2022 is witnessing a period of enhanced regional cooperation and partnership to co-create a shared vision of an inclusive space of collective intelligence in higher education, with the aim to facilitate sustainable learning and living in Southeast Asia. Through both SEAMEO RIHED and SEAMEO Member Countries as well as the ASEAN Secretariat’s Education, Youth and Sports Division (EYSD) and ASEAN Member States and regional stakeholders, this process of co-creation is responding to the current challenges we face, but in order to succeed it will demand more regional cooperation and partnership than ever before.
Against the backdrop of the ongoing global pandemic, we have also been challenged further by the climate crisis, economic crises and unsustainable consumption and production, as well as rising social inequalities. One critical question regards the relevance of the higher education sector for society. Higher education has long been framed as a driving force for economic growth and social development with universities viewed as competing entities in producing knowledge and graduates for employability. Today’s crises and uncertainties are positively forcing higher education to stay relevant by transforming itself and joining forces with stakeholders in related ecosystem(s), to synergise their activities towards a more sustainable future for the planet and its people.
The question of relevance is not new. As far back as 2008, Professor Dr. Supachai Yavaprabhas, Centre Director of SEAMEO RIHED at the time, brought together SEAMEO Member Countries and partners in higher education to address the question of how to build an ASEAN Community. This initiative stressed that a common space for Southeast Asian higher education must be introduced with a crucial role to play in the ASEAN integration process. It should offer a structured regional framework to facilitate academic projects and activities between higher education institutions as well as training and employment with the private sector. This initial common space required joint intergovernmental and industrial efforts in combination with the regional higher education sector.1 The importance of the region working together in partnership was highlighted, along with the need for greater knowledge dissemination for regional development and lifelong learning.
In our new context of disruption and crises, voices are raised ever louder in their demands for higher education to lead change in society. At this critical time the question of the relevance of higher education is even more serious with our sustainable future at stake. In March 2022 SEAMEO RIHED, EU SHARE and other regional partners in higher education namely the UNESCO Asia Pacific Bureau for Education, ASEAN EYSD, and the ASEAN University Network (AUN), co-organised the SHARE Policy Dialogue 14 on ‘The Contribution of Higher Education Partnerships in Southeast Asia towards the Achievement of Sustainable Development Goals 2030’. The dialogue engaged all stakeholders in higher education including students, alumni, professors, researchers, industry, civil society, philanthropists, policy makers, higher education leaders and regional organisations. The dialogue was also open to the public online, with more than 600 participants joining in. The goal of the dialogue was to collectively identify how higher education could best contribute and stay relevant for the future. The results were shared at the World Higher Education Conference in May 2022, when the transformation of higher education for sustainable development was discussed.
From the policy dialogue, participants concertedly shared their views that the challenges we face are non-discriminatory, complex in nature and interrelated. Therefore, it is not possible for a single field of study, a leading higher education institution or government, or a regional organisation or company to resolve the problems in isolation.
What Follows from this Scenario
To prove that the higher education sector continues to be vital to society, the ‘how’ has to be well understood. Learning needs to be made more accessible and more convenient, adapting to different learners’ needs with the help of technology and different providers. Learners demand more flexible modes of learning at different stages of life, while local communities can also create valuable knowledge with their local wisdom and epistemology. Other sectors such as industries and independent organisations are also in a good position to generate their own research. Clearly the higher education sector is neither the sole knowledge creator nor the only player in preparing future workforces.
Through SEAMEO RIHED’s actions and our 6th Five-Year Strategic Plan, in April 2022 the region approved efforts to redefine the common space in Southeast Asian higher education to drive learning across three areas: skills, competencies, and credentials; futuristic leadership; and regional collective intelligence. The biggest issue of our time is how we can co-create a sustainable future for people and the planet with peace and prosperity. For higher education, and for SEAMEO RIHED’s efforts towards redefining the common space in higher education, leadership and partnership are key.
However, working in partnership in higher education requires a number of things: 1) more equitable and distributed power among higher education institutions and other stakeholders involved in knowledge generation; 2) more inclusive learning for all; 3) more accessible and massified internationalisation processes; and 4) transformed leadership for partnership.
In terms of equitable and distributed power for knowledge generation, the following five aspects must be considered. First, it must be recognised that the ultimate goal for knowledge generation through research is the betterment of people and the sustainability of the planet. Second, knowers or knowledge creators are not limited to those in higher education systems. Third, the knowledge generation process is no longer exclusive to research and publication in high-impact journals. Fourth, knowledge generation must be inclusive and welcome ideas for social transformation from diverse sources. That is, partnerships must be cross-disciplinary, cross-generational, cross-geographical, and cross-sector to create a truly comprehensive solution for sustainable development. Finally, to maximise impacts from research the knowledge generated must be free, as well as openly and readily accessible. After all, the main objective of knowledge creation and dissemination is to tackle barriers and achieve a sustainable future.
As regards learning, the paradigm must be shifted from focusing on professional knowledge and skills for employment to prioritising humanised soft skills with empathy, and life skills with a growth mindset. The current knowledge and skills taught will not be enough and will not stay relevant for the future world of work, and so the learning provided/shared must ensure the preparation of learners with growth mindsets, and professional and soft skills with values of empathy and a global outlook. The concept of learners should be broadened and expanded to be more inclusive, serving the various needs of people from diverse backgrounds and age groups. The best approach for this paradigm shift will be to work in partnership with learners, the private sector, and industries as well as civil societies. Learning approaches must be varied and flexible to serve the different needs of life-long learners. Most importantly, learners must be enabled to learn independently or in teams as necessary, tackling real cases or problems to collaboratively apply their knowledge to real-world challenges.
The internationalisation process of higher education must also be transformed to benefit the masses, not the minority. The true value of the internationalisation of higher education learning (in terms of intercultural understanding, global outlook etc.) must not be overlooked, and technology to used in the process must enhance learning and ensure better accessibility and equity in benefits for all learners. With more creative and diverse internationalisation activities available through virtual and hybrid mobility, our learners and university communities will be able to enhance intercultural competencies and contribute to the high-priority task of developing truly global citizens.
In addition, higher education institutions need to further transform towards becoming learning organisations. Their leadership must change to be more distributed in power and inclusive in decision-making using knowledge driven approaches. They must learn how to collaborate in partnership with other universities and stakeholders in higher education, including learners themselves, while providing a venue for collective intelligence and leading changes in society. With a commitment to common goals and values, collective intelligence built from collaboration and higher education partnerships can be meaningfully created, stored, shared and built upon.
The Southeast Asian region and our partners must recognise our own uniqueness, as well as our strengths, similarities and differences. Working in partnership must involve principles of mutual trust and respect, including the equitable sharing of ideas and resources with the common shared goal of co-creating a sustainable future for people, the planet, peace and prosperity. This means that all partners in the common space of Southeast Asian higher education should work together, bringing their own commitments, mandates, resources, and expertise to facilitate the advancement of the collective vision. This work in partnership will ultimately serve as common intelligence for the transformation of higher education to build our sustainable future.
DR ROMYEN KOSAIKANONT
Dr Romyen Kosaikanont is Centre Director, SEAMEO RIHED.