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Is Today's Educational System Fit for Purpose, in a World Splitting Into Rival Blocs

By Andrew Sheng

May 7, 2022 

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  


Is today’s education system fit for purpose in a world splitting into rival blocs?

Geopolitics and security pressures will increasingly determine the future of resources allocated to education, research and development, and technology With China and others challenging America’s lead, Western universities could start rejecting foreign students in security-sensitive areas such as science

Education is the most controversial of subjects. Parents quarrel about their children’s quality of education; societies are deeply divided on education as it defines the future. Can our education system cope with a more complex, fractious future, fraught with possible wars?

According to Stanford University’s “Guide to Reimagining Higher Education”, 96 per cent of university chief academic officers think their students are ready for the workforce, but only 11 per cent of business leaders agree.

The gap between the skills demanded by employers and the education received by school leavers is widening, making it hard for many to get the jobs they want.

As technology accelerates in speed and complexity, education quality becomes more important than ever. Is it for the elites or the masses? Aristotle recognised that the aim of education is knowledge, but there were always differing views about whether to prioritise individual enrichment or preparing the individual to fulfil society’s needs.

Feudal systems hardly paid attention to the masses, and most ancient institutes of higher learning were for the elite, either for religious orders or to prepare for civil or military service.

Stanford University in California. In recent years, the US Education Department has stepped up efforts to enforce a 1986 law requiring American universities to disclose gifts and contracts from foreign sources. Photo: AP

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank, has just produced a fascinating study on the implications of higher education for national security. Covering 1950-2040, the study acknowledged that the US attained its uncontested power status because it had the highest levels of educational attainment and manpower.

In 1950, the US, with about 6 per cent of the world’s population, had 45 per cent of the global pool of tertiary-educated 25-64 year olds; India had 5 per cent and China 3 per cent. By 2020, America’s share had dropped to roughly 16 per cent, with China fast catching up, and India at just under 10 per cent.

By 2040, depending on the estimate, China may double its share to 15-20 per cent, with India at 12 per cent, overtaking the US at 10 per cent.

Education matters for economic growth and power. Every additional year of schooling is associated with a 9-10 per cent increase in per capita output. Together with the business climate, improvements in education, health and urbanisation explain over 80 per cent of the differences in output per capita across countries.

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Under the liberal world order, America encouraged the spread of global education, and global adult illiteracy (those without any schooling) fell from 45 per cent in 1950 to only 13 per cent by 2020.

This was good for the world but it also reduced the advantage of the education and technology front-runners, particularly the US. According to the AEI, the share of tertiary- educated adults in the world has increased from under 2 per cent in 1950 to 16 per cent today, and is due to approach 22 per cent by 2040.

In 1950, eight of the top 10 largest pools of highly educated working-age labour were in advanced countries. By 2020, their share was about half. By 2040, this is likely to be only three in 10. India and China would lead as countries with the largest pools of highly trained manpower, especially in science and technology, with the US “an increasingly distant third-place contestant”.

The AEI study illustrates why American universities will be increasingly selective about their foreign student intake, especially in science and technology, areas of study which may have an impact on national security.

As late as in 2017, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made clear that: “Learning about the world, helping to solve the world’s greatest problems, and working with international collaborators who share our curiosity and commitment to rigorous scientific inquiry are core values for MIT.”

That global vision may be cut back in light of the growing geopolitical split into military blocs. Western universities may no longer be encouraged to train foreign students in areas where they can return to compete in key technologies.

Last February, MIT severed its ties with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, a research university it helped establish, over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo: AP

In short, geopolitical rivalry will determine the future of resources allocated to education, research and development, and technology. No country can afford a truly liberal education where everyone is encouraged to do what he or she wants.

Students today want to be more engaged in the big social issues, such as climate change and social inequality, while also expecting a more experiential immersion into careers that are more self-fulfilling.

Instead, institutes of higher learning are forced by economics to provide more short-term courses to upgrade skills, using new teaching methods and tools, especially in artificial intelligence and virtual reality. At the national level, governments will push universities into more research and development as well as innovation to gain national competitiveness, including in defence and national security.

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This means the education pipeline will be split – like the global supply chains being disrupted by geopolitics. The conversation on what should go into the education curriculum is only just beginning.

Much of this is to do with funding. Higher education is expensive, especially in hi-tech areas, and governments budgets are constrained, so universities will turn to private funding. The more society polarises, the more likely that such funding would turn towards entrenchment of vested interests.

Education is controversial precisely because it can be either a unifying social force or a divisive one.

One thing is clear. While the quantity of educated manpower is critical to national strength, quality may matter more. The Soviet Union had the second-largest share of educated manpower during the Cold War but could not save itself from collapse. Will our education system produce leaders able to cope with tomorrow’s complexities?

As TS Eliot asked in The Rock in 1934, “where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” This is being asked not just in universities, but by society as a whole.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective

Is today’s education system fit for purpose in a world splitting into rival blocs? | South China Morning Post (


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