Apr 08 2013 | Posted by wun

Filling the education gap

The following article, featuring an interview with WUN Chief Executive, Professor John Hearn, appeared in the China Daily News on 5 April, 2013.

Once upon a time, traditional university education was a remote, ivory tower whose scholars pursued knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge. At the other end of the spectrum stood the vocational schools, whose objective was to immediately prepare students for their first jobs.

“In today’s context, universities have to bridge both. They can’t ignore the labor market,” says Sushma Berlia, chancellor of India’s Apeejay Stya University (ASU), a three-year-old private institution providing education tempered with professional skills for students to face the challenges of the liberalized global economy.

Berlia wears two hats that make her aware of the need for a “revolution” in traditional academics. A scion of a noted industrialist family, she is also president of the Apeejay Stya Group, whose interests embrace pharmaceuticals, real estate, merchant banking, publishing, and more.

This week, at the Boao Forum for Asia conference in Hainan, she is representing both the education sector and small and medium enterprises.

With Asian countries expanding fast, there is a growing need for people in industry, service, agriculture and other sectors, Berlia says. However, there is a huge shortage of the right kind of people.

“Industries are looking for people with specific knowledge and skills, who have the ability to collaborate and think across disciplines to come up with solutions.”

ASU teaches its students to be multi-skilled. “For example, an engineering student also gets exposed to other critical knowledge domains, like elements of management, design and physics. When they go out, they can collaborate.”

“Education must meet the needs of the labor market, but in different ways at different levels,” adds John Hearn, chief executive, the Worldwide Universities Network, who is participating in the Boao session on education with Berlia. “They need to develop the knowledge base and knowledge leaders, develop technical and professional experts and operatives, and cater for a future where people will have serial careers.”

Hearn foresees “a revolution or education tsunami” that will question much of the structure and function of the current education systems, the business models of the past, and how the new system links to labor structures and demands.

The power behind the revolution, according to him, is new technology in learning and teaching, access to information through the Internet, and the massive availability of top courses and programs online.

“The challenge is to provide access to those with talent, and to find new ways to catalyze that access through informatics and teaching,” he adds.

Accessibility has to be an integral part of education so that it can fulfill its mission of providing equal opportunities to all. But in Asia, education is still not within everyman’s reach.

“Education in Asia is in its early development,” says Hearn. “(It) has provided development for the elite and not included the poor in many countries who cannot access it. The excluded sections vary by country, political and corrupt practices, and the resources required.”

Berlia feels educational access has grown in the last few years, thanks to the growing number of educational institutions. The private sector has played a key role in this expansion with private institutions currently accounting for 64 percent of the total number of institutions and 59 percent of enrolments in the country.

Though not all of them provide quality education, still, it is better to have a poor education than no education at all, she says.

For now, India presents a backward scenario. Though a Right to Education Act has been formulated, the gross enrolment ratio of students in higher educational institutions was still 17.9 percent in 2010, against the global average of 27 percent.

The ratio is marked by a deep urban-rural divide with cities reporting 30 percent enrolment against the 11.1 percent in rural areas. There is also a deep gulf for the disadvantaged communities and women. The enrolment figure is 19 percent for males but 15.2 percent for females.

“The government’s target is a 25 percent ratio by 2017 – 35.9 million enrolled students,” Berlia says. “It may not be the best of numbers compared to developed economies but very encouraging when you look at India’s vast population.”

To further increase access to education, she suggests increasing access to financing. This can be done through banks that provide education loans and scholarships offered by the government as well as the private sector. Studying the education financing models in the West and learning from their best examples will improve financial access, Berlia says.

Besides meeting the demands of the labor market, university education should emphasize questioning and thinking, so that graduates are fully equipped to deal with current or future challenges, Hearn adds. In many countries and cultures, education still has a high component of rote learning, acceptance of dogma, lack of questioning and inhibition of innovation.

“However, many Asians are naturally entrepreneurial and innovative; these characteristics need to be liberated and supported,” Hearn says.


Read the full article at China Daily News.