New university to link up to SE Asian economic corridor

A new research university at Savannakhet – the country’s second-largest city – in the western region of Laos is being built with loans and funding of up to US$40 million from the Asian Development Bank, or ADB, to provide skilled graduates for the region’s ‘economic corridor’ that runs through the area.

It will enable Laos – one of the poorest countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN – to develop a more educated workforce so that it can benefit from more interaction and trade with its neighbours as part of the ASEAN Economic Community which came into being at the end of 2015.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

A small university already exists at Savannakhet with some 2,000 to 3,500 students but a large new university campus is being built on land allocated by the Laotian government and with technical assistance from the ADB. “There is a lot of rural demand for higher education in the area,” said Andrew Bell, a consultant to the ADB project.

The new campus is slated to open within two years and is expected to enrol 5,000 students, rising to 10,000 in the second phase. ADB assistance, on paper at least, will include funding for scholarships for women and poorer students.

Though Laos is landlocked, Savannakhet is on an economic corridor that links Thailand and Vietnam by road. “There is a lot of trade along that route, and a number of special economic zones; multinationals are moving their factories to the area, and there is mining industry,” Bell said.

Another industry in the region is hydroelectric power, with much of it sold to Thailand. “So there is a demand in Savannakhet for skilled workers and educated workers to service that economic corridor,” he said.

Savannakhet is described by the Lonely Planet guide as “languid, time-trapped and ghostly quiet” and a “beguiling mix of yesteryear with increasingly modern commerce”. That commercial activity is expected to increase substantially as the ASEAN Economic Community develops, according to Bell.

Economic development

If Laos is to move out of its 'least developed country' status by 2020, which is the government’s aim, it needs to diversify its economy – currently dependent on natural resources industries – to generate more employment, according to the World Bank.

With Laos' gross higher education enrolment rate among the lowest in Southeast Asia at around 14%, according to World Bank figures, the new university will help bridge the shortage of technical administrative and managerial personnel which the ADB and World Bank have said is holding back the country’s development.

Eight research units or centres of excellence are planned for the new university. But, Bell said, with a severe shortage of qualified university lecturers in Laos, “we will see how we can use IT to further distance learning to connect with the other national universities to share delivery. We hope to leapfrog development cycles to give the university access to the best technologies.”

Before that, there are substantial bottlenecks to overcome, such as attracting enough professors and other staff in a region where the local authority has been so cash-strapped in recent years that school teachers are often unpaid for months.

Nationally, higher education receives only a low proportion of budget allocations with almost nothing for maintenance, infrastructure and staff development, so the government can barely sustain another university out of its own finances and may have to rely on foreign aid.

Champasak University in Pakse, in the southern part of the country, was built a decade ago with an ADB loan. “It is fully subscribed” according to Bell. But it has suffered in the past from acute financial shortfalls that have hampered its expansion plans.

And there are other, often unpredictable hurdles. China’s Soochow University with a branch in Vientiane has not managed to build a full campus as planned, in part because of a dispute over the land it was to occupy.