Is Hong Kong destined to become Asia's 'world education hub' or only one among many? Despite the exam-oriented rote learning and little innovative teaching, few would dispute the fact that Asian education is on the rise. As its economies come to dominate the world, it could justify whatever kind of education it chooses. Already, schoolchildren in Singapore and Hong Kong almost lead the world in maths and science achievement. Those in Japan and South Korea are also near the top of the international rankings, and mainland China is rising quickly. Moreover, mass higher education is becoming the norm. (South Korea has already moved to universal higher education.) Many Asian institutions of higher learning will join the ranks of world-class universities as Japan's Doyama Plan, South Korea's BK21, and China's 211 and 985 initiatives kick in. Asian students overwhelmingly populate prestigious graduate schools of science and engineering at leading American universities, and western institutions like Nottingham University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business are already setting up shop in East Asia. In short, the schools of East Asia have already demonstrated the potential to challenge the best anywhere. With time, the rest of the neighbourhood will go down the same path. For Hong Kong the stakes are high if it aims to become Asia's world education hub, but the messages are contradictory, as these South China Morning Post headlines printed in little over a month reveal: 'Hong Kong among the world's best school systems', 'Report says teachers, training are key to success', 'HK slips down the competitive chart', 'World Business Survey cites city schools, red tape' and 'Premier tells Tsang to foster talent, clear the air, and educate and innovate more'. Regardless of the headlines, the message is clear: education equals competitiveness equals economic growth. An overriding question becomes how East Asia can use its schools to repackage cultural heritage within shifting economic contexts to cultivate a national citizenry and a common regional affinity. This is necessary to fulfil its aspiration - that of being the leading sphere of global prosperity in the second half of the 21st century. The East Asian educational model will increasingly come to define what constitutes competitive human resource talent. However, the division of wealth and power among and within national populations has the potential to upset the harmony and social order that is identified with East Asia's cultural heritage. This is a challenge that must be overcome. While many countries have increased their public expenditure on education, some, like Thailand, have decreased it. Most of East Asia is below the recommended 6 per cent expenditure of gross domestic product on education, including China, which has hovered near 3 per cent. Malaysia, with 8.5 per cent of GDP going to education, towers above the rest. A quick scan reveals great economic and educational gaps, a stunning cultural diversity and rapidly shifting reform policies in education. In short, East Asia is far from monolithic. Economic globalisation has standardised educational systems but failed to produce a 'McDonaldisation' across schools and colleges. They remain stubbornly anchored in historical objectivities and resilient to outside influence. The reason has much to do with the way East Asia weathered colonialism before it strengthened statehood amid new international alliances. Globalisation is making East Asia's long-term development strategy increasingly dependent on its ability to become like the European Union, with a free-trade zone, common currency and convertible educational credentials. As such, common cultural traditions, historical affinities and developmental experiences become an integrative focus of regional affairs. Despite a degree of cultural, especially religious, diversity that trumps anything found in Europe, success is viewed by many within East Asia as inseparable from the common themes of social harmony, moral cultivation, personal networks, paternal leadership and political authoritarianism. Perspectives on Asian values and historical experiences with colonialism still enter into the debate about school reform. Despite tense relationships left over from historical legacies of the 20th century, East Asian nations have intensified their educational interchange and co-operation. China has played no small role in this. Its meteoric rise emphasises shared regional prosperity alongside a slowly expanding global role, even while the rise of Asia's other giant neighbour, India, begins to loom larger on the horizon. Being sandwiched between India and China can not only bring more prosperity to Southeast Asian nations but also be an added plus for China's special regions such as Hong Kong and Tibet. As Southeast Asian flagship universities come to function more and more as local co-ordinators of globalisation within their respective nations, their legal systems will become more important. All this makes Hong Kong's aspiration of becoming an international education more complex and challenging. Gerard Postiglione is professor and head, Division of Policy, Administration and Social Science, Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong. His latest book is Going to School in East Asia, with Jason Tan (New York: Greenwood Press 2007).