The Evolving Landscape of South-East Asian Higher Education and the Challenges of Governance

Sauwakon Ratanawijitrasin


From the time the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established over four decades ago, the South-east Asian region has experienced waves of rapid change when countries moved towards greater liberalization in their socio-economic activities and closer interdependence regionally and globally. Within this context, domestic and global forces have significantly transformed the region's higher education sector.

The introduction of ASEAN Community scheduled for 2015 is a regionalization push that arrives on top of existing changing trends that have shifted the landscape of higher education in South-east Asia (SEA). On the eve of the upcoming regional integration, ASEAN member countries face new challenges in their higher education sector—increased competition, needs for harmonization, and demands for human resources with knowledge and skills to thrive in a new and more integrated socio-economic context.

This paper aims to (1) provide an overview of the changing trends in and development of higher education sector in SEA, (2) describe key policy initiatives and current state of higher education governance focusing on higher education institutions, (3) review key efforts towards regional integration, and (4) identify challenges facing the region higher education sector and key policy questions.

The Changing Landscape of Higher Education in South-East Asia

The past two decades witnessed significant change in SEA higher education sector

—both on the demand and supply sides, as well as the national and institutional levels. Changes in higher education governance and finance have taken place within a broader shift in social, economic, and political context. Four major trends have characterized changes in higher-education landscape of South-east Asia: massification, diversification, marketization, and internationalization.


With rapid economic development and globalization drawing larger proportion of the population into labour market and driving demand for workforce with broader knowledge and skills and more technical capability, not only larger number of people seek higher education, but they also look for a wider range of options in higher education. This has led to a massive increase in the number of students going into higher education, which then resulted in the supply-side response to boost the number and variety of higher education institutions (HEIs) and academic programs. The increased supply, in turn, generates greater opportunities of access with greater number of slots and availability of options in higher education, in a reinforcing feedback loop.

The mass access to higher education is apparent in the explosion of the number of students and HEIs. Examples can be found in countries throughout the region. In Cambodia, the number of students in higher education has jumped from around 10,000 in the 1990s to over 250,000 by 2014. Today most of them are self-pay students (Mak and Un 2014). Its neighbouring Lao PDR has seen its number of students studying in public HEIs increase from 4980 in 1994 to 91,713 in 2013. During this period, the number of students in private HEIs rose from 0 to 19,621 (Mitaray 2013). Although the rising rate in student population is less dramatic in Thailand, it is no less significant. The country's higher education students numbered 1.07 million in 2000, and doubled to 2.12 million in 2013 (NSO 2000; Sirisamphan 2014). In Indonesia—South-east Asia's largest country—students number rose from 4.4 million in 2008 to 5.8 million in 2014 (Sailah 2014; Varghese and Martin 2013).

On the supply side, a key driving force of the expansion of higher learning is government policy response to the demand pressure. Governments not only expanded public HEIs, but in those countries where private HEIs were non-existent, they also opened up the sector for private and overseas operators.

This trend is most obvious in the Greater Mekong sub-region countries. The number of higher education institutions in Lao PDR, for example, have increased from 10 (all government-owned) in 1994 to 141 (62 government and 79 privately-own) in 2013—a 14 times increase in two decades (Mitaray 2013). Cambodia has also witnessed a similar trend in its higher education sector. In 1994, there were only 8 public HEIs with no private institutions; but by 2014 the number of private HEIs becomes 66, surpassing the also growing number of public HEIs which stand at 39 in the same year (Mak and Un 2014). The public and private HEIs combined to a total of 105 institutions, an increase of over 8 times in 20 years. In Thailand, with the transformation of 40 teacher colleges and 9 technical colleges into universities in 2004 and 2005 respectively, the number of its public universities jumped from 27 to 76 within two years. The establishment of two additional new public universities brought the number of public institutions up to 78 by the end of 2005. Many private HEIs have also been introduced in the past two decades, which added up to a total of 144 HEIs—public and private—in 2012 (calculated from OHEC 2012). The number of HEIs in Vietnam more than quadrupled between 1987 and 2011. In 1987 there were only 101 HEIs, with 63 universities and 38 colleges (Thinh and Phuong 2011); by 2011, the number of total HEIs became 414, consisting of 188 universities and 226 colleges in 2011. Among those universities, 138 are public and 50 private (Huong 2011). Myanmar has also seen a tremendous expansion of HEI's in recent years, from 32 in 1988 to currently 169 (Thein 2014). Even countries with very few HEIs two decades ago have seen the number of HEIs jumped significantly. Singapore government, in a strategic move, added three new public universities in 2000s, which more than doubled the number of its publicly-funded autonomous universities—from 2 to 5. Similarly, higher education expansion in Brunei Darussalam was also clearly policy-led change. Of the country's 4 public universities, 2 were founded in the 1980s and the other 2 in the 2000s.

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