Asean’s drive to join global elite could hin­der na­tional progress, ex­perts warn

The British Coun­cil’s Go­ing Global event to hear of down­sides of fo­cus on ‘world­class cam­puses’. Si­mon Baker re­ports

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - si­mon.baker@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Emerg­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems in South­east Asia may need to be wary of fo­cus­ing too much on cre­at­ing a hand­ful of “world­class” uni­ver­si­ties to boost in­ter­na­tional re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion, ac­cord­ing to a British Coun­cil re­port.

The study, which looks at pol­icy among coun­tries in the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions, is be­ing re­leased to co­in­cide with the British Coun­cil’s an­nual Go­ing Global con­fer­ence, held this year in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian cap­i­tal, from 2 to 4 May.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, The Shape of Global Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy: Un­der­stand­ing the Asean Re­gion, it is “ev­i­dent” that there is a “com­mit­ment through­out the re­gion to build­ing re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion with those out­side and within Asean”.

Al­though some Asean na­tions such as Sin­ga­pore are bet­ter po­si­tioned to ex­ploit cross­bor­der work­ing, the study says that all the coun­tries ap­pear to be­lieve in the need to have at least one world­class uni­ver­sity to foster in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion.

How­ever, the im­pli­ca­tions of this need to be “con­sid­ered care­fully” as this “may in­evitably come at the ex­pense of the de­vel­op­ment of in­ter­na­tional re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions across the whole of the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem”, it adds.

The ob­ser­va­tions on the strength of re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion in South­east Asia are backed up by a new anal­y­sis of data from Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion’s World Uni­ver­sity Rank­ings 2018 car­ried out for the con­fer­ence.

It shows that even af­ter at­tempt­ing to al­low for the ex­tremely high­per­form­ing Sin­ga­porean uni­ver­si­ties in the rank­ing by us­ing me­dian in­stead of mean scores, Asean in­sti­ tu­tions as a bloc tend to out­per­form other coun­tries in Asia on in­ter­na­tional re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion.

The 26 Asean ranked uni­ver­si­ties, which hail from coun­tries as di­verse as Malaysia, Thai­land and In­done­sia, achieve a me­dian score for in­ter­na­tional co­au­thor­ship of 50, way ahead of China (me­dian score 11), In­dia (8) and even na­tions with a sim­i­lar num­ber of ranked in­sti­tu­tions such as South Ko­rea (21).

Even look­ing at some in­di­vid­ual coun­tries in the Asean net­work com­pared with other Asian na­tions shows that re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion is one of their com­par­a­tive strengths, when con­sid­er­ing only ranked uni­ver­si­ties.

But whether there is a risk that con­cen­trat­ing too much on “world­class” uni­ver­si­ties could harm a de­vel­op­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem over­all is a key ques­tion that has been ex­plored by in­ter­na­tional higher ed­u­ca­tion schol­ars.

Si­mon Mar­gin­son, pro­fes­sor of higher ed­u­ca­tion at the UCL In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion and di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Global Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, said that fo­cus­ing gov­ern­ment fund­ing on such in­sti­tu­tions can be “sub­op­ti­mal” in the long term.

“It is pos­si­ble to bal­ance de­vel­op­ment ef­fec­tively so that the whole sys­tem im­proves,” he said, adding that gov­ern­ments should “pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to en­sur­ing a strong ‘mid­dle sec­tor’ which con­ducts re­search and is just be­low the top bracket”.

“Mid­dle­in­come de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are of­ten anx­ious to build a cou­ple of global re­search uni­ver­si­ties in five to 10 years, but it might be bet­ter in a coun­try like, say, In­done­sia… or Viet­nam to build a stronger layer of 10 to 20 in­sti­tu­tions and spend 15 to 20 years build­ing the world­class uni­ver­si­ties.”

Feed lo­cal needs

Caro­line Wag­ner, Mil­ton and Roslyn Wolf chair of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs at Ohio State Uni­ver­sity, said that “while it is im­por­tant to have ap­pro­pri­ate scale built into in­sti­tu­tions to con­duct strong re­search, it is also nec­es­sary to have re­gional and lo­cal nodes to dif­fuse knowl­edge”.

“World­class uni­ver­si­ties tend to fo­cus on con­nect­ing at the in­ter­na­tional level,” she added. “This en­hances com­pet­i­tive­ness, which can also bol­ster qual­ity. But un­less there is ca­pac­ity to link knowl­edge to lo­cal users, then knowl­edge just stays in the ‘cloud’ and does not en­rich na­tional well­be­ing.

“Link­ing to top re­search around the world needs to be com­bined with a plan to sink knowl­edge lo­cally,” she ex­plained.

“If the world­class de­part­ments work only with col­leagues in other coun­tries, the in­vest­ment is a net loss for the na­tion,” Pro­fes­sor Wag­ner con­tin­ued. “Ca­pac­ity needs to be nur­tured in re­gional and lo­cal in­sti­tu­tions so they can ab­sorb, use, teach and train the science and tech­nol­ogy work­force.”

She pointed to data on Malaysia that sug­gested that re­search was “al­ready fairly well in­te­grated into the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity” but said that this did raise the ques­tion of “what are they do­ing to dif­fuse this knowl­edge to lo­cal users?”

The lo­cal im­pact of uni­ver­si­ties that are in­creas­ingly in­ter­con­nected glob­ally will be the key theme of this year’s Go­ing Global.

Aim­ing high while global ties are de­sir­able, ‘re­gional and lo­cal nodes’ are vi­tal

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