Elite universities acknowledge need to help regional campuses

Outreach with less prestigious and rural institutions vital, sector leaders say

June 1, 2021
Helping hand illustrating humanities in crisis promise more than they deliver
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The leaders of top universities in east Asia checked their privilege and stressed the need to cooperate with regional institutions in order to boost nationwide innovation.

Countries such as Japan and China have generous state research funding, but it is mostly directed at elite campuses and projects focused on science, technology and engineering.

“Drastic” changes were needed if countries wanted to achieve the dual goals of boosting world-class universities while also supporting local and regional institutions, said Seiichi Matsuo, president of Nagoya University

“Government grants are largely distributed to leading research universities,” he told the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit. “Local universities have fewer financial resources and have a hard time promoting regional innovation.”

Professor Matsuo said that his institution was “dedicated to promoting regional development”, especially as it is located in a traditional manufacturing hub for carmakers like Toyota. Last year, Nagoya partnered with Gifu University in a neighbouring prefecture to establish a “national university corporation”, the Tokai National Higher Education and Research System (THERS).

“In an era when the world is changing with unprecedented scale and speed by digital transformation, the structure of industry and academia must change,” he said.  

Professor Matsuo added that the “decline in rural areas” was particularly problematic in Japan, which is facing a rapidly ageing society as well as youth migration to big cities such as Tokyo. 

Bin Yang, vice-president and provost at Tsinghua University, said that “education cannot be funded purely on market forces” and that “equality is important for long-term development”.

“In China’s most recent five-year plan, the central government has paid more attention to equality among universities, not just world-class universities,” he said.  

He cited a “sister university system”, which paired institutions from the wealthier east coast with those from “rural or remote areas”, including through faculty exchange. For example, Tsinghua sent aid to Wuhan during the initial coronavirus outbreak in 2019.

“As a leading university, Tsinghua has more resources but also more responsibility to share,” he said. “We all share this obligation to narrow the gap.”

Lily Kong, president of Singapore Management University, stressed that innovation should not be limited to science.

“There’s a tendency to think of innovation as science-research-led innovation, but I want to disavow us of that view,” she said. “There are approaches to curriculum and pedagogy that can be innovative, too.

“Innovation cannot be perfectly taught or perfectly learned; but we can create an environment where innovation is possible,” she said.

She advised students to not fear risk or failure, while also warning institutions against “one-way communication” or “overcrowding the curriculum”.

“It is important to give students a sense of autonomy, choice and the ability to think,” she said. “When young people are in unfamiliar environments, that’s where they learn best.”

Ultimately, institutions have to lead the way on change. “If we’re not behaving in innovative ways, then how do we model the way for students?” she asked.


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