From Where I Sit - Bologna, but with Asian spice

December 13, 2012

Europe is reshaping higher education through its Bologna Process, but it is not the only region to do so. A similar process is taking place on the other side of the world, but in a distinctly East Asian way.

One player in this is a forum known as Besetoha, whose name is derived from those of its members - Beijing (Peking) University, Seoul National University, the University of Tokyo and Vietnam National University, Hanoi. The heads of those regional flagship institutions will gather in Beijing on 13-14 December for the group's annual meeting. Established in 1999, Besetoha undertakes a range of activities such as student and staff exchanges and cultural events. It also recently reached an agreement on dual-degree programmes.

Other high-level regional initiatives include East Asia's cautious equivalent of the Bologna Process. The Association of East Asian Research Universities is a network of 17 elite universities from mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that was founded in 1996. There is also Campus Asia, an Erasmus-style student exchange scheme that grew out of China, Japan and South Korea's Second Trilateral Summit in 2009; again, leading universities are involved.

All these manifest a distinctly East Asian take on regionalism. In East Asian thought, there is no contradiction between elitism and opportunity. Since at least China's Han Dynasty (which began in 206BC), regional higher education has consisted mainly of educating scholar-bureaucrats (mandarins) as national elites. This permeated culture and resonates still: a prestigious university is seen as a gateway to success, and competition for entry is fierce.

In East Asia, the state and the university are intertwined: policy documents often describe institutions as vehicles for national development. East Asian national hierarchies in higher education are firm - but for a while now it has been recognised that their reputations should "travel" like those of the best Western universities. Asia's governments are now demanding that their flagships assume a global stature. University rankings produced in Shanghai and Taipei monitor such progress, while programmes such as China's 211 Project, Japan's Centres of Excellence scheme and South Korea's World-Class University initiative earmark resources for top-tier institutions.

Besetoha and other initiatives reflect ancient Asian patterns of higher education as a hierarchical extension of the state, but they also seek to tap in to global currents and to find cultural and economic allies. In a region defined largely by China's rising star, approaches to commonalities and differences are strategically vital. The 2011 Besetoha meeting explored the possibility of using the same textbook of Chinese classics in the four institutions as part of a core undergraduate curriculum, just as the predecessors of universities in the region did a few hundred years ago. For all we hear about China's sometimes tense relations with its neighbours, a common China-rooted heritage is evident.

Meanwhile, in the here and now, the Besetoha institutions conduct their summit in their four national languages. Although this can be costly and cumbersome given the strong command of international English among university leaders everywhere, it is a clear statement of intent about nurturing national identities within a regional one.

There is no denying the global convergence in higher education, but we should be mindful of a unique model emerging in East Asia - not one playing catch-up with the Western ideal of the university, but something subtly different.

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