The changing shape of global higher education geopolitics

The launch of the Asian Universities Alliance or AUA in Beijing on 29 April 2017 represents a significant milestone in the changing geopolitics of global higher education. The new alliance is comprised of 15 institutions from 14 countries across the region.

Six of the institutions rank in the top 10 of the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2017.
The alliance will promote the mobility of students, academics and administrators among all members. It will also strengthen and support research collaboration and joint innovation projects. Moreover, the organisation provides members with a forum for high-level dialogue and the development of new Asian higher education strategies.
In combination, these new opportunities for structured cross-university engagement open the door for significant capacity building in the years ahead. Evidence from the business world shows well-managed inter-organisational alliances can do much to promote knowledge sharing and encourage entrepreneurial thinking.

Meanwhile, the formation of the AUA should put many universities elsewhere in the world on notice.

Global mobility is a significant feature of today’s higher education landscape and that is not about to change. However, a growing recognition among students in Asia that cutting-edge higher education options close to home offer more benefits than options abroad will inevitably change market dynamics.
An Asian perspective

The new regional alliance is a distinctly Asian enterprise, enabling mobility across different universities within the region, rather than promoting exchanges beyond Asia.

The use of 'Asian wisdom' to address regional and global challenges is central to the group’s mission. Drawing on the ‘special traits possessed by Asian universities’, future leaders can be cultivated in institutions deeply rooted in the diverse cultural environments of Asia.
President Qiu Yong of Tsinghua University, the lead institution of the alliance, has noted: “Asia is experiencing rapid development and Asian universities should seize the opportunity to enhance levels in education and research. Asian universities should also play a bigger role in training, scientific research, social services as well as the promotion of cultural heritage, international exchanges and cooperation.”
The AUA is not only concerned with the role Asian universities play in the economic transformation of the region, but also how they are positioned on the world stage. This is through the development of ‘world-class universities’ based on Eastern educational philosophy and heritage, that can challenge the dominant ‘Western voices’ in the globalisation of higher education.
The strong regional imperatives that underpin the creation of the AUA reinforce the importance of regionalism and regional bodies in understanding the dynamics of contemporary higher education.
Collaborative advantage

Alliances produce club-like benefits. They enable member universities to achieve objectives they cannot accomplish acting alone. Through the process of mutual learning, mutual advance and shared positive organisational transformations, partners can create new value and generate ‘collaborative advantage’.
The AUA has been designed to deliver tangible benefits to its members.

These include providing structures for universities to pool resources and expertise when responding to pressing regional challenges. Through the alliance, members seek to attract additional research funding from international organisations and private business.
Universities within the alliance anticipate that membership will help improve their position in regional and global rankings. The improvements to resources and reputations would enable these institutions to attract the best academics and students and mitigate the brain drain from Asia to Western universities.
The growth of highly desirable places to work and study in Asia will have implications beyond the region. Some institutions in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Europe may stand to lose international students if staying within Asia becomes a more attractive proposition.

Western universities that have benefited for decades from the influx of full-fee paying foreign students might wish to adjust their forecasts and business plans. A virtue of competitive markets is their tendency to drive continuous quality enhancements and give complacency short shrift.
Soft power

The AUA places a new type of alliance onto the global higher education landscape. It is distinctive because of the extent to which it is a form of Chinese soft power.

The state-sponsored AUA has the full support of the Chinese government. At the launch event the keynote address was delivered by Liu Yandong, vice-premier of the People's Republic of China.

The lead institution, Tsinghua University in Beijing, has a made a strategic investment of US$1.5 million, while the other members across Asia pay a membership fee of US$5,000. This arrangement differs from many existing alliances where the costs are typically shared more equally between members.
China has been using higher education as a form of soft power for some time, but has recently stepped up its efforts. Activities such as the launch of the AUA reveal the scale of China’s geopolitical ambitions.

The Chinese state has recognised the value of multilateral university alliances and is backing this one. In that sense, the AUA represents an innovative policy tool for advancing soft power.
The aims of the alliance – including strengthening the economic and political power of Asia – are overtly aligned to Chinese international relations objectives.

The AUA also gives China a voice in shaping the future of higher education across the region. This is as Beijing endeavours to influence the wider processes of globalisation so they take place on Chinese terms and are favourable to China.
The new alliance joins a wide range of activities that are relocating the epicentre of global higher education to Asia. It will be instructive to watch its future development.
Dr Andrew Gunn is a researcher in higher education at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and was previously Worldwide Universities Network visiting researcher at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Follow him on Twitter: @ASGunn. Professor Michael Mintrom is a professor of public management at Monash University in Australia and an academic director at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeMintrom.