The Varghese reading on Governance Reforms and University Autonomy in Asia discusses the concept of the vast worldwide variations of the Global Gross Enrollment Rates (GER) and what that says about higher education in a nation. 1% GER Tanzania, 98% Korea, 83% US. Up to 15% GER= elite system, 16-50% =mass higher education, 50+% = universal higher education.  The GER measurements make a strong reference point when reviewing the data from Varghese covering the outcomes of higher education reform in Asia.

The five Asian countries studied: Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam, cover a wide range in the areas of population, income, infrastructure, governance, adult literacy and school life expectancy. Japan consistently ranks the highest and the closest with the US, while Cambodia ranks the lowest. However, all countries have experienced a rapid expansion of their higher education systems. The expansions all shared  the characteristics of privatization, revised curricula, the creation of connections with local business and industry, and enhanced research facilities at some institutions.  The higher educations expansions have resulted in a jump of the GER in all five countries studied. China and Indonesia have GER’s indicating mass higher education, Japan has universal higher education. While the GER’s of Cambodia and Vietnam still place them them in the elite category, their numbers have increased.  What I find striking is the role private institutions play in the expansion of higher education, indicating a  shift in both management and implementation of higher education from the state to the market.

The balance of governance and autonomy in higher education differs greatly in both concept and practice among the five countries. Development and economics are a factor, with state controlled economies holding decision making abilities in all areas, meaning limited autonomy for higher ed institutions. A fascinating example is the power of the Chinese Communist Party to appoint the deans and senior administrators of higher ed institutions. Varghese makes the distinction between government and party in the case, however it indicates a structure in which high level decisions are made outside the institution.

In all cases, the success of bringing institutional autonomy into practice is dependent on the strength of the institutional leadership. After all, the transfer of power and policy making from government leadership to institutional leadership will only be beneficial for the colleges/universities who will be able to govern themselves.  The challenges and missteps covered by Varghese make clear that regardless of the levels of autonomy practiced in the higher education system of a country, institutional strength is dependent on strong, competent leadership. This seems to be the most vital aspect, having the right woman or man to lead and make education decisions, whether they are working in-house at the university level, or further removed at the government level.

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