Southeast Asia’s new tiger economies prioritise research

Don’t overlook opportunities in booming archipelago nations, Australian universities urged

November 19, 2019

Booming economies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region are generating collaboration opportunities for Australia’s universities, a Penang conference has heard.

The world’s 16th biggest economy, Indonesia, is projected to rank fourth by 2050, while the Philippines has roughly doubled its economy over the past decade. Both are splurging on research and development to maintain the growth curve, the Asean Australia Education Dialogue was told.

Raymond Tan, vice-chancellor of innovation at De La Salle University in Manila, estimated that research funding in his country had grown ten-fold since 2008. His university’s research output was on track to increase six-fold this decade.

A dozen or so other Philippines universities were seeking institutional partners, in Australia as well as elsewhere in Asean, to bolster their research performance, he said.

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s government has poured funding into the country’s flagship University of Indonesia, including a dedicated stream for collaborative research with foreign partners. “This might be a good opportunity for other universities to join with [us],” said international office director Baiduri Widanarko.

The forum, now in its second year, was established to foster education and research partnerships between Australia and Asean countries. Convener Michael Fay said Australia had not capitalised on its status as one of Asean’s official “dialogue partners”.

“It’s really Japan, South Korea, China and the European Union who have embraced that relationship,” said Mr Fay, an international education specialist with Sydney consultancy AFG Venture Group. “Now Australia is standing up and saying we…want to find different ways to cooperate. And one of them is improving the quality of higher education and research.”

Professor Tan said short-term collaborative opportunities between Australia and the Philippines would revolve around academic exchange schemes negotiated at the institutional level. He said exchanges of postgraduate students would also play a role, as would joint or dual postgraduate programmes crafted to help overcome an aversion to PhDs – one of the “cultural oddities” of Philippines youth.

He said master’s courses had been lavishly funded in an effort to get young people “on board” and excited at the prospect of doctoral studies. “I can image master’s level programmes offered locally, feeding into dual degree programmes with Australian university partners,” he told the forum. “That might be a strategy that’s workable.”

Professor Tan also highlighted opportunities for collaborative research backed by both countries. He said agricultural research had been jointly funded by the two governments for some years.

That approach appears set to be broadened, he said, with the Department of Science and Technology – which funds research in the Philippines – flagging tens of thousands of new scholarships for people undertaking artificial intelligence courses.

Details of the scheme were expected to become clearer following a launch in January. “That’s the sort of thing which can be leveraged,” Professor Tan said. “We provide funds for the best of our students to do research attachments overseas, if there is a suitable partner university.”

In another recent development, a new law opens the door for foreign entities to establish campuses in the Philippines. “There is potentially a market of 100-plus million people with the proportionate number of students,” Professor Tan said. “Those are some of the windows that can be explored.”

Hazri Jamil, an educational policy specialist at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, said Asean and Australian universities should focus their research on “niche” areas of mutual interest.

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