Skip to Main Content

The future of higher education policy and the COVID effect


Development in Education in East Asia: Searching for New Research Directions-Webinar 1: Educational Policy



A new webinar series examining the development of education in East Asia, brings together distinguished faculty from the Centre for Research in Education in Asia (CREA) at the University of Bath, the International and Comparative Research Cluster at the University of Durham, and from Lingnan University’s Institute of Policy Studies. Besides sharing their knowledge of related topics, participants will also seek to generate research collaboration ideas, build research teams and make funding bids.


Each webinar will consist of three key presentations, followed by a discussion. The theme of the first event was educational policy.



COVID and the prognosis for graduate employment in China


The first key presentation was given jointly by Professor Joshua Mok Ka-ho, Vice-President, and concurrently Lam Man Tsan Chair Professor of Comparative Policy, of Lingnan University, and Dr Weiyan Xiong, Director of Lingnan’s MA Program in International Higher Education and Management.


The fact that the supply of university graduates is currently exceeding labour market needs is not only sparking discontent and anxiety among young people, it’s also generating social and political debates. In the light of this, Prof Mok and Dr Xiong sought to raise issues for discussion, around the uncertain outlook for graduate employment.


Though the impact of the COVID pandemic on the graduate jobs market has not, particularly in Hong Kong, been too severe, Prof Mok accepted that many young people are unhappy with the options open to them. And it will be difficult to assuage their concerns, given it is still unclear what types of skills and knowledge the future economy will need."And what then is the role of higher education institutions in providing an appropriate environment for, and shaping the future of, higher education learning?" he asked.


Dr Xiong pointed to an OECD report from 2019 that suggested 14 percent of existing jobs could disappear in the next 15 to 20 years. He went on to propose three questions around the best approaches for preparing university students for uncertain futures: what skills will be critical in the Fourth Industrial Era?; how will our ethical principles, and our management of psychological health issues, need to adapt?; and, how can the quality and effectiveness of any new approaches to higher education learning be measured?


Prof Mok concluded by noting how the trend towards digitalization is presenting universities with challenges around data ownership, privacy and ethical questions – and the education experience young people will be offered in the future.



Should the aim of education be to provide workers for the economy?


In his presentation, Professor Hugh Lauder, Professor of Education and Political Economy at the University of Bath, contended that the pandemic has only served to accelerate the breakdown of the social contract between successive neo-liberal governments and citizens, which promised young people who invested in their education, rewards in the labour market. This bargain was based on the idea of meritocracy, that is, those with the ability and motivation, irrespective of their social class, gender or ethnicity, would be able to climb the career ladder.


Prof Lauder based his analysis of the workings of this meritocracy on four interacting elements: the labour market; education; values; and, democracy.


It is no longer the case that most graduates are guaranteed a good job when they leave university, he said."One reason is that many of the best graduate jobs have headed overseas, especially to East Asia." The other factor he pointed to was the way in which technology has taken over roles formerly filled by graduates.


"It looks like there is going to be a confrontation between the ideology of meritocracy and the lived experience of the younger generation," he feared.


These sort of issues are already having a broader impact on democracy, he added. The growing belief in many societies that the prevailing system of values is too tightly bound up with the market - particularly in relation to education and poverty – is breeding the type of  populism associated with Trump, and Johnson in the UK.


"Education suffers when you have large amounts of poverty and you don't have a welfare safety net," he said.


So what can be done? Prof Lauder highlighted two proposals currently the subject of much discussion: paying a universal benefit, that gives every citizen a living wage; and governments establishing themselves as the employer of last resort. Enacting these proposals would feed into two crucial education initiatives: free and accessible early childhood education; and, free higher education.



Will COVID breed more ethical and sustainable forms of internationalisation in HE


Finally, Professor Catherine Montgomery, of the University of Durham, and the founder and former director of CRECEA, outlined the project she is currently working on with Professor Richard Watermeyer, a sociologist and professor of higher education, and the co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformations at the University of Bristol.


The aim of their research is to find out how senior leaders in higher education feel international research collaboration is changing. Prof Montgomery noted that pre-COVID, international relationships were already being reordered. Potentially - as a result of the ongoing frictions between the US and China - Europe may be set to gain in terms of academic collaborations.


Now, though, we are at a crisis point, she said."During the pandemic, research teams shrank into national teams and relied on their existing links." One effect was a decrease in the involvement of partners from the Global South. However, some future international crises, such as the looming one around climate change, will be almost impossible to deal with without a strong framework of international collaboration.


Professors Montgomery and Watermeyer are currently engaged in a pilot study, consisting of an email survey of senior higher education leaders. This has already garnered some interesting responses, which include: an assessment that, given the need to cope with the effects of COVID, research of all types has been de-prioritised; and, forecasts that newer researchers will have problems building networks, and future government research funding will be even more tightly directed by economic imperatives.


Once the pilot study is completed, the next step will be a large scale survey of higher education leaders in the UK, China, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, USA and Australia. This will be followed by an application for funding.