Academia should drive development in the region

The academic world should be thinking ahead of the government when it comes to driving social and economic development in the Asia-Pacific region, a conference in Sydney has been told.

Aart de Geus, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s deputy secretary-general, told the International OECD forum on the value of higher education and research to social and economic development in the Asia Pacific region that while the organisation was driven by its 34 member countries, it was important to maintain connections to the academic world.

“Education is key to reach social objectives, but it’s also key to reach economic objectives, and there is no area like education where the case for investment in human capital is so evident,” said de Geus.

This summer, the civil war in Libya, riots in London and upheaval in the financial markets have knocked the usual “silly season” fare off the covers of Europe’s newspapers, said de Geus, but issues such as the famine in Somalia, securing clean water, protecting the environment and alleviating poverty were still ignored. But not by academia, where research carried on as usual.

“Higher education and research are nonetheless continuing to tackle all of these strategic challenges and more. We all understand that there are powerful incentives for individuals to invest in their education associated with employment but there are a number of other less tangible individual and social benefits.”

These included better health systems, better governance, political stability, support for democratic institutions, and a reduction in poverty and crime, he said.

Christopher Langman, first assistant secretary with the Department of Foreign Affairs and said the OECD, with the aid of institutions, was uniquely placed to provide input on effectively social policy, with advice that was useful for all countries, not just developing nations.

“A good example is the work on innovation in the last few years at the OECD, which drew on ten or twelve areas of global expertise and asked ‘what do governments do to foster creativity and entrepreneurship?’ ‘How do groundbreaking research companies innovate, and which ones?’,” said Langman, Australia’s permanent representative to the OECD.

“The OECD is also drawing together work on education and employment and the broad trends in economic development,” he said. “[It asks] where is it that economies need people, and with what skills if they are to continue to be dynamic?”

The University of Sydney is the OECD’s  partner  university in Australia, and de Geus praised its role in convening other universities and encouraging work with academia overseas.  The university is involved in dozens of projects with its near neighbours, including Indonesia. It is these sorts of collaboration that the OECD would like to see more of, as developed countries share their knowledge with their rising neighbours, who are putting more and more of their energy into education.

“The proportion of people with tertiary qualifications has grown almost uninterupted in OECD countries for the last 50 years and there’s little sign of demand dropping off,” said de Geus. “Expansion has been slower in the developing world, particularly because of the pressure that demographic growth places on primary and secondary education. But in the Asia Pacific region we are seeing unprecedented numbers going into higher education.”

He pointed to South Korea, which now has a higher rate of higher education than the United States of America as one example, and noted that China and India were both planning massive investment in their higher education systems.

“There is an irreversible trend in the last 35 years – the number of people in these countries that have completed secondary education has doubled. In one generation, it has doubled,” said de Geus. “This will continue and it will also be reflected in their numbers for higher education, so there is a very strong case for human capital and investing in higher education.”

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