Before we can answer that question, we must first look at the present.

The system of higher education in China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore has been dubbed “the Confucian model” of education. So far, it has been very successful in allowing universities in these countries to accelerate their performance in the world of scientific research.

The Confucian model of education has certain unique characteristics that help explain its enviable record.1 First, there is a very high degree of state involvement in the elite research universities. Government bureaucrats set both the executive agenda and research priorities.

Second, the government is free to channel public investment into research efforts by the elites since, for a variety of reasons, the masses have relieved it of the responsibility of educating everybody else.

 

Typically, in these countries, the cost of a tertiary education is borne by private households and not the government. Outside of a select few institutions, the vast numbers of tertiary institutes are privately run, non-selective and vocational. There is little to no government involvement. Families sending their children here must pay out of their own pockets. Often, they tend to be poorer than the families using selective and academic institutions.

 

One drawback of this model of education is that it reinforces existing patterns of inequality. Unsurprisingly, there is a wide discrepancy between the quality of graduates from elite institutions and private tertiary institutions.

Another challenge is that governments favour the sciences and technologies over the humanities and social sciences, and applied and commercial research over academically-controlled “basic’ research. But academically-controlled research is often the best potential source of long-term innovation.

In recognition of the limitations of the existing model, some Asian nations have attempted reform. According to Fareed Zakaria, “the most interesting and ambitious [reform] effort…for the twenty-first century” is taking place at the Yale-NUS liberal arts college in Singapore, which attempts to combine the best of the East and West.

In a 2013 report authored by a Yale-NUS committee, the college declared that it aimed for nothing less than a paradigm shift:

  1. It would call itself a college of liberal arts and sciences, to restore science to its fundamental place in an undergraduate curriculum.
  2. It would abolish departments to encourage cross-fertilization.
  3. Its core curriculum would not focus on a canon but instead on ensuring that students were exposed to different methods of intellectual inquiry: the scientific method, the statistical method, literary criticism and so on.
  4. It would create a truly multicultural curriculum, where students would learn not only about Plato and Aristotle but also, in the same course, Confucius and the Buddha, while asking why their philosophies might be different or similar.2

If the Yale-NUS experiment works, it could be the model for an increasingly connected and globalised world. But Zakaria, along with other critics, have pointed out that this can happen only if the state is willing to forego control.

But since the very beginning of the Confucian educational model under Empress Wu Zetian in 664 CE, the nexus between the centers of power and knowledge has been strong. Empress Wu, herself an upstart ruler, instituted the system of examinations for entry into an elite bureaucracy to create an alternate power base that she could control while undercutting the power of the old nobility.

Old habits die hard.