East Asia's Universities Need To Play Bigger Economic Role, Says World Bank

TOKYO—Universities in East Asia aren't giving their countries the economic boost they should because of educational and research shortcomings, concludes a report released today by the World Bank. In Putting Higher Education to Work: Skills and Research for Growth in East Asia, a team of bank experts says reforms and better funding could position universities and post-secondary vocational schools to improve economic productivity and competitiveness particularly in the developing countries of Southeast Asia, China, and Mongolia.

The problem stems from a number of what the report calls "disconnects." The most important is a mismatch between the advanced skills needed in the workforce and the training provided at universities and other post-secondary institutions. The team also found that university research was not contributing to the technological advancement of industry and commerce. Other gaps include a lack of interaction between universities and national research institutes and inconsistent secondary schooling.

Universities are now operating in isolation, the authors argue, instead of as part of an integrated system designed to meet strategic needs. Specific recommendations start with increasing funding for higher education and encouraging more students to go beyond secondary schools—particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math—by providing scholarships and loans. The report notes that with the exception of several more advanced countries—Korea, Japan, and China—spending on R&D as a share of GDP is relatively low and should be increased, preferably through performance-based funding such as competitively awarded grants. And few of these countries have university technology licensing efforts, public-private matching research funding programs, or other schemes to forge university-industry ties. The team also concludes that most of the region's universities would benefit from better management and governance and greater autonomy.

For most of these challenges, the report provides examples of best practices drawn from within the region. "We don't want to preach" to educational and government leaders, James Adams, World Bank's regional vice president, said at the report's launch today in Tokyo. Rather, the goal is to provide comparative information for decision-makers to work with.