Western universities and “reverse brain drain” have powered the rise of Asia in the world economy, a leading Singaporean academic has claimed.
Kishore Mahbubani, professor in the practice of public policy at the National University of Singapore, said that the world was “entering a new era” of global history with the rise of the continent.
“From the year one to the year 1820, the two largest economies were always those of China and India. It’s only in the last 200 years that Europe has taken off and North America has taken off…the past 200 years of world history have been a major historical aberration,” he told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit during a panel on research and the rise of Asian universities.
Professor Mahbubani, formerly a high-ranking diplomat who served as Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations, added that “all aberrations come to a natural end so you are just seeing the return of Asia”.
However, he said that, paradoxically, Asia should credit Western universities for its recent rise.
“The biggest thank you that Asia needs to give is to Western universities because Western universities have actually powered the return of Asia and they continue to do so,” he said.
“Even now, as we speak, there are more than 350,000 Chinese students studying at American universities. You have another 180,000 Indian students studying at American universities. These universities and the reverse brain drain have led to the rise of Asia.
“The question, as we enter the Asian Century, is whether the Asian Century will still be powered by Western universities or by Asian universities also.”
Professor Mahbubani added that “even though the political decolonisation of Asia finished in the 1960s, the mental decolonisation happened 20 to 30 years later”.
“Today you travel around Asia and what I find that is sometimes quite astounding is the explosion of cultural confidence in Asia. It is this explosion that is going to drive Asian universities who are trying to do exceptionally well in some areas,” he said.
Devang Khakhar, director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, who also spoke on the panel, agreed that “Asia has been driven by universities of the West”.
He predicted that India’s universities would see “a similar kind of rise” as those in east Asia and said that the country’s progress so far has been driven by “international linkages” and a focus on research productivity.
“About 200,000 Indian students study abroad but we have 23 million studying in India. So, in a sense, there is a great responsibility for universities and educational institutions within the country to generate the right kind of manpower to power the Indian economy,” he said.
San Ling, provost at Nanyang Technological University, added that Asian universities could best sustain their growth by focusing on people.
“You need to have the best people possible – without that, none of the other points can exist,” he said. Other necessary ingredients include “very strong innovation, research and enterprise”, innovative education, internationalisation and infrastructure, he added.
Professor San said that Nanyang, which has soared up international league tables in recent years, “started off with a natural advantage” of having close ties with China. The university was formerly a private Chinese-language institution, established by the Chinese community in southeast Asia, before merging with the National Institute of Education in 1991.
“I strongly believe that universities have a unique opportunity and role to exert a positive influence in international relations,” he said.