Asean universities must focus on quality to catch up with West

Lifelong learning and industry collaboration are also priorities for higher education in the region, says Choltis Dhirathiti

May 31, 2022
Source: Getty

Universities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have always been playing catch-up.

There are 6,500 to 7,000 higher education institutions in the region, but there is no consistency in terms of academic quality, citizens’ access to knowledge, university-industry partnerships, technological capabilities (especially for uses in personalised learning) and lifelong learning.

This high number of institutions creates a strategic dilemma for governments with regard to investment in higher education. Should they concentrate funding on a few universities that have the potential to become world-class, or spread out the higher education budget so that the basic right to education covers not just tertiary-level education but also non-formal learning and vocational education? In the Asean region, the Western liberal value of education is not always common currency in the minds of policymakers and ordinary people, and there may not be enough policy influence to generate a healthy debate or discussion on this dilemma.

For leading universities in Asean, the key concern, apart from ranking in university league tables, is how to ensure that graduates become lifelong learners and job-ready citizens of the global community. For the majority of universities, the main issue relates to the quality and standard of teaching and learning and research. Meanwhile, for some policy experts, the priority is ensuring access to knowledge for all, in order to achieve sustainable development of the country and long-term security of the community. These different and seemingly incompatible goals present difficult policy choices for governments.

If Western academic standards are seen as the finishing line in this race of catching-up, then the arena is large and colourful. Set to become the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2030, Asean is situated in an area where several geopolitical factors converge. Inter-regional collaborations involve multiple powers with diverse attributes: China, the US, Japan, South Korea, the European Union and Australia.

But if higher education is mishandled, the Asean region might contribute more evil to the world than good: radicalisation of young people, human trafficking, environmental catastrophe, corruption. Higher education plays a crucial role in the lives of citizens because universities are the intermediary between primary and secondary education and the world of work, and in general, students get only one chance to choose the right university.

Ultimately, there are three aspects that I believe are lacking in Asean higher education: quality culture, lifelong learning culture and collaboration culture.

We need policies that properly lead to changes in the short and the long term. The test of the success of those policies will be whether the above three cultural changes occur within universities.

Quality is the heaviest responsibility on the part of university leaders. Changes in this regard must centre on improving the ways in which learning is delivered to students and research is conducted, so that those two core functions of higher education meet international standards. But these efforts must also be reciprocated by other stakeholders outside universities. Employers, alumni and local communities should play an active part in regularly providing suggestions about and criticisms of universities’ teaching and research programmes.

The key to creating a lifelong learning culture is linking knowledge with technology to serve the public at large. In the Asean context, we cannot let traditional teacher-centred cultures and disciplinary silos dictate how 21st-century students are learning or not learning.

Finally, Asean higher education systems need to invest to promote what might be called “association culture” within and beyond the region: what is known in the West as the culture of academic mobility and cross-institutional connection. But there are two dimensions to what is lacking in the Asean region: cross-border associations within academia, and university-industry-community partnerships. Academics should be encouraged, trained and supported financially to regularly and systematically connect with their subject-specific counterparts in other countries or other regions. This, in turn, will contribute to quality improvements.

University-industry partnerships, together with universities’ social responsibility roles in their communities, have always been high on the agenda of Asean universities. But while community engagement is already a strength of institutions – and, more broadly, citizens – in the region, with many of these projects contributing to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, more must be done to foster collaboration with industry.

Ultimately, it will be difficult for universities in the region to catch up if these three cultural changes in the areas of quality, lifelong learning and collaboration are not resolved.

Choltis Dhirathiti is executive director of the Asean University Network. He will be speaking about secure and sustainable university systems at the THE Asia Universities Summit, in partnership with Fujita Health University, from 31 May to 2 June. Register to attend.

View the THE Asia University Rankings 2022 results


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