The future for Asia’s universities is collaboration

Collective effort can combat misinformation, respond to climate change and harness the power of AI for the good of mankind, says Rocky Tuan

July 1, 2023
Drawing of lots of people collaborating
Source: iStock

Like the delicate flutter of a butterfly’s wings, the interconnectedness of our globalised world sets in motion a chain of events that reverberates across continents and shapes the destiny of nations.

In this intricate dance of interdependence, universities emerge as transformative catalysts, nurturing talent and knowledge. They hold the power to harness the butterfly effect, weaving a tapestry of innovation and collaboration that transcends borders and boundaries, propelling humanity forward on the winds of progress.

But what is it about universities that make them so enduring as institutions when so many other features of our societies are prone to the tides of history?

Universities are often seen as the perfect platforms for countries or regions to showcase their unique capacities and potentials to the world. It is thus noteworthy that increased participation rates in higher education, investments in innovative research and the emergence of high-quality universities have coincided with a remarkable shift in the global centre of gravity towards Asia.

However, relentless recent waves of change will affect universities in Asia – and, potentially, worldwide – in significant ways. One of the notable challenges is an ageing population. Demographic trends have profound implications on universities as education is fundamentally a people’s business. And the United Nations Population Fund projects that, by 2050, the number of elderly people over 60 years old in the Asia-Pacific region will triple, reaching approximately 1.3 billion people: 25 per cent of the total population.

A number of Asian countries – in particular, Japan, South Korea and China – are grappling with declining birth rates. These will lead to a diminishing working population and pose challenges to universities in terms of their size, shape, research intensity and access to research funding.

Asian higher education also faces growing geopolitical complexities. Sino-US tensions, for instance, have deterred students from enrolling in overseas higher education programmes in both countries. Geopolitical dynamics have also created barriers to transnational collaborations, hindering the exchange of knowledge and expertise necessary for generating the new discoveries and innovations that will fuel progress in tackling some of our planet’s most pressing challenges.

In this environment, Asian universities must embrace imaginative thinking to devise viable solutions. They are more motivated than ever to revamp their staff and student recruitment strategies to address challenges posed by ageing populations. Some institutions are actively promoting lifelong-learning programmes for returning and mature students to counter the shrinking young adult population. Others are diversifying their student bases by targeting international students through partnerships with overseas universities, easing visa restrictions or recognising alternative international qualifications.

Another avenue for Asian universities is closely aligning university education with national strategies.

In China, establishing a strong connection between university education and national strategy has played a pivotal role in maintaining a competitive sector. The nation’s universities have changed dramatically, positioning themselves as highly attractive destinations for both domestic and international students.

China has achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the world’s largest producer of scientific outputs, signifying its increasing prominence in research and innovation. This has propelled Chinese universities into the higher ranks of global league tables, bolstering their appeal among students seeking high-quality education and increasing China’s prestige as a global research destination.

China’s overall population size will help offset the challenges posed by a projected 38 per cent decline in the number of school-leavers by 2050. In addition, the Chinese government has focused on quality and driving institutional performance. This focus on excellence, coupled with ambitious targets to attract international students, demonstrates a strong commitment to nurturing a world-class higher education system.

Some Asian countries have even celebrated unprecedented records in student recruitment. For example, despite recent reports of closures and mergers across the sector, South Korea has experienced an increase in international student enrolment, reaching its target of hosting 200,000 students this year, a notable leap from just 12,314 two decades ago.

Nevertheless, addressing mega-trends such as demographics, geopolitical tensions and the rise of technology requires collective efforts and big-picture thinking. Asian universities must collaborate to navigate shared challenges. At the recent Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit, co-hosted by The Chinese University of Hong Kong, more than 500 higher education leaders from over 140 leading universities and organisations across Asia and beyond gathered to discuss the “Asian university in 2050”. The summit witnessed an enthusiastic display of cooperation and partnership, serving as a powerful reminder of the importance of collaborations to drive the sector’s development over the coming decades.

History has demonstrated that universities possess the ability to adapt to change and spearhead positive global transformations. Asian universities, situated at the centre of growing power and impact, should leverage our unique geographical location to navigate the complexity of the 21st century.

By cementing partnerships and learning from best practice, we can collectively address the skills gap, equip the younger generation for the future workplace, combat misinformation in the digital era, respond to climate change and tackle other grand challenges of our time. Moreover, universities are uniquely positioned to ride the digital wave of the fourth industrial revolution and harness the power of artificial intelligence for the good of mankind.

The value of universities resides in so much more than their individual missions or their benefits to their local communities. The true power of higher education lies in the collective value of what we can do together.

Rocky S. Tuan is vice-chancellor and president of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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