaders, as well as academics, researchers and public intellectuals mainly from Asean countries and those in East Asia.

Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah, founding trustee of the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation and founding Chancellor of Sunway University, said the forum complemented the Foundation’s mission in two ways, which was to provide world-class quality education in Malaysia and to democratise access to quality education.

Source – New Straits Times