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The Name of the Game in ASEAN Higher Education: Competition or Collaboration?

Article-4

“The name of the game is competition,” said a speaker at the recent SHARE Policy Dialogue1 when discussing the state of higher education in Southeast Asia. This is the kind of bold statement that we need to hear more often at conferences, as it instantly triggers the question: why cannot it be collaboration? Especially when we increasingly talk about redirecting partnerships to address the SDGs, which is only possible by enhanced collaboration?


This piece argues that competition among higher education institutions is inevitable, but to become stronger competitors they first must become the best collaborators. While sometimes it is difficult to see the return on collaboration beyond economic benefits, this article offers three ways to excel in global competition by forging stronger partnerships.


Before we look at three leverage points, let’s discuss competition and collaboration.


Universities are embedded in their local context, and are expected to contribute to the development of the economy and society of their regions or countries. In other words, they are expected to be locally engaged and partner with businesses to match their skills demand, partner with communities to improve livelihoods, partner with governments to strengthen the science-policy interface, and partner with each other for exchange of knowledge. Universities collaborate widely to promote sustainable development; according to the Higher Education for Sustainable Development Survey (IAU, 2019), around 70% of universities in Asia and the Pacific engage with each other and societal partners to contribute to global goals.


At the same time, universities are part of a global ecosystem, which is dominated by the Westernised paradigm of competition (GUNi, 2022). Universities compete globally for the brightest student minds, for research faculty, and often for grants and funding. Competition is integrated into universities’ narrative as a positive, and is unavoidable in the pursuit of quality. Universities and governments subscribe to a great variety of rankings and benchmarking systems on different dimensions, measuring reputation, research excellence, internationalisation, green approaches and so on.

 

But how does this global competition fit together with local engagement? Competition is measured by rankings, which incentivises a zero-sum game rather than collaboration and the sharing of resources, and being highly ranked is still often among the policy goals of both universities and governments since a ‘rank’ is an easy way of understanding perceived quality. However, ranking indicators are limited in capturing the quality and impact of partnerships, so we need to find new ways of rewarding the best collaborators. It has been scientifically proven that diverse partnerships bring more innovative solutions to real-world problems.


Let’s consider three examples that could help Southeast Asian universities to use collaboration to become better in competition.

While immediate gains might come from direct competition among universities in a local region, their real long-term impact and social purpose can only be achieved by regional collaboration and sharing of resources.

1. COLLABORATE TO CREATE A UNIQUE SELLING POINT

Asia and the Pacific is home to 60% of the young people in the world; there are more than 1.1 billion young people aged 15 to 29 living in the region (ADB, 2019). The Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Company predicted that by 2020 there would be 100 million people with middle-class spending patterns across the ASEAN region. Their children will look into enrolling into reputable universities, but with the majority of highly-ranked universities being in other regions, why would they choose to study in the ASEAN region? What is the unique selling point of Southeast Asia in the global competition for students?


One such unique selling point could relate to the concept of sustainable development, which is becoming a dominant theme when discussing solutions to the social, environmental and economic challenges of our world. Some of the biggest of these challenges are located in Southeast Asia, so why not create a powerhouse of sustainable solutions in the region?
According to the initial findings of the Asia-Europe breakout report in the Higher Education for Sustainable Development Survey 2022,2 about 28% of the responding institutions from Asia look at external rankings as a form of monitoring and evaluation of sustainable development action at their institutions. One such ranking is the Times Higher Education Impact ranking, which has been measuring higher education institutions’ contributions to the SDGs since 2019; Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian institutions are excelling in this new benchmarking system. However, climbing this new type of ranking could be a lonely journey, since 36% of the responding institutions from Asia in the same survey said they were not involved with any specific network to advance the SDGs. It seems there is plenty of room for universities to collaborate more.
Southeast Asia should aim to become the region where universities excel in partnering each other to tackle global challenges and offer unique opportunities to students and academics from all over the world to explore and take action to solve our global problems.


2. COLLABORATE TO HARMONISE HIGHER EDUCATION SYSTEMS
The ‘Roadmap on the ASEAN Higher Education Space 2025 and its Implementation Plan’ was launched officially in June 2022. It aims at strengthening people-to-people connectivity by improved access to and recognition of higher education in the region. This includes harmonising approaches to quality assurance, credit recognition and qualification recognition in order to make the region more competitive. These harmonisation efforts are top-down and driven by policymakers, but they are only feasible through strong partnerships with students and academics to bring benefits to all.


This roadmap could be supported with bottom-up networks and centres of excellence on specialised topics where institutions share resources and knowledge, similar to the European Universities initiative. Would creating an ‘ASEAN Universities Initiative’ be too ambitious to start with? Perhaps, but in the meantime institutions should leverage on initiatives such as the ASEAN Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) initiative facilitated by the SHARE Programme, which brought together over universities from Southeast Asia to jointly create over 30 e-learning courses that have already been taken by thousands of students – a great example of sharing knowledge and resources. Another example is the ASEAN University Network Technology-enhanced Personalised Learning Thematic Network (AUN-TEPL) spearheaded by the Singapore Management University (SMU), where member universities have created a platform to exchange educational tools and content, thereby tapping each other’s resources to improve student success in their own institutions. More occasional capacity building and networking opportunities should also be seen as excellent starting points for creating communities of practice, such as the Capacity Building Training Series to Enhance Inclusion in Higher Education in ASEAN organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF, 2021a).

 

Collaborating to create a harmonised higher education area in Southeast Asia through top-down and bottom-up initiatives will result in sharing knowledge and resources, and will make institutions stronger in the global competition.


3. COLLABORATE TO INCREASE THE NUMBER OF STUDENTS
According to the ASEAN Youth Development Index, 77% of eligible students were enrolled in secondary education, but only 17% of young adults had a tertiary-level degree in 2021. Keeping in mind the growing middle class across the region, it is safe to predict that the number of students will also grow organically over the next decade, and universities will compete for these students. However, this organically growing pool of potential students could be further enhanced by also engaging those who are left behind by traditional HE systems. In other words, instead of competing for a ‘bigger slice’ of the existing students, universities should collaborate to increase the size of the pie.


According to a study conducted by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF, 2021b), all the 10 ASEAN countries have identified equity groups where participation in higher education could be increased. These include students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students with disabilities, but there are at least seven other groups of students across the region that are less well represented. There is plenty of room for HEIs to do their part and increase the number of students on their campuses by offering wider access and more inclusive programmes.


Institutions might not need to compete globally for the brightest students or for the ones who will achieve the biggest impact, because these individuals might actually be in their neighbourhood already. Institutions could collaborate to jointly set up support and counselling services to ensure success of these underrepresented groups, instead of putting resources into global competition for fee-paying students.

Make collaboration everybody’s business
Above are three examples for how creative collaboration can intensify Southeast Asian universities’ contributions to their local communities and at the same time strengthen their position in the global competition. While immediate gains might come from direct competition among universities in a local region, their real long-term impact and social purpose can only be achieved by regional collaboration and sharing of resources.

REFERENCES 

  1. ADB. (2019). In Asia, Young People are Key to Achieving National Development Goals. Asian Development Bank Blog. https://blogs.adb.org/blog/asia-young-people-are-key-achieving-national-development-goals
  2. ASEAN. (2021). The ASEAN Youth Development Index 2021. https://asean.org/asean2020/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/First-ASEAN-Youth-Development-Index.pdf
  3. ASEF. (2021a). ASEF Capacity Building Workshop on Advancing Inclusion in International Higher Education in ASEAN 2021. https://asef.org/projects/capacity-building-workshop-advancing-inclusion-in-international-highereducation-in-asean
  4. ASEF. (2021b). Achieving Inclusive Higher Education in the ASEAN Region. N. Lefievre, U. Sengstschmid, J. Tamura et al. https://asef.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/LKYSPP_ASEAN_Study.pdf
  5. AUN. (n.d.). AUN Thematic Network on Technology-enhanced Personalised Learning (AUN-TEPL) website. https://www.auntepl.com/
  6. GUNi. (2022). Higher Education in the World 8. Special Issue. New visions for higher education institutions towards 2030. Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi). https://www.guninetwork.org/report/higher-educationworld-
    8-special-issue
  7. IAU. (2019). Higher Education and the 2030 Agenda: Moving into the ‘Decade of Action and Delivery for the SDGs. IAU 2nd Global Survey Report on Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development. https://www.iau-aiu.net/IMG/pdf/iau_hesd_survey_report_final_jan2020.pdf
  8. TOPUNIVERSITIES.com (2021). The Rise of Glocal Education: ASEAN Countries. QS Top Universities blog. https://www.topuniversities.com/where-to-study/region/asia/rise-glocal-education-asean-countries

REKA TOZSA

Reka Tozsa is Acting Director, Education Department, Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).

NOVEMBER 2022 | ISSUE 12

Partnerships in Higher Education

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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