Eastern promise

December 12, 2013

I’m sitting in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (previously Saigon), a progressive and cosmopolitan metropolis that has an abundance of scooters and a vibrant cafe culture. With a distinctive Parisian feel, this city and its people are the embodiment of our global society – a true fusion of “East and West”.

A Global Education Dialogue event, organised by the British Council, has brought together higher education leaders, government officials and industry representatives from the UK and nations across East Asia. The topic for discussion is 21st-century universities, and it is clear from the initial welcome by the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training that the economic integration of Asean, the Association of South East Asian Nations, scheduled for 2015, is driving change.

The need to reform national systems to keep pace and to actively compete is the primary concern of education ministries across the region. As Mya Oo, a representative of Burma’s Education Development Committee, explained, many of these states, often under the West’s radar, are looking to create an environment to nurture the growth of autonomous universities and see the development of deep international partnerships as a priority.

Burma, whose population is roughly the same size as the UK’s, has had to cope with particularly difficult circumstances over the past 65 years: civil war, military rule and economic sanctions have tested the nation beyond measure. A ray of light finally appeared when parliamentary elections were held in November 2010, the first in 20 years, prompting a series of political and economic reforms.

Burma, set to chair Asean next year, has ambitious plans for the future. The country has placed an emphasis on quadrupling output and views developing sectors such as telecommunications, energy/mining, tourism and financial services as the route map to success.

And there’s a similar emphasis in neighbouring countries Vietnam and Laos. The former, a nation of 90 million people, is also looking towards international partnerships and is focusing on telecommunications (with a large percentage of the circuitry used in our mobile phones being manufactured there).

The VN-UK Research Centre was launched at the Dialogue event. An initiative supported by the British Council, the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training, Aston University and Danang University, it will focus on telecommunications, finance and biomedical research. It is clear that a research hub in these sectors is developing in the region.

Although most of the focus in the UK over the past 10 years has been on forging stronger links with the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), Southeast Asia in general and the Asean nations of Vietnam, Burma and Laos in particular also have a strong appetite for growth. They are placing education, particularly universities, at the heart of their economic revolutions, with skills, research and innovation as the delivery mechanisms.

There are challenges ahead – political instability, lack of resources – but also real opportunities for long-term change. Asean nations such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have developed rapidly over the past 20 years, and this is evident in their education systems.

As Asean members seek active partners, UK universities have a huge opportunity to work with them on shared themes in research, innovation and education.

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