Promoting Social Democratic Thinking, Alternatives and Practices


The Network publishes its own quarterly, Socdem Asia Quarterly, which aims to reflect the discourse of the Network and the leading intellectuals across the region and beyond about most pertinent developments of concern to social democrats. The Quarterly expounds on policies, perspectives and lessons learned from social democratic political practice in the region as well as reflections and experiences from Social Democrats worldwide. Along with Quarterly, the Socdem Asia website offers Op-Eds, interviews, and editorial opinions on latest developments across Asia-Pacific to a broader audience.

Education and Empowerment: A Social Democratic Roadmap for Educational Reform in Asia

There is almost a universal consensus among experts, civil society organizations, governments and global institutions with respect to Education’s crucial role in fostering individual empowerment collective cohesion, and national as well as regional development. Also, throughout the long history of the emergence and development of social democrats and progressive movements, from labor unions, to civil society groups, and reform-minded intellectuals, Education has remained as a central advocacy. Education is a primary mechanism for empowering members and the broader citizenry, enabling organizational consolidation and coalition-building, fostering vibrant and informed debates around pressing issues in the society, and advancing socio-political consciousness against ignorance and political passivity.  Despite the rapid changes in the fortunes and circumstances of progressive movements and workers groups, with many social democratic parties enmeshed in direct day-to-day governance issues, Education still continues to serve as a pillar of public advocacy and outreach -- inspiring new generations of leaders with cutting-edge ideas, guiding political mobilizations, and shaping a socially-conscious citizenry. 

The 21st century -- marked by the advent of information technology, simultaneous political integration-fragmentation, and intense competition -- has further underlined the significance of achieving universal literacy, promoting functional education, and pushing for cutting-edge research and innovation to not only ensure social mobility and consciousness among citizens and individuals, but also facilitate sustainable national development and international cooperation. With the Asia-Pacific region emerging as a new center of global economic activity and social dynamism, the issue of Education is of paramount importance, especially vis-à-vis sustaining a strong momentum for growth, tackling poverty, fighting corruption, and harnessing civic engagement and democratic practices. Along health and income, education is one of the key pillars of human development and security – and a pivotal element of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) under the United Nations. 

Nonetheless, despite the expressed consensus by almost all states, civic organizations, and international bodies on the importance of Education, there seems to be a wide gap between agreed upon set of principles and goals on fostering Education, on one hand, and the realities of access to and quality of education (and the actual implementation of relevant programs and reforms), on the other. Across different continents, there are major gaps in the quality and accessibility of education – as well as the degree of importance attached to it, as reflected in the percentage of the GDP spent on education and research and development (R&D) by individual states. 

Within the Asia-Pacific region itself, there is a wide spectrum of educational indicators, challenges, pedagogical practices, and overall levels of development – suggesting a complex and less-than-uniform macro-educational landscape. Thus, it is very important to identify common and specific challenges in the realm of education, analyze obstacles to achieving universal and functional literacy, and understand the factors that contribute to a vibrant educational atmosphere within individual states and regions. 

Education and Social Democracy 

Inequality is a major challenge today. About two-thirds of the world’s poor reside in middle income countries. And education has historically proven to be a pivotal aspect of (overcoming) inequality. Historically, public education, which ensured universal access to quality education among the citizens, served as a linchpin of democratic transformation, social cohesion, and economic equity in Europe. And the social democratic forces, from Germany to Sweden, played a central role in preserving this egalitarian social order, allowing many ordinary, working class citizens to break through socio-economic barriers, pursuing fruitful careers as individuals as well as fully participating in the determination of the democratic order in their respective countries. 

Across Europe, especially in places such as Sweden, employment and education came to dominate the political discourse ahead of the September Parliamentary Elections.  Throughout Europe, amid the discourse of austerity, there has emerged a vibrant debate vis-à-vis the rollback of the welfare state in Europe, and the impact of neo-liberal economic reform on the education sector. In Sweden, the increasing privatization and segregation of the traditionally state-dominated public education sector has led to a dramatic decline in educational standards and competency among the younger generation. In Sweden, the rise of right-wing/liberal governments has been accompanied by (state-subsidized) private schools, which follow standardized curriculum -- but are driven by profits. 

Now more than 40% of Swedish students go to the private schools. Consequently, Sweden has suffered the biggest loss in OECD’s education indicators. Segregation and money laundering of state subsidies of these institutions has also become a huge concern -- issues that hardly existed prior to the privatization of education institutions by right-wing governments. No wonder, the social democrats’ age-old (and increasingly more assertive) advocacy of public education has gained unprecedented traction among the electorate, especially the youth, which played an important role in the strong performance of social democrats in the Swedish Parliamentary Elections in September. 

For social democrats, education is viewed as a gateway to emancipation, empowerment, and participation in the labor market and cultural life. It is a gateway to a good life. It is a foundation of democracy. The future of democracy and education and educational opportunities are interrelated. Historically speaking, education is not something that can be taken for granted. Prior to the democratization of Europe, the lack of education was used by the establishment as an instrument for political control. No wonder, the 19th century progressive, labour movements were grounded on the principle of popular education. These democratic social movements, which eventually came to play a role in the democratization and direct governance of their respective countries, pushed for obligatory basic education as a vehicle for enhancing social cohesion and political empowerment of the citizenry. As modern history vividly demonstrates, even economic prosperity depends on education. This is why the creation of quality and accessible education has been a central element of social democratic principles.  

Social democrats believe that education rests on a number of key principles. First of all, it should be holistic, not only about skill development, but also about emotional development and human psychology -- it is about shaping people’s character in a manner that is individually empowering and socially desirable.  Equal opportunity is also an essential element of education, where social origins are not a basis for the determination of educational success; individual citizens, from all walks of life and from across the socio-economic spectrum, should have an equal opportunity to pursue their educational objectives and fulfil their aspirations in this regard. 

Education is also about the state’s indubitable responsibility to monitor quality. It is about the development of concrete indicators and standards to ensure educational institutions are achieving and sustaining quality education for individual and collective success. Moreover, education is about inclusiveness, serving as a platform for social cohesion, integration of diverse individuals into the body politic and encouraging them to play a role in the determination of democratic life, and empowering disadvantaged communities and individuals to have sufficient access to quality education.  

In practice, however, many of the principles of education are yet to be fully realized. People from privileged background have greater chance to good education than their poorer counterparts. There is a necessity for targeted promotion of the potentials of all citizens; all children deserve a good start in life, but this philosophy is not supported by everybody. Some contend that formal education is enough. So widening educational opportunities is still a challenge. But education is a civil and human right. 

As Ibarra Gutierrez, member of the Philippine House of Representatives (Akbayan Party-List), states in the Quarterly, Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees every individual’s right to education. ‘In the Philippines, this right is further established in Article XIV, Section 1 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which provides that, “The State shall protect and promote the right of all citizens to quality education at all levels,” he explains. “The educational system should not only develop individual capacities but also inculcate social consciousness that would encourage active participation in national development.”

Continuous and sustained state-led efforts at promoting educational opportunities for all citizens are central to promoting participation in the determination of political life in the society. It is incumbent upon the state to encourage people to make the most of their potentials. Every human being should have access to free and quality education. Educational exclusion is a form of injustice, undermining innovation and progress, which is essential to national development.  

In the long run, investment in education is central to sustained economic growth. Education is expensive, but lack of it is even more costly to the economic trajectory of nations. Highly-skilled individuals are the backbone of a productive economy. Multiple studies show how poverty and economic competitiveness, on one hand, and lack of education, on the other, are correlated. Thus, investment in education is a cornerstone of social policy. The state should develop an integrated view of education, which appreciates the centrality of educational opportunities to a vibrant economy. 

Germany, for instance, only spends up to 1% of its GDP on education, which is below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) standards. Education is an issue that covers all aspects of governance and policy-making. The African proverb that “It takes a whole village to educate a child” is true. “Even with similar achievements, the chance to be recommended for grammar school is 4 times higher for children from higher social backgrounds than for children from working-class families,” explains Mirko Schadewald, SPD-Party Executive at the Division for Education and Research, in the Quarterly, underlying the continued challenges in ensuring socialized education in Germany. “Of 100 children whose parents have an academic background themselves, 77 manage to go on to university. Of 100 children from non-academic families, it is only 23.” 

Room for Reforms 

With respect to education, policy-making should not only be confined to the federal/national level, but it should also be coordinated with, applied to, and appreciative of realities on the municipal and local government levels. With respect to vocational training, for instance, the principle under consideration should be: Every individual should be given qualified skills to be able to find meaningful education and careers. 

The constant assessment, revaluation, and amendments of education-related regulations is extremely important to maintaining a competitive, quality education sector, which, in turn, is central to economic buoyancy and sustainable development. Education -- similar to social justice and other public services -- should not be treated as a commodity, but instead as a public good, which is non-negotiable; it can’t be bought and sold. The state should guarantee access to this public good. 

From a macro-political perspective, education policy should ensure that the educational system reflects the democratic values of the constitution. The school and university curriculums should reflect the constitutional and democratic values of the society, and not promote segregation, alienation, and antagonism among varying communities. 

One of the main problems with market-driven educational systems is their mistaken, atomistic conception of education; according to the neo-liberal argument, if you are going to benefit from your education then you should pay for it yourself. But in reality, education has a public dimension. Moreover, the privatization of education has led to decline in quality. Per Europe’s experience, the privatization of education has led to the decline in both quality and democratic character of the overall educational system.

The Asian Landscape 

Against the backdrop of sustained economic development in Asia, a new era of prosperity and upward social mobility has brought about greater civic consciousness with respect to rising inequality and the deterioration of public welfare throughout the region.  As recent popular uprisings and massive protests across Asia demonstrate -- some in relation to electoral fraud and others in response to the rollback of state services -- there is a general yearning for new ideas and policies, which can bring about true democratic transformation in the region. 

Recent years have seen sustained mobilization by the civil society and youth groups, who have not only asked for more political freedom and democratization, but also, perhaps even more importantly, demanded the preservation of the state’s welfare responsibilities and the protection of basic public services such as education. More and more people, most especially the youth, have continuously lamented and resisted the growing privatization of public services, since education, among other services, is increasingly being treated as a market commodity -- not as a basic component of human rights and a fundamental responsibility of the state, as social democrats contend. Education, as a result, is seen through the prism of market logic, with the primary purpose of enhancing the productive capacities of individual citizens. Education is less seen as a tool of social empowerment and self-actualization for individual citizens, but instead increasingly treated as a tool for enhancing the efficiency of the labor markets. 

Economic globalization, therefore, has brought about a simultaneous rise in democratic aspirations as well as a decline in public services such as education. In recent years, many have come to view, rather naively, cyberspace as the emerging instrument for upgrading and expanding educational initiatives. But this overlooks the commercial interests underpinning such platforms, and the inherent limitations of such platforms for ensuring optimal face-to-face interaction, which is essential to any quality education. 

Many leading universities have introduced Massive Open Online education, thinking this will serve as a panacea to the plethora of educational challenges we face in the 21st century. But this has proven to be very limited in its impact and efficacy, with many leading advocates in the West increasingly admitting so. In short, the advent of information technology has largely failed to supplant traditional public education as a source of quality, accessible training as well as an avenue for critical, creative thinking.  

The commodification of education represents a huge setback for the democratic aspirations of Asia, undermining the long-term trajectory of democratization in the region. And this is precisely where social democrats, who emphasize the centrality of public education to democratic politics and social equity, can play an important role.  

“In achieving relevant education, the government must realize that education must be used as a tool for national development,” Gutierrez argues in the Quarterly. “[Relevant reforms in education should] serve the needs of the country more than the global, capitalist markets, integrating courses and methods which are responsive to the needs of the Filipino culture and society.”

In our globalized world, education has gained greater salience, especially for social democrats, who view education as a foundation of a democratic movement aimed at the empowerment of the citizenry. 

Conceptualizing reforms: The German Experience  

There are elements of the German system, which could be useful to Asia. Federal Germany’s experience with integration of East Germany (after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) raises important lessons for Asia and other developing regions. “Combining different places and organizations” has been a cornerstone of Germany’s response. So Germany is not alien to the problems, which beset developing countries. 

In many Asian schools, the professional schools should play a major role in vocational training program There should be a strong state-employer partnership on regulating the quality and standards of training among apprentices. Vocational training should emphasize wide-ranging skills, including administrative skills. The training should be comprehensive in its development of competencies. It is difficult, however, to fully guarantee private schools will reflect democratic values. This is why public education is ideal, and the state should pro-actively monitor the operations and curriculum of private institutions. The state after all has compliance-enforcement mechanisms. It can withdraw allowances and accreditation if they don’t follow constitutional values. 

While many private universities are as competent as public universities in providing needed skills for the success of individuals, as seen across Asia, education actually represents something larger: It is about transmitting social values, which enhance democratic politics and inter-cultural communication. Even some big business leaders are worried about the lack of management skills among many who have not participated in and received public education. People tend to underestimate human potentials for learning. That is why the state has a political responsibility to correct this. 

The success of German educational system has attracted attention from other advanced industrialized countries such as Japan, which seek to incorporate lessons, especially in the realm of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), an initiative initially launched at the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development held in September 2002 – and now becoming a global movement. ‘Germany’s gymnasiums were even more successful than their American and British counterparts in motivating students and encouraging them to translate their motivation into action through a “participatory process.’, explains Toshimitsu Tabe, Professor at the Department of Education, Faculty of Integrated Arts and Social Sciences, Japan Women’s University, in the Quarterly. “Japanese education should be re-examined while learning from Germany and other countries, and Japan should actively incorporate elements of ESD in its educational systems.”

Continued Challenges 

In Asia, it is hard to speak of a singular trend in the realm of education across the continent. As a vast region, composed of varying sub-regions, Asia is home to one of the world’s least developed countries, mostly in Central and South Asia, as well as the world’s leading economies, mostly in Northeast Asia. As a result, in terms of educational standards there is a huge divergence in terms of indicators and standards vis-à-vis primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China are among the world’s most competitive countries in terms of proficiency in math and science and basic education indicators. 

In contrast, many countries in South and West Asia are below the world average in basic education indicators such as literacy rates, participation rates in varying educational levels, and in terms of proficiency in math and science. 

The Asian region also exhibits divergent models of education, with some countries such as Japan successfully combining equity with quality, while other countries have, at best, managed to focus on either equity in access or quality of training, without striking the optimal balance yet. Across many Asian countries, especially booming emerging markets in South and East Asia, the privatization of educational institutions has gone hand in hand with rising inequality in the economic realm. 

Other regions, especially in South and West Asia are still struggling with ensuring gender equity and universal access in education, with low levels of literacy among minorities As a result, international organizations such as UNESCO have stepped up their efforts to assist these countries to close the gender (and other forms of) gap, which have undermined the ability of many Asian countries to ensure quality, accessible education for the majority of the people.  

Given the vast gulf between educational trends and indicators between leading Northeast Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei), on one hand, and other regions of Asia, on the other, any policy intervention and educational advocacy in the context of Asia should be highly tuned to domestic realities on the ground. 

“There is no a single Asia, but several Asias…The education landscape in this region is dynamic, but also diverse…the Asia-Pacific region has made rapid progress in recent decades, especially in terms of access,” explains  Dr. Gwang-Jo Kim, Director of UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, in an exclusive interview with Socdem Asia. “I must say that progress in terms of quality of education is mixed in the region…”

Despite their tremendous success, Northeast Asian countries such as South Korea, however, continue to struggle with unique set of challenges in the realm of education. The excessive emphasis on rote memorization, which happens to be crucial to the performance of students ahead of entrance exams for higher education, has deprived many students of a more comprehensive, fulfilling mode of education, which should emphasize creativity, critical thinking, and civic responsibility. As a result, many students in places such as South Korea suffer from fatigue, stress, and depression.  

In places such as Japan, disparities among different regions is a source of concern, forcing the Ministry of Education to engage in varying studies to identify the root causes of the existing divergence in educational performance (i.e., the Programme for International Student Assessment) across Japan. While lack of financial support is a culprit for unequal educational performance across Japan’s regions, the response of the Ministry of Education, however, is to simply put more pressure on the educators to enhance the performance of the students. Another response from the government was to introduce the National Achievement Test to measure the competency of students in terms of mathematics and Japanese, consuming much of the energy of the local government. These efforts, however, have undermined the ability of educational institutions to engage in hands-on, integrated assessment and enhancement of the students’ competencies.  

In post-Soviet Asia countries such as Mongolia, the end of Cold War saw a perceptible shift in the structure and interests of educational sectors. Private institutions began to play a key role in provision of education, with profit considerations shaping the overall educational landscape -- leading to an explosion in the number of universities (150) in a country of only 3 million people. Increasingly, almost half of recent university graduates have struggled to find jobs, since the labor market has struggled to cope with a dramatic expansion in the tertiary education. Similar to other ex-Communist countries, Mongolia’ Soviet past ensured that the country had a perfect literacy rate and a robust foundation in math and basic sciences. “The compulsory nature of the education and penalties imposed on the parents for not sending their children to school, forced the attendance rate to increase rapidly,” explains Undraa Agvaanluvsan, Director of the Board Members at the Mongolian-American Scientific Research Center in Mongolia, in the Quarterly. “By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the Mongolian public education system had become a rather mature system. Despite some weaknesses, the country had developed a solid educational foundation to build on.”

“[After the Cold War ended] the curricula for the social sciences, including course materials in history, political sciences, and philosophy were changed dramatically,” Undraa Agvaanluvsan further explains. “The quality of education in private schools exceeds public schools, perhaps due to higher pay offered to attract better teachers. ..Even at public universities, students now pay tuition, which is a major difference compared to the previous era.” 

Across the world, especially in Asia, the continued commodification of education has reduced educational attainment into a basic standard for market efficiency and value. Among university professors, the constant emphasis on publication and output, which happen to be crucial to faculty promotion, funding, and university rankings, may have also affected the propensity of teachers to more fully engage in the comprehensive education of the students. The increasing penetration of market logic and over-emphasis on standardized tests, primarily assessing math and science proficiency, has undermined the value of education as a source of personal empowerment, fulfilment, and “happiness”, which should be at the heart of any desirable and ideal educational system, especially from a social democratic point of view.  

In Southeast Asia , there are concerns over the impact of the impending Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community -- originally planned to take effect by 2015, but there are growing indications that ongoing negotiations might be extended for few years more -- which will reduce trade and non-trade barriers among Southeast Asian states, potentially leading to a more aggressive privatization of educational institutions across the region and rollback of state services such as education subsidies. Accelerated trade liberalization could pave the way for a more aggressive imposition of market logic upon educational institutions, further eroding the quality of and access to basic and higher education in the region. Many Southeast Asian countries consider education as a basic human right and have constitutional obligations to allocate optimal amounts budget for public education institutions and ensure universal access to education. In reality, however, many governments continue to ignore their obligations, increasingly rely on private education, and use labor market exigencies as basis for determining their educational policy.  Lack of political freedom and state interference in education is another concern. Some Southeast Asian countries also continue to struggle with illiberal, autocratic regimes, which deprive universities, including premiere national universities, of much-needed academic freedom -- a cornerstone of liberal education and empowerment of the young generation.  

In South Asian countries such as Pakistan, however, there continues to be significant gender and ethnic gap in the educational system, reflecting not only the overall state of development in the country, but also persisting social cleavages, which undermine the provision of an accessible, quality education to all citizens, regardless of socio-economic status, age, gender, sex, religion, and ethnicity. The persistence of security challenges, from extremist-fundamentalist groups to ethnic separatists insurgencies, have undermined the ability of national and local governments to provide a systematic solution to a plethora of equity- and quality-related challenges, which prevent many citizens from gaining access to public education.   

Ironically, Pakistan is not short of any attempt at introducing educational reforms; the key issue, however, continues to implementation and appropriate coordination between federal and local agencies. “With almost 22 national education policies, action and sector plans since 1947, there is no dearth of education reform narratives in Pakistan, but a consistently poor record of implementation and allocations to education,” explains Baela Raza Jameel, among Pakistan’s foremost advocates and experts on education-related issues, in the Quarterly. “The current institutional and policy dissonance of the federation makes the business of education, learning and training into a multi-headed hydra difficult to comprehend by the citizens.” 

Aside from bringing together insights by leading experts on educational reform, this issue of Socdem Asia Quarterly also includes special features on key elections in recent months in Europe and Asia: An exclusive interview with Ann Linde, Head of International Unit of the Party of European Socialists (PES), on latest developments in the European Union (EU), particularly the rise of extreme-right parties in recent months as well as an article by Andi Saiful Haq, director of Institute for Transformation Studies-INTRANS) in Indonesia, on the recent Indonesian presidential elections, which brought to power a progressive leader, Joko Widodo, paving the way for a more robust democratic transition in the world’s largest Muslim democracy. 

This edition of the Quarterly was conceptualized on the heels of a SOCDEM Asia-organized  Conference on “Education for the Future, the Future of Education: Developing a Progressive Education Agenda” in Singapore (13-14 April 2014), where the participants discussed, among other things, Asia’s youthful population and the demand for better quality and accessible education, Europe’s experience with education reform, education as a tool of empowerment, promotion of social cohesion, and an essential component of human dignity, the socio-economic externalities of educational policies, critical areas for policy intervention on both national and local government levels based on lessons from Europe and most successful Asian countries, areas for collaboration and dialogue between educational reformers and institutions in Europe and Asia, structural and emerging challenges in the realm of education, and the persistence of economic, cultural, and gender divide in terms of access to quality education, especially in the developing regions of Asia.


Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, policy advisor, and author. He teaches political science and international relations at Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU), and as a specialist on Asian geopolitical and economic affairs he has written for or interviewed by Aljazeera English, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, among other leading publications. 


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