Asia Needs to Invest More in Education, Skills Development and Human Resources

Asia needs to improve its education and skills development systems, particularly for the poor and vulnerable. Photo: ADB
Asia needs to improve its education and skills development systems, particularly for the poor and vulnerable. Photo: ADB

By Jouko Sarvi

Asia and the Pacific face challenges in reforming education and skills development but there are also real opportunities.

Developing countries in the region have made good progress in increasing student enrollments and financing for education; however, heightened spending has not effectively translated into improved education outcomes. High dropout rates and low completion rates in education further exacerbate the situation in many countries. Increasingly stakeholders in the region raise concerns about the failure of education to meet the growing demand for appropriately skilled human resources so essential for greater productivity, inclusive growth, and regional integration efforts. 

Undoubtedly, Asian development context provides complex challenges for accelerating human resource development. Many Asian economies have rapidly progressed from agriculture to industry and services. Asia also is home for a group of transition countries which are shifting from tight centrally planned economies to market economies. Rapid urbanization and development of green economies also are some examples of characteristics of the region resulting to shifts in demand for skills. Often education and skills development systems have remained stagnant, unable to adjust to become truly demand driven services to effectively support human resource development for labor markets. Many countries face the risk of ‘middle-income trap’, unless they increase learning pathways and make them flexible responding to changing needs of labor markets and strengthen the role of education and skills development in supporting knowledge and technology-intensive sectors to move up the value chain.

Reaching the excluded in Asia calls for strategies quite different from simply increasing opportunities for more students to attend education and training.

While it is important to pursue reforms which effectively improve the quality and relevance of education and skills of graduates, it is equally important to improve inclusiveness of education and skills training services, particularly as the phenomenal economic growth in Asia has been far from being inclusive and can result to social and economic instability. Inequality in access to education has become a key factor in Asia contributing to income inequality and widening disparities. Educating and skilling excluded groups is not only highly necessary for establishing a broad human resource base for advancing inclusive economic growth but also for achieving other equally important development goals in societies and the region as a whole. 

However, reaching the excluded in Asia calls for strategies quite different from simply increasing opportunities for more students to attend education and training. Education strategies and training programs must adapt to the circumstances and needs of the excluded. This requires in-depth analysis of exclusion patterns, mapping the scope of exclusion in the context of countries and identification of exclusion factors related to various marginalized groups, particularly those who face disadvantage due to geographic isolation, poverty, and social exclusion.

While Asia region faces challenges in reforming education and skills development, there also are real opportunities, perhaps currently more than any other developing region in the world. Today’s Asia can present a momentum for pursuing innovative approaches to help transform education and skills training services for impact. This will require strategies for (positively) disruptive innovation and close collaboration with a wider (than the usual) range of stakeholders of education. Several Asian countries have a successful history of partnerships with the private sector and industry in education and skills development. Building on the experience and expanding it in the region will not only help share costs of education and skills training, but also will help improve the relevance of graduates’ knowledge and skills, for both domestic and regional labor markets. Moreover, opportunities in the region are increasing for innovation in education and skills development through regional cooperation and south-south cooperation platforms. Asia is home for some G20 and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, and BRICS, which have successful experiences to share in linking development of education and skills with labor market evolution. Some of the top performing basic education systems in the world are in Asia. Several Asian tertiary education institutions and universities are not only distinguished regional hubs and establishing branch campuses in the region, but are climbing steadily higher in global rankings. To continue contributing as the economic growth engine of the world, Asia will need to utilize its potential for innovation in education and human resource development.