Rebuild sector around cooperation, not competition, say leaders

Instead of creating ‘strong leaders’, institutions should aim to educate students to be ‘someone everyone wants to work with’, academics told

June 1, 2022
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The desire to be the best can be powerful motivation for academics, but institutions and scholars will need to rein in their hypercompetitive nature if they want to create a meaningful change on big societal issues, university heads have warned.

Scholars addressing Times Higher Education’s Asia Summit, conducted in partnership with Fujita Health University in Japan, made their case for the value of deeper cooperation in the sector.

Institutions would be wise to remember that “the most important thing about higher education is access to knowledge”, said Choltis Dhirathiti, executive director of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Asean University Network.

“A lot of universities in our region still have the mindset of the 20th century that ownership of knowledge is the most important thing in life,” he said.

Dr Dhirathiti admonished universities to “break that kind of mindset” and to stop acting like the gatekeepers of a precious commodity – and instead embrace sharing with each other.

The sentiment was echoed by Kohei Ito, president of Keio University, who drew a parallel with competition on the individual scale. Institutions that focus too keenly on student success could unwittingly impart the wrong message, he said.

“We often witness a strong tendency in…the education sector to drive students to become so-called ‘leaders’. And many students may naively think that that is a way to become upper-class citizens,” he said.

Universities would do well to guide their charges to be more conscientious and cooperative – something that Keio University has sought to do – Professor Ito argued.

“Instead of creating ‘strong leaders’, we aim to educate students to be someone who everyone wants to work with, someone…forward-looking, capable, likeable and open,” he said, adding that such an outlook is “the key to health and global sustainability”.

“Cooperating and teamwork-building is much more effective than [the] authoritarian, bureaucratic approach of establishing a small group of leaders,” he said.

But pursuing noble aims rather than excellence and prestige might prove a difficult choice for institutions. Ultimately, a university will have to decide which goal means more to it, said Professor Dhirathiti.

“That’s the problem facing every university in southeast Asia,” he said. “If you choose research excellence, it means a lot of money you have to move from community investment.”

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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