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East Asia and the Pacific

Some Key Issues, Prospects for the Future, China, The HPAEs

The region of East Asia and the Pacific encompasses some of the richest and poorest nations in the world, as well as the largest (China) and some of the smallest (the island states). It includes states with most successful record of economic development in the late twentieth century–the high-performing Asian economies (HPAEs) of the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong (China), and Singapore–and those where growth has been fragile and disrupted by strife and natural disasters (Vietnam and Cambodia). Cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity exists throughout the region, both between and within countries. So also do different historic legacies, which influence the form, content, and future development of education.

There are a number of possible criteria that could be applied to groups of countries in this area that highlight some of these differences. Conventional geographical groupings can be useful, but conceal large variations in educational development, economic conditions, history, and culture. An alternative is to select a set of general indicators, which might include demographic factors (e.g. population size, population growth rates, measures of the rate of urbanization); levels of literacy; and economic status, which is determined by measures such as GNP (gross national product), GDP (PPP) (gross domestic product, based on purchasing power parity estimates), growth rates, and changes in the structure of employment. The Human Resource Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), based on measures of life expectancy, literacy, and real GDP per capita, is also potentially useful.

Using a combination of these characteristics, five groups of countries can be identified. The first group consists only of China, which stands on its own as a mega-state containing most of the region's population. China itself is very diverse, and includes areas where educational participation and achievement levels are very high (predominantly the coastal provinces), alongside parts where educational disad-vantage is widespread and literacy levels are low (in the interior and among national minorities). The HDI is used by the UNDP to rank levels of development using an aggregate measure of life expectancy, literacy, and real GDP per capita. China in the early twenty-first century has an HDI rank of 87, placing it among other medium (49 to 127) human-development countries as does its GDP (PPP) per capita of $5,200. More than 35 percent of its population is urban, and it has a low population growth rate, creating a dependency ratio of less than 40 percent (the dependency ratio reflects the number of 0–14 year olds as a percentage of 15–65 year olds).

The second group includes the HPAEs (Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong (China), and Singapore). These countries have an HDI rank between 24 and 27 (HDI not available for Taiwan), and more than 80 percent urban populations. GDP (PPP) per capita is more than $15,000, and the largest proportions of their labor force are employed in services. Malaysia shares many characteristics with this group, as does Brunei Darussalam. The former has experienced rapid sustained growth, ranks 56 on the HDI, and has a small (15%) and diminishing proportion of its labor force in agriculture. The latter has a high HDI ranking (32) and high levels of GNP per capita, with a labor force mostly concentrated in the service sector.

The third group comprises a collection of states that have HDI rankings between 50 and 100 (Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand). These countries have low-to middle-levels of GDP (PPP) per capita, and most have experienced substantial levels of growth, have an average of about 50 percent of the labor force in agriculture, and generally low illiteracy. Thailand is both the richest and fastest growing nation in this group, but also has the lowest level of urbanization. Vietnam is also urbanizing and developing rapidly.

The fourth group of countries have HDI ranks from 120 to about 135, and all have lower GDP (PPP) per capita than those in the third group. On average, they have lower levels of urbanization and industrialization. Included in this group are Myanmar, Cambodia, and the Lao People's Democratic Republic. They are all low-income and low-growth countries, with less than 20 percent urbanization and predominantly agricultural economies–with the great majority of employment in this sector and little industrial production.

The Pacific Islands fall into the last grouping, though they are far from homogeneous. All have populations of less than one million, except Papua New Guinea, which shares historic and cultural links with many of the islands. HDI ranks are between 85 and 125 (for countries where HDI is available) with the exception of Fiji (67). Most of these countries have middle levels of GDP (PPP) per capita and low rates of urbanization. Countries in this group include Kiribati, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, and Vanuatu. Table 1 presents basic data on countries in East Asia and the Pacific Islands and profiles population, national wealth, the length of school cycles, participation, and educational expenditure.

Some Key Issues

The key issues confronting these nations reflect different priorities, historic preferences, expectations about the future, and responses to changing exogenous circumstances. It is therefore difficult to look across East Asia and the Pacific Islands as if they were homogeneous. However, if there is some consensus that the purposes of public investment in education is intended to promote economic growth, improve equity in access to basic education services, enhance quality and internal efficiency, and respond to emerging needs, then several sets of issues suggest themselves as likely to be prominent across groups of countries.

First, educational investment in the region will be conditioned by the resources available and the sociopolitical environment in which choices are made. Macroeconomic conditions are likely to remain difficult in some countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea and some other Pacific Islands). Growth in real GDP per capita (and hence the ability to invest in educational services) seems likely to be slow and unlikely to release substantial additional resources for educational investment. External assistance may have the biggest role to play in these countries. Indonesia has better prospects of real growth, as do Vietnam and the Philippines–assuming political stability is a reality. In these countries, national resources should be largely sufficient to support educational development if it is prioritized in public expenditure plans. The HPAEs, Malaysia, and Thailand should continue to experience sustained economic growth. This, coupled with falling proportions of school-age children and an increased propensity to invest private resources in education, should lead to rapid growth in higher levels of educational investment.

Second, in those countries where spending is relatively low as a proportion of GNP per capita and public budget, increased allocations may be a priority. This will especially be the case where what is currently delivered is manifestly inadequate. However, increasing spending in already inefficient systems has few attractions, unless the underlying sources of inefficiency are addressed simultaneously with enhanced


resource allocation. Where much less than 3 percent of GNP per capita is allocated (and less than 15 percent of the public budget), some reconsideration would seem desirable.

Third, where primary enrollment rates are significantly below 100 percent, especially where literacy is also low and gender differences are large, investment at the primary level should be a priority. The benefits for equity and economic development should be considerable. This is likely to be the most cost-effective way to improve adult literacy in the medium term, and one of the easiest ways to reduce gender inequity.

Fourth, internal efficiency needs improvement, both to extend the resources available to make increased access affordable, and to ensure better distribution of participation and achievement of valued outcomes. Where student–teacher ratios are high and very uneven across schools, these need to be reduced; where they are low, they may need increasing. Unequal investment that arises from wide differences in actual resource allocation (uneven teacher deployment and utilization, within-school preferences for spending on higher grades, heavy subsidy of some institutions and levels at the expense of others) is likely to suppress retention and on-schedule graduation rates, increase repetition, and enhance social selectivity and regressive subsidy related to household incomes. (A regressive subsidy is one that favors households with high income rather than low income.) Initiatives that decentralize control and finance may have a role to play in increasing efficiency and engaging the energies of stakeholders to improve quality and relevance, but they appear unlikely to be sufficient unless accompanied by appropriate checks and balances to encourage desired outcomes and monitor effects. Decentralization may be least attractive where infrastructure is weakest and incomes lowest.

Fifth, more effective educational management, administration, and monitoring–and steps to reverse regressive subsidies–can help provide better value and contribute to equity. Where it can be demonstrated that new incentive structures would work to improve quality without adverse effects that compromise their value, these should be incorporated into management systems.

Sixth, the public costs of secondary schooling should be limited to a small multiplier (no more than about 2:1) of those for primary education, unless there are strong contraindications. In those countries where primary schooling is not universalized, high secondary-unit costs may represent a poor allocation choice unless restricted to a small number of schools with open and fair selection. Where primary schooling of acceptable quality is becoming widely available, access to, and financing of, secondary schooling will become a dominant policy issue.

Seventh, higher-education policy can encourage more cost recovery from those who benefit. This appears to be the most plausible mechanism for expanding access in the face of growing demand without conceding a growing public subsidy to those most likely to enjoy above-average incomes subsequently. How this is implemented must be context sensitive, since in the poorer countries scope may be extremely limited and some possible mechanisms could result in counter-productive outcomes. Cross-border trading of educational services at the tertiary level is likely to grow rapidly, and may begin to have consequences for national institutions that become uncompetitive in cost and quality with institutions in other countries.

Eighth, education systems should be encouraged to respond to the changing characteristics of labor markets, in which there are an increasing proportion of service and manufacturing sector jobs. As these jobs become more knowledge and skill intensive, curricula, especially at the secondary level and above, need adaptation and redesign to promote outcomes valued in the marketplace. Traditional curricula need to be questioned to establish if they meet new needs and opportunities, and to balance domestic priorities for learning with those derived from educational development at an international level.

Prospects for the Future

It is difficult to predict the educational future of the countries in this region. History provides a reminder of how fragile foresight can be. Predictions of China's economic and educational growth, vocationalization of secondary schools, and increasingly autonomous higher education institutions with large numbers of fee-paying, self-supporting students entering into a burgeoning socialist market economy were conspicuously absent in 1975. Malaysia's rapid and sustained educational development was easier to anticipate. However, the successful contribution of education policy to maintaining stability, redistributing employment opportunities, and generating wealth surprised those critical of its strongly inter-ventionist character under the country's New Economic Policy. Nevertheless, it is worth speculating how things will unfold as a way of drawing attention to some of the issues that will preoccupy future policymakers.


In much of China, access to six to nine years of education is assured, and enrollment rates are high, with gross enrollment rates (GERs) at the primary level over 125 percent (GER is the number enrolled over the size of the relevant age group; it can therefore exceed 100% because of overage enrollment and repetition). The main development agendas are improved internal efficiency, greater quality, and higher levels of achievement. Legislation has been in place since the mid-1980s to universalize enrollment, and this has largely been achieved. In the poorest areas and among the national minorities, underenrollment, high dropout rates, and substantial repetition remain a problem, but one manageable with domestic resources. Sustained rates of economic growth and generally low population growth (though not in many national minority areas) should facilitate the extension of the educational franchise. What will be achieved in basic education will depend on the political will to spread social benefits of development to areas that lag behind the coastal provinces and developed parts of central China.

At the secondary level, enrollments will continue to grow rapidly, to the point where most students will complete the lower secondary level in the near future. This will substantially increase rural enrollments. Participation rates at upper secondary schools will continue to expand, and will probably retain an emphasis on technical and vocational education, where the challenge is to maintain relevance to employment and develop a consistent certification system. Tertiary-level enrollments are likely to grow substantially to meet demand from students. Tertiary institutions will be consolidated into fewer and larger institutions, and will progressively take more responsibility for their own funding. It is probable that a core of universities, perhaps twenty or so, will remain directly supported as national institutions, and a similar-sized group will retain provincial government support. Most of the others will move away from the control of specific ministries and will have to seek mixed sources of funding. At the upper secondary and tertiary levels, it can be expected that fee systems will provide a growing proportion of operating costs, and the number of self-financing students will continue to increase.

Competition for access to secondary key schools (schools with selective entry for the most able children, and which have additional resources and high-quality teachers) will intensify, as it will for entry to associated primary schools and to prestigious universities. Providing access in ways that are seen as equitable and socially efficient will be an important issue. In many respects, China will probably move towards patterns of participation and access found in several of the HPAEs, while retaining and developing a large range of educational delivery services using the media, adult study programs, and training related to the workplace.

During the early twenty-first century, China will experience the effects of rapid urbanization (which was already well advanced in 2000) and an aging population. The former will concentrate more and more educational services in towns and cities, and may exacerbate the problem of the relative neglect of educational development in rural areas. The aging population will ultimately cause the dependency ratio to rise (in this case, dependency ratio includes those over sixty-five), with possible consequences for the amounts available to subsidize public educational provision.


Among the high-performing Asian economies, economic growth has been strong, despite temporary setbacks in the late 1990s. Population growth rates are low and declining, enrollments are approaching universal levels at the primary and secondary levels, illiteracy only exists on the margins, and distribution of public expenditure is fairly even. At the primary and lower secondary levels, enrollments are likely to fall for demographic reasons, creating further opportunities to improve quality and enrich curricula offerings. Student–teacher ratios may continue to decline slowly, and at the primary level are likely to converge towards those at the secondary level. Private provision is likely to continue to grow, both in separate schools and in parallel systems providing complementary services. Preschool enrollments will increase rapidly (mostly outside state provision) as a result of available income continuing to rise, parental investments in schooling being concentrated on fewer children, and strong beliefs in the value of a head start in schooling.

At the secondary level, school facilities are often good and will continue to improve, especially in relation to access to new information technologies.

Skill-based and competency-linked curricula are likely to spread, and links with changing patterns of employment, especially the continued growth of the service sector, will have an impact on teaching and learning. Some of these countries appear to have low between-school variations in achievement, while in others the school attended seems to account for much of the variation in performance in particular subjects. Differences between schools may be expected to diminish as resource distribution ceases to be a major constraint and competitive pressures improve the performance of lower-achieving schools.

Competition for access to higher education is likely to intensify, though participation rates will increase to levels where a majority of the population experience some post-school periods of study and training. The competition will center on the most prestigious institutions at home and abroad. The tertiary sector as a whole is likely to become more diversified and accessible to a wide range of students, including those in midcareer and those in nontraditional fields of specialization. Cross-border flows of students will also increase both from HPAEs to richer countries and from other Asian countries to HPAEs. Private financing and mixed systems of support will develop where these are not already dominant, and where they are already substantial they will grow further. The integration of Hong Kong's education system into China may influence the rate of change in Chinese institutions, particularly at the tertiary level.

Middle- and Low-Income Countries

In middle-income countries with industrialization already under way, several scenarios are possible. In Thailand and Indonesia, survival rates up until the fourth grade are high, and enrollment rates are approaching universal levels for all primary grades. Quality remains a problem, as does repetition and the number of dropouts. Uneven resource distribution remains a critical issue, and urbanization will result in more resources being needed for city and town schools. In these countries a demographic transition to low growth is already established, and universal access to a basic education cycle is achievable by 2020. Enrollment rates at the secondary level will increase, especially in Thailand and Indonesia, and it is here that the resource demands are likely to be largest. Malaysia will converge towards the educational characteristics of the HPAEs, with which it now has much in common. Higher education growth will occur, especially in privately financed institutions, which already enroll large numbers in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand.

Poorer Asian countries with a developing industrial base include Myanmar and Vietnam. Myanmar's development will be partly determined by the extent to which it adopts reforms similar to those in surrounding countries, which would lead to increased resources for education and higher participation rates. Vietnam is rapidly modernizing, and economic growth and industrialization are taking place. Secondary school participation rates will start to rise, and tertiary-level enrollment is likely to begin to grow rapidly.

The poorest agriculturally based countries confront the most difficult conditions. Basic educational infrastructure is impoverished, resources for growth are heavily constrained, and needs are greatest. School provision is predominantly rural, retention is poor, repetition is high, and illiteracy widespread. These fundamental realties will condition educational development (e.g., in Cambodia and Laos) and should focus attention on building basic delivery systems with reasonable coverage and quality. Expansion at higher levels that utilizes public funding should probably be deferred until greater proportions of the population acquire basic skills.

In most of the Pacific Islands, primary enrollment rates are high, except in Papua New Guinea, where there is some way to travel to reach universal access. Fiji stands out as having high levels of enrollment. There are problems associated with small populations in these countries, and most will continue to send students overseas for higher education. Migration will also affect demand in many of these states, and curriculum will remain dependent and derived from larger and richer metropolitan countries, many of which receive high levels of external support for education and have close links with larger countries that sponsor educational development and receive students and migrant labor.


This short review has highlighted some of the main characteristics of education in East Asia and the Pacific Islands. It gives some of the flavor of the diversity of circumstances, current problems, and future developments. In particular, it distinguishes five broad groups of countries at different points in their development. The challenges these groups face are somewhat different. However, across the region there is cause for optimism that educational participation will grow and become more equitable, quality will improve, and labor markets will benefit from more and more investment in the skills and competencies associated with education and training. This will be accelerated by governments that maintain stability, prioritize educational investment, judiciously take advantage of opportunities created by globalization, learn from the experience of the HPAEs, and capitalize on the special characteristics of each national system.


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