June 10, 2016 3:40 pm JST
Commentary

Paul Donovan -- What constitutes a good university education in today's world?

Education has become one of the defining characteristics of the global middle class, in Asia perhaps more than anywhere. But as the world changes, what constitutes a good education is changing. This is particularly true for university education.

For decades economists' measurement of educational attainment was based on how many years a student studied. This did not work. In terms of time spent studying, Latin American countries compared well against Asian countries. However, Latin American economic performance has not compared well against Asian economic performance. A year of schooling in one country is not necessarily the same quality as a year of schooling in another. When it comes to education, quality counts. Just being present in a classroom or a university lecture hall is not important.

The qualities that define a good education are changing as the world economy changes. Attending university may not be enough to guarantee middle-class status. With the economic changes ahead, where one is educated and how one is educated will matter more and more. At the risk of being accused of personal bias, the successful education model of the future is likely to bear at least some resemblance to an education model that is over nine centuries old: the Oxford model.

I started my studies at Oxford University over a quarter of a century ago. To many who live outside the United Kingdom the name "Oxford" conjures up ideas of the dissolute student lifestyles of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," or perhaps the high body count of the "Inspector Morse" detective series. But for a university founded in the early years of the last millennium, Oxford's model is surprisingly relevant today. Two enduring features of the Oxford model give the university a competitive advantage.

The first is the manner of teaching at Oxford. Generally, undergraduates are not taught in lectures (lectures are available, but optional). Instead, students receive one-to-one instruction for a couple of hours a week, during which they are required to present the results of their week's independent research. Within a structured framework, students are expected to investigate, research and inquire -- in short, to teach themselves.

Teaching more than facts

Why is self-instruction a competitive advantage? The changes in the global economy today are revolutionary -- indeed the World Economic Forum has labeled the changes the "fourth industrial revolution." Revolutionary changes quickly render existing academic knowledge, social structures and economic practices obsolete. Memorizing the contents of a textbook can only make someone a skilled worker if the contents of the textbook do not become obsolete. In a world of change, obsolescence is exactly what is likely to happen. It is not facts learned that matter -- it is the ability to adapt one's skills as the facts change in a revolutionary environment.

Being taught how to develop one's own ideas increases the potential for innovation. One should be able to defend one's own thinking, and in doing so challenge the established orthodoxy (even if the world's leading proponent of the established orthodoxy is the tutor who is reading your essay).

The second important feature of the Oxford model is the fact that Oxford is a collegiate university. Members of the university do not just belong to a faculty like the economics faculty or the engineering faculty. Members of the university also belong to a college -- a small community of tutors and students from a diverse range of academic backgrounds who teach, work, eat and sometimes live within the community. The collegiate system imposes a burden on academics; time has to be spent away from their specialist fields of research. However, the collegiate structure also creates an economic advantage by fostering cross-discipline research.

Some of the most interesting developments in modern academic research require the combination of different academic fields. The world of financial economics is benefiting from a combination of economics, psychology and biology. Personalized medicine needs not just medics, but philosophers, lawyers and economists. Combining these groups is not easy -- information is available, but researchers need to know where to start looking and have a sense of what information is valuable. It is one of the ironies of the virtual information age that the value of direct, personal information exchange increases.

Personal information exchanges

This is where a collegiate system brings benefits. At lunch an economist can sit across from an engineer, or next to a tutor in English literature. The personal networks formed, and the interdisciplinary nature of those networks, is a huge competitive advantage.

This is nothing new. The scientist Robert Boyle, who introduced the idea of controlled experiments, was also a philosopher, medic and theologian. Adam Smith, widely regarded as the founder of modern economics, was a logician, a moral philosopher, and a student of ethics and the law. These men, who both studied at Oxford, were working at a time of dramatic change amidst the eighteenth century scientific and industrial revolutions of the U.K. In periods of revolutionary economic and social change, it is the polymaths rather than narrow specialists who have the diversity of experience to be able to adapt and react to the changes of the new global environment.

While it is dangerous to generalize, many of Asia's higher education systems tend to lack the defining features of the Oxford model. Instruction in Asia tends to rely on learning information to be repeated in exams, rather than on encouraging academic inquiry. The limited nature of cross-discipline study prompted Harvard University to hold a conference on the "crisis" of humanities and social science teaching in Asia. There are exceptions; undergraduates at the University of Tokyo are required to study a general education course before specializing.  

Of course, the Oxford model is not perfect. Every education system will depend on the drive and ambition of the student. But the principle of adaptive learning, being able to critically assess and incorporate new information, and the importance of exchanging ideas across the silos of academic disciplines are critical to becoming a skilled worker in the 21st century.

In the era of the fourth industrial revolution, if your university is only teaching you the facts needed to pass exams, you will graduate as a low-skilled worker.

Paul Donovan is a global economist at UBS Investment Bank. More can be read at www.ubs.com/pauldonovan.

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