Building links with – and between – ASEAN universities

Japanese art and design graduate Toru Shimizu (21) recently returned from a three-month stay in Malaysia studying English. He chose Malaysia to brush up on English mostly because it was affordable.

“My plan is to be better prepared in English to be able to study in the United Kingdom, which is where I think I will get a better education to finally find a job in an art gallery,” he explained in an interview on the margins of the International Association of University Presidents, or IAUP, triennial conference held in Yokohama from 11-14 June.

Shimizu’s budding career plans illustrate the rise in Asia of students seeking quality education and respected jobs – a major theme at the IAUP conference.

One of the sessions focused on the particular opportunities for students provided by the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, Community in 2015.

ASEAN will be a single market of 10 Asian countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The opportunities for students will extend beyond ASEAN countries themselves, the conference heard, and universities need to gear up to take advantage to draw in students from the region who might otherwise go to universities in the West.

“An affluent middle-class in Asia Pacific means ambitious parents and children who are eager for a good education with cutting-edge skills. This is where Asian universities can tap the new generation,” said Hiroshi Takahashi, president of Tokyo International University.


Etsuko Katsu, vice-president (international) at Meiji University in Japan, said during the ASEAN session that as more Japanese companies relocated to the ASEAN community or increase trade with their Asian partners, they would want to hire Japanese students who had studied in universities in the region.

Last year Meiji University, one of Japan’s oldest private institutions, launched the Japan-ASEAN Centre hosted by Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok. The programme promotes itself as creating tough leaders who can be a ‘bridge’ between Japan and Southeast Asian nations.

Some of the ASEAN centre’s partner universities include: King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang and Chulalongkorn University in Thailand; Foreign Trade University in Hanoi, Vietnam; Universiti Teknologi Malaysia; and the National University of Singapore.

Almost 1,000 Japanese students from Meiji University visited Southeast Asia in 2013, with Thailand the most popular destination followed by South Korea. More than 1,100 students from ASEAN countries visited Meiji University during the same period.

Re-inventing Japan

Meiji University’s new venture is supported by funds from the ‘Re-inventing Japan’ project launched in 2012 by the Ministry of Education for top universities starting international and especially joint Asia-related study and research programmes.

Japan, the second richest economy in Asia, is facing a rapidly aging society and population decline of more than one million people annually.

With a corresponding drop expected in its student count, the Japanese government has made globalisation a top priority and supports universities that launch an English curriculum, increase foreign faculty and students, and start joint research with Asian universities.

Other universities taking advantage of this new policy include the prestigious national Kyoto University’s Asian Studies Unit established in December 2012. It has six new graduate schools and two research centres for collaborative projects with both Western and Asian universities.

In addition Kyushu University, a leading institution on Japan’s southern island, opened the Center for Asia Pacific Studies in March as an interdisciplinary hub for humanities-oriented subjects to explore commonalities and diversities.

Mind-set change

Nonetheless, universities in Asia face stiff competition from their higher-ranking counterparts in the West.

The United States and Britain continue to be the most popular destinations for students from Asia. While the international student population in Japan is headed by Chinese and South Korean nationals, research indicates that many desire to continue studying in the US or UK.

Dr Janjira Wongkhomthong, president of the Christian University of Thailand, told the IAUP session that the biggest challenge for Asian universities lay in changing this mind-set.

“There has to be a way we can showcase the Asian merits of higher learning. Partnerships between top regional universities will raise the prestige and attract good global students,” she explained.

According to Wongkhomthong, her students who have studied in Japan through exchange programmes have returned with education levels on a par with Western universities.

“They find jobs easily after they return because of language and technology skills. I also find them quieter and displaying a depth in their approach to studies.”

In preparation for next year’s ASEAN Community, Universiti Sains Malaysia – USM – in Penang, Malaysia, launched the Asia-Pacific University Community Engagement Network, or APUCEN, in 2012 under the Industry and Community Network set up to support such collaboration.

USM’s Deputy Vice-chancellor Dr See Ching Mey described the venture “as a place where visiting scholars and industrial experts, especially from the ASEAN and Japan, are invited to share their experiences”.

Most of all, Asian university representatives agreed that studying across the region could foster closer understanding between nationalities in Asian countries and could play a particularly important role in overcoming diplomatic clashes.

Currently Asia is mired in tension between Japan and its former colonies, China and Korea over past historical differences, and territorial disputes are ongoing between China and Vietnam, and between China and the Philippines.