Tips for engaging Asian universities and alumni in new modes of collaboration

Benjamin Tak Yuen Chan shares two key recommendations for how Western institutions can continue to forge fruitful collaborations with Asian universities and attract students from the region

Benjamin Tak Yuen Chan's avatar
Hong Kong Metropolitan University
2 Jun 2021
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Recommendations for how Western institutions can remain attractive to Asian universities and students

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Exchanges with Asian universities and the movement of Asian students to study in Western countries have for a long time been taken as a given. However, this is starting to change as more Asian universities build reputations to match their international peers.

With increases in the quality and quantity of local universities, coupled with the availability of job opportunities at home, the number of Asian students heading to Western universities is likely to level out in future. For example, the UK projects a small increase of up to 600,000 international students by 2030, compared to 560,000 in 2019, the bulk of which will be students from China and India. Against this backdrop, there appears to be a rise in intra-regional internationalisation, with student mobility taking place closer to home.

So what strategies could universities in the West adopt to continue collaborating with their Asian counterparts and remain the preferred choice for many Asian students, including non-internationally mobile ones?

There are two important levers – collaboration in niche discipline development and alumni career management – which hitherto have received less attention from international educators and policymakers than mainstream initiatives of international student recruitment, joint research projects and outbound-inbound student exchanges.

In short, bringing new and quality programme choices to Asian students closer to home and creating value for graduates of Western universities are recommended.

Recommendation 1: collaborate on niche discipline development to build long-term relationships with Asian universities and support their emerging professions

Nowadays, universities everywhere tend to offer a very similar range of programmes. If international education was like international trade, products would need to stand out based on unique selling points, one of which is niche programme offerings.

Keen observers of internationalisation would notice that over the years, new study areas have mostly been conceived in Western universities, except for a few subjects such as oriental medicine and acupuncture, which have origins in East Asia. The thrust by Western universities to use their lead in engineering and scientific innovations to spearhead transnational disciplinary collaborations misses out on other possibilities.

Where the core value of university study is to serve humanity, the “human services” discipline still has much room for expansion in Asian universities, despite the prevalence of established programmes in the social sciences such as social work, counselling and psychology. New careers such as “behavioural management specialist” and “child life specialist” that are known in the West are non-existent but equally needed in this part of the world. The same applies to complementary therapies to counselling and psychology, such as animal-assisted therapy, horticultural therapy, creative therapy and other modalities. These new study areas offer attractive opportunities for Western universities to transfer know-how to Asian counterparts through a chain of collaboration, spanning curriculum design, staff training, practice standard setting, licensing and practitioner’s CPD provision.

A partnership to execute this tuition would necessarily be long term, and its impact felt in the local community by clients served and practitioners trained under the partnership. This is one example of a collaboration model based on niche discipline development that would bring reputation gains for the contributing Western university and provide rich overseas experience for its staff.

Recommendation 2: support alumni in their career development to differentiate the university’s brand in the Asian market

The vast majority of Asian graduates completing studies at Western universities will return to their home countries to pursue a career. In the past, graduate engagement rested solely with the alumni office, with an emphasis on connecting graduates through overseas tours by university senior management and soliciting graduate giving.

The Covid-19 crisis has limited travel and brought to the fore the imperative to support post-graduation employment. Monitoring graduate outcomes and employability of international students is one of the key tasks highlighted in the UK’s International Education Strategy. Akin to good after-sales follow-up, the value of an undergraduate or taught master’s degree would depend on the currency in the labour market of the skills acquired in studies.

Hence, a change in thinking about graduate engagement is warranted, to move from passively connecting alumni to actively servicing their post-graduation needs. These needs include digital and employability skills as well as help accessing quality courses and programmes online during different phases of their career development.

Many Western universities that traditionally accept Asian students have the means to do this easily as they have invested in various forms of educational technology, such as putting skills-based courses on massive open online course (Mooc) platforms and running postgraduate programmes online before the pandemic. Some of these learning services could be provided to graduates on a complimentary basis, while others would be fee-paying, but offered at a preferential rate.

Supporting graduates to continuously upskill and reskill will help to build an ecosystem of lifelong learning that not only benefits them but also redefines the university’s value proposition to help win more international students.

Value-adding for alumni can serve as a good differentiating feature for any international university wanting to have a successful presence in the Asian region amid mounting local competition.

Benjamin Tak Yuen Chan, dean of the Li Ka Shing School of Professional and Continuing Education at the Open University of Hong Kong.


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