ASIA: Regional University Networks developing

Four new regional higher education networks are to be set up in Central and South Asia, it emerged from a high-level research and education policy dialogue held in Islamabad, Pakistan, last week.

"The participating countries have agreed to collaborate in knowledge transfer as well as create a culture of innovation and research in the region," said Sohail Naqvi, Executive Director of Pakistan's Higher Education Commission (HEC), which jointly organised the three-day event from 22-25 November with the British Council.

Common academic programmes, credit transfers, student and faculty exchanges, and affiliations with universities of other countries would be explored as part of the networks. A Joint Regional Research Fund was also announced with possible seed funding from the British Council and other commitments to be worked out in the coming months.

Leaders from 50 universities representing eight countries at the meeting included vice-chancellors and rectors from universities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Uzbekistan and the UK.

The four cross-region networks announced during the conference include the Partner Network for Collaboration in Knowledge Transfer, the Leadership and Training Collaboration Network, an Incubation Hubs Network of Universities and a Higher Education Policy Dialogue Network.

One of the aims of the networks will be to enhance university-industry-community links. But funding was at the forefront of many participants' minds.

Ben Isaac, the British Council's project manager on higher education in Central and South Asia, told University World News: "We are focusing not on the funding issue but on knowledge transfer, and we aim to build an international strategic partnership in research and education which obviously generates some funds as well for the universities in the region.

"But we should see beyond this [funding] perspective to rebuilding societies and economies through universities."

Talk on university-industry links has been ongoing in different countries facing cuts in higher education funding, including Pakistan. But taking the community on board was a new idea aired at the conference.

Naqvi emphasised that university leaders needed to be proactive. "Universities can win funding from industry and the community by showing their usefulness. Apart from teaching, there are lots of things universities can do for the community such as providing scientific solutions to local problems, and for this universities need to communicate," he told University World News.

However, participants argued that industry funding and support for the community could not replace government funding.

HEC Chairman Javaid Laghari said the university-industry linkage approach should not be seen as a fundraising programme. Such collaboration could rebuild Central and South Asian economies in the long run, which would also be beneficial for universities.

Lynne Heslop, British Council Education Director for Central and South Asia said: "It is just the part of the solution which could earn universities funding, not all, but some of the funds could help reduce the fees burden on the students."

Professor Mohibur Rahman, a medical education consultant from Bangladesh, suggested to University World News that "before embarking on networking with industry and communities, universities need to network with one another to avoid duplication of effort and save on resources".

Networking between universities achieved during the symposium, Professor Ahmet Duran Sahin from Istanbul Technical University in Turkey told University World News, had "transformed the idea of networking, bringing South and Central Asian universities into one forum to save on efforts and resources for sharing best practices in knowledge transfer".

The regional dialogue is part of the International Strategic Partnerships in Research and Education INSPIRE programme initiated by the British Council to strengthen academic and research partnerships between UK higher education institutions and universities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The programme is expanding to other countries in Central Asia, South Asia and other regions despite severe cuts in the British Council budget announced by the incoming government in recent weeks.