A new dawn for Asian higher education regionalisation?

Having been privileged to attend the launch of the Asian Universities Alliance, or AUA, and its Presidents’ Forum at Tsinghua University, Beijing, on 29 April, I wanted to reflect on its possible implications for the regionalisation of Asian higher education.

Will the AUA be just another one of those university networks with an Asian focus or will it foster the dawn of a Pan-Asian higher education regionalism and reshape Asian higher education?

Composed of 15 key universities from different Asian countries covering all the Asian regions, the AUA can be considered the most ambitious Asian higher education initiative to date. These universities include Tsinghua University, Peking University, the University of Tokyo, Seoul National University, the National University of Singapore and the University of Malaya, among others.

During the Presidents’ Forum, discussions on student and faculty exchange and joint research collaboration appeared to hint at a typical university network. However, the discussions regarding an Asian University Model, addressing challenges in the region, and the slogan of the launch event, “Integrating Asian Values”, suggest that the AUA goes beyond that and will be a frontrunner in Asian higher education regionalism.

The alliance’s aims include expanding educational goals to include social development, enhancing quality, improving postgraduate level teaching and technical transfer, strengthening specialisation, especially in terms of cross-disciplinary and innovative international collaborations, and addressing regional and global challenges.

Regionalisation of Asian higher education

Mostly seen in terms of the Bologna Process and its related initiatives, which include the establishment of the European Higher Education Area, regionalisation of higher education in Asia has been confined to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN and to a limited extension of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC economies.

International student exchange networks, such as the ASEAN University Network exchange programme, the ASEAN International Mobility for Students programme, the Collective Action for Mobility Program of University Students in Asia or CAMPUS Asia, and University Mobility in Asia and Pacific or UMAP have been focused on limited student exchange within their member universities.

It is only in the ASEAN region that a Qualifications Reference Framework has been developed in Asia, for instance. Furthermore, UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific mutual recognition convention is still the only legal document that focuses on mutual recognition of higher education issues at the Asian level.

The influence of European higher education developments and Europe’s ongoing support for ASEAN higher education regionalisation is shaping the future of ASEAN, and probably Asian, higher education.

In fact, the establishment of an ASEAN Higher Education Area or Common Space and hints of initiatives that may eventually establish an Asia-Pacific Higher Education Area can also be seen. These developments, however, are intricately linked with global, and particularly with European, higher education developments.

The AUA and the future of Asian higher education

The establishment of a Pan-Asian university alliance, such as the AUA, and its future expansion marks a new dawn for Asian higher education regionalism. How the AUA defines its mission, its activities and internationalisation and integration initiatives remains to be seen.

Given the strength of its founding university members, their international reputation in terms of teaching, research and outreach excellence and the growing focus on Asian higher education worldwide, the AUA provides a unique platform for the proactive development of an Asian model for higher education, not limited to curricula, research and community service.

In fact, it provides a unique opportunity for the Asian university sector to contribute to solving unique Asian challenges that require the integration of Asian values and an understanding of the Asian context, culture and process.

It also has the potential to contribute to mutual understanding, especially for the younger generation, within Asia and beyond, which should help foster sustainable peace, prosperity and regional understanding and cooperation as well as global citizenship within the Asian context.

As such, the establishment of the AUA is a welcome development, not only for Asian higher education and its stakeholders, but for everyone in the Asian region and by extension the rest of the world. Peace, global citizenship, equity and shared prosperity are global aspirations that can only be achieved through regional and international collaboration, especially in developing future leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists and employees, with the active contribution of the university sector.

We should all look forward to the development and future activities of the AUA and its contribution to Asian higher education and to providing solutions to the region's and the world’s various challenges.

Roger Chao Jr is senior consultant of the UNESCO International Centre for Higher Education Innovation, China.