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Case for inter-university collaboration in Asia

Asia and the Pacific region has around 5990 universities, though they vary very much among themselves and more than half of them are funded and managed privately, like in other continents of the world, albeit following the laid out principles of the governments of the nations.

The global rating and ranking of universities have some preferred areas of focus. There are quite a few of them of which Times Higher Education and QS Ranking are the most famous and widely accepted. Most such rankings look at a few parameters very favourably with high scores. First, academic research is a major outcome of universities, more particularly if the research is in fundamental areas of seeking knowledge or explaining natural and social phenomena.

Second, academic excellence is looked from learner to professor ratio, which is usually preferred to be within 20:1. Third, academic leadership is valued in terms of personal achievements, degrees and research, published work in academic journals, and years in academics. Fourth, infrastructure in terms of large real estate and elaborate machinery is another highly preferred area of evaluation. Fifth, the cost of education is not a major focus of ranking while the outcome of high investments in terms of infrastructure, expensive faculty, advanced laboratories, etc, is surely a major focus. Sixth, there is a strong emphasis on internationalization as to how many foreign students are studying in the university being ranked and rated, how many foreign teachers are there, how many tie-ups with foreign, read Western, universities exist, etc.

How the developing world universities are different

All these parameters are important ones in a globalized world, but are primarily suited for the advanced economies and universities in the developed West, more than the under-developed and developing Asia and Africa. While academic research on fundamental issues is extremely important for advancement of knowledge, poorer nations have to invest their scarce resources for applied research that solves their immediate economic, social, cultural, ecological and technological problems in their immediate environments and give them immediate or mid-term succor. Also, as an outcome, employability quotient and entrepreneurship skills, technological skills for their learners is the most outstanding outcome for universities in Asia and Africa. The universities in Asia will survive based on their performance in this outcome. Most of these come at ease in the developed Western economies with lesser proportion of youth in their societies, and with higher standard of living along with techno-savviness and access.

It is extremely expensive to have 20:1 learner to professor ratio in developing nations and focus on huge infrastructure. The governments do not have the capacity to invest on these parameters in public universities, and if the private ones do so, their cost of education goes extremely high and beyond the reach of the huge majority of their countrymen. Hence, universities in the developing world have to focus primarily on their resources to ensure the minimum required infrastructure, faculty members and learning resources. The developing Asian and African nations are usually densely populated and they need cheaper higher education with reasonably good quality more than international students seeking expensive high quality education. While international tie-ups are important for Asian universities, they cannot be a primary parameter to ascertain their quality and ranking.

In such a scenario, the rationale for a different paradigm of rating and ranking of universities in the developing world is perhaps necessary, and to evolve that a much more intense collaboration among Asian universities is needed.

Pan Asian university brotherhood

There are several reasons why a pan-Asian university brotherhood and intense collaboration among universities would be beneficial. This is going beyond merely signing MOUs and speaking in platitudes.

Enhancing educational quality

Collaboration among universities can lead to the sharing of knowledge, resources, and best practices, which can help improve the quality of education offered by each institution. This can benefit students by providing them with a more comprehensive and high-quality education. These best practices shall be more suited for developing societies with lower per capita income, lesser learning resources and investments available, and technology still being much lesser than the developed Western universities of the US, UK, Canada, Australia et al.

Promoting applied research and real-life innovation

Collaboration among universities can also foster innovation and promote research in different fields. By pooling resources, expertise, and infrastructure, universities can undertake more ambitious research projects and make more significant scientific breakthroughs. And these research can be in applied areas of development in these nations, and in close collaboration with their governments and their fledgling MSME sector of the economy. The innovations can be those which can be put into practice fast making a positive economic contribution. Universities can play a significant role in developing new technologies and solutions that can address social, economic, and environmental challenges facing Asia. An association of universities can promote collaboration on research and development, as well as provide funding for innovative projects that can spur growth and development.

Building cultural bridges

A pan-Asian university brotherhood can help build bridges between different cultures and promote mutual understanding and respect among developing nations of Asia with similar or relatable history and traditions. This can lead to increased collaboration and exchange between universities and learners, facilitating cross-cultural learning and the sharing of different perspectives. By fostering academic and cultural exchange programs, universities can facilitate the exchange of ideas, perspectives, and experiences, which can contribute to greater mutual understanding and respect among Asian nations.

Addressing societal challenges

Collaborative efforts among universities can also help address societal challenges facing Asia, such as climate change, poverty, and inequality. By working together, universities can identify and tackle complex challenges that require multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral solutions. For example, tackling soil erosion, repeated mega storms and cold waves in South and Southeast Asia is a common challenge which universities can take up collaboratively for research, innovation, and solutions etc.

Strengthening regional integration

A pan-Asian university brotherhood can help strengthen regional integration by promoting collaboration and cooperation across borders. This can lead to increased economic and social integration, as well as the development of a common regional identity and shared values. An association of universities can facilitate knowledge exchange and collaboration among universities across Asia, which can help universities learn from each other's experiences, share best practices, and build partnerships. This can lead to the development of joint research programs, student and faculty exchanges, and collaborative projects that can have a positive impact on the region.

Asian Universities for Asian Development:

An association of universities of Asia can support the development of Asian nations in several ways:

Developing human capital: Universities are critical institutions for producing highly skilled and educated individuals who can contribute to the growth and development of their nations. An association of universities can collaborate on employability oriented curriculum development, mentors’ training, and applied research programs that can enhance the quality of education and provide a highly skilled workforce for the region.

Providing policy advice: Universities can also provide independent policy advice and analysis to policymakers, which can help shape policies and strategies that promote sustainable development and address key challenges facing Asia. The association can contribute to this in various nations.

It is high time that Asian Universities look at themselves as equals and collaborate as partners, rather than looking at only the Western nations for crumbs of unequal relations. Competition is a discredited 20th century concept. This is the time for collaboration, and the pandemic has proven it like never before.

Writer: Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury
The writer is Executive Director of International Online University, and the Strategic Adviser of Dhaka based Daffodil International University. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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