A Unesco project is linking academics in 12 Asian countries via the Internet, writes Geoff Maslen in Melbourne
Universities in Commonwealth and certain Asian countries are promoting multilateral research and teaching through a unique electronic network.
The five-year old Unesco-backed Asia-Pacific Higher Education Network (APHEN) now includes universities in 12 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan, Fiji, and Hong Kong.
Academics in these countries are being encouraged to contact colleagues via the Internet to set up news groups or bulletin boards, increase staff and student exchanges, discuss research findings and establish "harmonised and internationally recognised" postgraduate programmes.
Secretariat services for the network are provided by the Australian Vice-chancellors' Committee, assisted by the Asia-Pacific Research Institute at Macquarie University in Sydney.
Unesco identified ten disciplinary areas as priorities related to sustainable development. They include Asian studies, distance education, engineering, environmental management, law, teacher education and tropical architecture. Sub-networks are being formed to cover trade and human resource development. More sub-networks are added as interest grows among researchers.
As part of its commitment to Unesco, Australia's government appointed the AVCC to oversee the development of a wide, multilateral network of higher education institutions. The committee met in 1993 to enable representatives from Australian universities to consider the arrangements most likely to be of interest to Asian-Pacific institutions. Universities and education ministries from 15 countries sent representatives to the second APHEN regional conference in Sydney in 1996. After that meeting, networks were set up and the APHEN website launched.
Director of international operations at the AVCC, Bob Goddard, said APHEN's objectives include building and expanding links between universities in the region, providing opportunities for teaching and research collaboration, increasing staff and student mobility and creating a network that might serve as a model for other regions around the world.
"For academics interested in participating, we have created a common email address for each sub-network to enable the same message to be sent simultaneously to all members within that network," Mr Goddard says.
He says members' messages are posted on a bulletin board for purposes of announcements and information sharing. The secretariat monitors the boards and updates them regularly. "Academics use it as a way to get access to others researching in the same field. The real test will come when we try to get a commitment from the various countries to fund a permanent secretariat."
Mr Goddard says it is difficult to estimate how many academics are involved because it is up to individuals to make the contacts with colleagues in other places.
The AVCC is also backing a related scheme: University Mobility in the Asia Pacific, an Erasmus look-alike under which thousands of students and academics undertake bilateral exchanges.
The federal government allocates more than AUS$1 million (Pounds 368,000) to encourage Australians to participate, but Mr Goddard says this was far too small an amount. "If the government is serious about Australia's engagement with Asia, we believe it should build that sum up to AUS$10 million a year."
APHEN's website is at http:///www.mq.edu.au/Aphen