Asia-Pacific university networks tackle sustainable development

Universities in Asia-Pacific nations have been linking together to collaborate on sustainable development research and projects, and are considered to be more networked than in other world regions in tackling climate change and other environmental issues.

And there is evidence that university consortia in Asia and the Pacific are beginning to influence policy, according to regional experts.

“Asia has become well connected, relatively speaking, compared to other regions in the world,” said Ko Nomura, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Japan’s Nagoya University.

Universities in the region seemed more interested in intra-regional networks than global ones, he added.

Networks allow universities to examine local problems of sustainable development and climate change while hooking up internationally to tap additional expertise and maintain a global cross-border perspective on sustainable development issues.

“Sustainable development is such a complex topic in countries in Asia and the Pacific, people need to share information by participating in networks with other universities and with NGOs,” said Nomura, a co-author of the Asia Pacific chapter in a global report on sustainability and higher education produced by the Barcelona-based Global University Network for Innovation, GUNi.

Japan networks

His institution, Nagoya University, is part of Japan’s Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science (JIRSSS), a countrywide network “which also has a global perspective but a specific focus on Asia”, according to Nomura.

JIRSSS, led by Tokyo University, has conducted major interdisciplinary research into food security, water and populations as well as global warming.

Unlike in Europe and other parts of the world, where networks are instigated by universities, in Asia the impetus for research and university networks comes mainly from government and policy-makers, according to Nomura.

In Japan, the Ministry of Education promotes JIRSSS as part of its strategy to help higher education institutions cope with the problems of globalisation, demographic decline and other social issues.

But while this can ensure financial backing for research, Nomura warned that government support could easily shift to other areas. “In fact, government policies do not always match local needs, particularly because of the diversity of the Asia-Pacific context,” he said.

Many of the networks were set up as part of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-14, an idea that originated in the region, and there is also concern about whether most can survive beyond the decade.

Many academics hope that the Rio+20 summit from 20-22 June, as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is known, will provide the impetus to maintain such collaborations.

UNEP regional network

The United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, is particularly interested in the input of universities to provide analysis and research on the ‘green economy’ and other issues that are on the agenda at Rio.

UNEP’s regional office in Bangkok set up a Regional University Consortium (RUC) in 2004 with eight institutions cooperating on interdisciplinary education and research in sustainable development.

RUC established a leadership programme at Shanghai’s Tongji University, training regional policy-makers in issues related to the environment and sustainable development.

The policy-makers return and put into practice what they have learned in urban planning, ecological and other projects, said Mahesh Pradhan, chief of UNEP’s Environmental Education and Training Unit in Nairobi, who was formerly based in Bangkok as regional environmental affairs officer for UNEP and was involved closely with the RUC programme at the UNEP-Tongji Institute of Environment for Sustainable Development in Shanghai.

“In some cases policy-makers have then gone back to universities to do more work and there are examples of policy people making a difference as a result,” Pradhan told University World News.

In 2006, RUC launched a multinational multidisciplinary masters programme for the region with input from many of the universities involved. The consortium has also carried out joint research into climate change including a comparative study of emissions in Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney and Bangkok, and has another joint research programme on eco-cities.

ProSPER Network

The United Nations University in Japan set up the Promotion of Sustainability in Postgraduate Education and Research Network, ProSPER.Net, which links institutions in the region with strong education and research programmes in sustainable development.

The network – which includes almost two dozen institutions from Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the South Pacific, the Philippines, Korea and Thailand – also runs summer schools to bring together doctoral students in sustainable development from around Asia and the Pacific.

The summer school “aids in developing a network for researchers and encourages them to pursue further this field of research,” said a recent participant, Richa Sharma, of TERI University in New Delhi, who is researching surface urban heat in megacities and its effects on populations.

Pacific networks

Pacific island nations, which are particularly affected by climate change, have sub-regional university networks within the Pacific Islands Forum and Pacific Regional Environmental Programme.

“At Rio+20 the loudest voices will come from the Pacific. Universities have made a big difference,” said Pradhan.

“The 21 Pacific island countries have much more in common at the sub-regional level. There is a lot of expertise within the Pacific sub-region.” Pradhan said the University of the South Pacific, with campuses in Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu, was at the forefront of research on sustainable development.

Fiji, Tuvalu and Kiribati are researching the link between environmental degradation and poverty and “are active in research on adaptation to global warming. But in order to adapt they need access to information and research that is more advanced, such as in Japan, so they need to collaborate,” Ko Nomura told University World News.

“Researchers on local environmental and sustainable development issues feel they are the only one. If they know they have friends in other institutions they can keep working, and other institutions can also help to attract students on joint projects,” said Nomura.

However, he warned that for some poorer and more isolated developing countries, where travel can be costly, the costs sometimes outweigh the benefits.

Local versus global

In the Asia-Pacific region the focus of the networked universities is on applied research rather than on basic research, which leads to more publications in international journals. “Applied research involves communities and a focus on local issues for solutions. It is here that universities are making a difference,” said UNEP’s Mahesh Pradhan.

But many universities are being pressured to increase basic research and raise their volume of publications, on which global university rankings depend heavily.

The global ranking system “can detach academics from local issues. Local people may not read English so may not benefit from research” published in international journals, Nomura said. “Efforts on sustainability require local effort and these efforts do not often overlap with efforts at the global level.

“A major challenge in the region is how to cope with local and global challenges at the same time.”