ASIA: Building bridges through higher education

Western countries are by far the most favoured destinations for students from East Asia seeking higher education abroad, and reversing that trend will not be easy. But an ambitious plan to usher in exchanges between universities in Japan, China and South Korea is under way under the auspices of the three governments.

Analysts contend that the road ahead for the initiative is bumpy. They point to a need for radical changes in a region that boasts economic advancement but lacks internationalisation in the higher education sector.

"Despite East Asia's already entwined economies, the unprecedented bid to [bring] universities together is a landmark development," said Taiji Hotta, an associate professor in the international division at Hiroshima University.

"The challenge facing the three countries is to move away from an academic focus that is [based] too heavily on national goals."

Campus Asia, as the trilateral project is called, was launched in April 2010 by then Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama. Participating universities in the three countries are developing joint study programmes for graduate-level students with English as the link language.

Japan, China and South Korea are the leading economies in Asia, boasting high technology industries, globalised economies and a large, wealthy middle-class. Education is a top priority for the public, with internationalisation a key aim.

Still, as Hotta explained: "Higher learning has relied on the West, based on the outlook that universities in those countries led economic and technology advances." The past few years have changed this, and with South Korea and China becoming new growth engines there is a dire need for regional cooperation and understanding among youth in those countries.

Ties with neighbours

Yukio Hatoyama, head of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, has long pushed for the country to develop firmer ties with neighbouring nations, a vision that is viewed in Japan as long overdue.

Professor Takeshi Inoguchi, an international relations expert and head of research at Niigata University, said academic collaboration in East Asia was a crucial aspect of Japan's foreign policy that must balance its post World War II security alliance with the United States.

"Against this stance, developing better ties with China and South Korea is important," he explained.

But he added: "The concept of liberalising education is still in its infancy in this region, where bureaucracy continues to exert control on education. Against such a backdrop, the establishment of a dynamic regional campus will take time."

East Asian diplomacy remains a thorn in Japan's foreign policy, marked by its harsh colonisation of these countries during early and mid-20th century. For example, Seoul and Beijing continue to protest against Japanese history textbooks, which they accuse of whitewashing a stormy past.

More recently territorial disputes between the countries have eroded public confidence in continued East Asian security.

"Closer exchanges between university students will increase trust and understanding in East Asia," explained Ryutaro Ifuku, an evaluation expert at the National Institution for Academic Degrees and University Evaluation.

Competing with Western universities

Still, competing with Western higher education institutions that are popular destinations for East Asian students poses challenges.

The United States attracted almost 150,000 Chinese students in 2009-10, according to US State Department statistics - the largest group of international students in the US. Japan has a total of 74,000 Chinese students.

Experts note the need for generous grants and support for student mobility within the region if Campus Asia is to succeed. Turning around that trend is a long call, according to Niigata University's Takeshi Inoguchi.

English language proficiency among East Asian students and professors remains weak, making communication difficult. "While initial [Campus Asia] programmes will focus on graduate-level study and science curricula where English is used widely, I am still sceptical about how far progress can be made because of language difficulties," Inoguchi said.

Campus Asia pilot exchanges are geared towards science and engineering subjects mainly, because East Asian universities share relatively comparable grading systems. New schemes to support student and professor mobility are also an important aspect of the project.

The ultimate aim is have a "basket of universities that will produce youngsters who can work as multi-players in the future," said Dr Yuichiro Anzai, co-chair of the Japan-China-Korea Committee for Promoting Exchanges and Cooperation among Universities.

Indeed, Campus Asia is often described as key to nurturing Asian youth who can meet the demands of a dynamic Asian globalised economy. Industry and business stakeholders are also participating.

New Campus Asia guidelines

Progress on Campus Asia has been marked by a set of new guidelines released in September to help develop exchange curricula while maintaining standards for grade comparison between the countries.

The new guidelines emphasise the principle of seeking common ground while leaving aside differences in systems, customs and cultures.

Next month the first consortium of pilot programmes under the guidelines will be reported.

Hiroshima University's Taiji Hotta said Campus Asia was firmly committed to cooperation among universities while considering each other's "characteristic and legal systems, exchanges and cooperation".

He explained that working out common standards in credit accumulation and transfer was the most challenging, given the current lack of such mobility structures between academia and students in East Asia.

A recent conference in Tokyo discussed the concept of quality assurance harmonisation in East Asia. Experts said success would depend on having a transparent evaluation system and an enriched curriculum that must be seen to be on par with Western higher education standards.

Delegates from Asian countries raised the issue of dealing with Asia's vast diversity, economic disparity, education funding differences, different languages and teaching levels within and across countries.

Such differences must not be viewed as a barrier in the goal to develop a single model. Rather, said Dr Seyed Huseein, president of the Malaysian Qualification Agency, "the harmonisation process must be viewed as accepting the diversity and then looking for the commonalities".

Developing an Asian model for higher education regional partnerships has attracted others with similar goals. Southeast Asian participants discussed the idea of Asians getting to know each other through a common model of quality education in the region.

"The sad truth is that Asian students are more aware of Western trends and culture than learning from their neighbours. To change this, education must encourage student mobility in the region," said Dr Nantana Gajaseni from the Asian University Network.

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ASIA: Forging regional higher education integration