New Asian universities’ alliance to increase mobility

A new alliance of Asian universities has held its inaugural meeting in Beijing pledging to increase student and faculty mobility between Asian countries to counter the tendency of professors and students to look towards the West.

The new Asian Universities Alliance or AUA, initiated and chaired by Tsinghua University in Beijing, was launched on 29 April with some 15 universities from 14 countries taking part. Some 400 university presidents, professors and students attended the summit, according to Tsinghua University.

“We believe that higher education will play an increasingly important role in future Asian societies and that economic globalisation has made openness the trend of higher education. AUA will embrace that trend by building closer ties both among member universities and with universities outside AUA. Together, we will play a more significant role in world higher education,” a joint statement said.

With Asian universities expanding rapidly, a regional consortium can balance mobility in particular between Asian countries, rather than heading towards Europe and the United States, participants said.

Apart from strengthening intra-Asian academic mobility, other aims outlined by the members are to strengthen scientific research cooperation between faculty, sharing of policies on higher education between university presidents within the alliance, and publication of an annual report on higher education in Asia “to promote the development and influence of Asia’s higher education system”.

The founding members include China's Tsinghua University and Peking University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology or HKUST, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, South Korea's Seoul National University, Japan's University of Tokyo, Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, Myanmar's University of Yangon, Malaysia's University of Malaya, National University of Singapore, University of Indonesia, Sri Lanka's University of Colombo, United Arab Emirates University, Saudi Arabia's King Saud University and Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev University.

“The alliance aims to enhance cooperation and communication among Asian universities, and play a role in solving regional and global issues,” said a communiqué from the meeting attended by China’s Vice Premier Liu Yandong. “It will make a big difference to the prosperity and the cultural exchange within the region,” she said.

Liu expressed the hope that the new alliance would become a platform for bringing together educational ideas and resources to train outstanding talent with an international perspective, and to serve regional development. She also hoped it would become a platform for research collaboration to jointly improve the overall status and international influence of higher education in Asia, and contribute “Asian wisdom to resolve regional and global problems”.

Participants said Tsinghua University is funding the new organisation with an injection of US$1.5 million initially.

Different focus

Professor Wei Shyy, HKUST’s executive vice-president and provost, attended the launch ceremony and noted in an interview that priorities in international university groupings tend to have “sometimes very specific and unfortunately a too narrow focus”.

There was great interest within Asia in sharing experience, not necessarily based on any materialistic interests “but shared values and common interests”, he said. Hong Kong had for years been open to the rest of the world and could help other universities within the consortium with their internationalisation efforts, he said. “We can help, offer some kind of experience or case study for other universities to consider.”

He added: “We believe with the establishment of the AUA there can be open exchanges. Even though the language may not be the same, the interests are the same and are very compatible.”

“The thinking behind the new consortium is that it is time to rebalance international university consortia which tend to be largely focused on other parts of the world. There are few university consortia that are mainly Asian, and this is an attempt at setting up an indigenous alliance,” said Gerard Postiglione, a professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, and adviser to Tsinghua University on setting up the grouping.

“Asian university presidents are often together with Western university presidents (within consortia) and they are in a minority. It is time to put a stop to this ‘minoritisation’, even if it is not intentional,” he said.

Asia’s leading role

Postiglione told University World News that the need for a regional universities alliance was based on the conviction that Asia will be leading the world in terms of economic growth and trade.

Asia already accounts for almost half the world’s global economic output, but by 2020 intra-Asian trade is projected to be double the amount of trade between Asia and the West, and by 2025 Asia is expected to be the leading trade region. This will mean increasing mobility and services interactions, he said.

“There is a need to get a handle on the rapid economic changes that are already happening. There is going to be quite a lot of labour mobility. And this is a preparation for that,” said Postiglione, adding, “This is a timely alliance. It should have started earlier.”

HKUST’s Shyy noted there was growing concern within Asia about disruption caused by science and technology innovation that is having an impact on the global and regional workforce, and the social and economic structure of countries. He points to a need for a university role in rebalancing the skill set of the workforce. “And in this, countries must work together,” he said.

Referring to China’s leading role in the alliance and the presence of universities in South Asia and Southeast Asia, Postiglione said: “Southeast Asia has always been seen as balancing (geopolitically) between China and the US, but, with [Donald] Trump [as US president], China is becoming the main power in Asia.”

Shyy said in an interview that the alliance’s work was just beginning, and that the number of universities was expected to expand. The fruits of the alliance will take some time to become visible “so we must be patient”, he said.

“They expect to really expand this alliance to increase cooperation throughout Asia,” Postiglione said.