Universities can help overcome economic nationalism

In an era when economic and trade nationalism is disrupting the multilateral world order, universities have a role to play in driving multinational cross-border collaborations, and preparing for a future thrown into uncertainty by the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.

University presidents, policy-makers and business leaders in the Asia-Pacific region came together in a University Leaders' Forum just before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC summit in Vietnam earlier this month to talk about joint strategies and policies to keep pace with disruptive technologies – such as digitisation, robotics and artificial intelligence.

The rise of economic nationalism and decline of the multilateral trade system, particularly since United States President Donald Trump entered office this year, was a major focus of the main summit of APEC heads of state from the 21 member countries in Danang, Vietnam.

Early in his presidency Trump announced his country’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, a multilateral trade pact with 11 other Asian and Pacific Rim countries in Australasia, North America and Latin America, sparking consternation in the region.

Many governments are fearful of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which “has created hopes for higher productivity but also anxiety about its transformative implications”, said Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, co-chair of the APEC ministerial meeting on 9 November, which preceded the leaders’ summit on 10-11 November.

Universities can inform policy-makers on how to prepare for disruption, particularly understanding what is happening with students, who are at the cutting edge of innovation, delegates from business, government and universities heard at the University Leaders' Forum in Danang on 8 November, organised by the Association of Pacific Rim Universities or APRU.

With many universities already collaborating in cross-border and multidisciplinary research, “we can see many opportunities and an emancipation from the national context,” said APRU Secretary General Christopher Tremewan.

Referring to disruptive technologies, Chi Youngsuk, chairman of Elsevier, a science information and analytics company, told the forum: “The issues that we approach today are too big for one nation to tackle, too complex to understand concretely in one discipline, it runs across all disciplines.”

Resisting economic nationalism

Chi added universities were the one place where economic nationalism could be resisted.

“Collectively APRU has the most powerful set of universities with [an] incredible voice to overcome this period of turning our back [away] from multilateralism,” Chi said. “We want to see more collaboration because the problems are just too damn big. We cannot solve this alone.”

“Multilateralism is giving way to bilateral conversations which does not accomplish as much for the world as it accomplishes for individual countries,” said Chi.

While major companies cannot resist the trend for many governments to move towards more inward looking economic and trade policies, universities can try to promote multilateral discussion, as well as understand the pace of change and challenges at a time when governments are focused on short-term initiatives, he said.

He called on universities “to stick your neck out and resist this [nationalism] trend, which is dangerous for all of us”.

Though there is much talk about cross-sector innovation, “there are still a lot of barriers against innovation, especially in relation to partnerships between governments and universities”, said Wang Yan, coordinator of the Education Network of the APEC Human Resources Development Working Group.

She pointed to the APEC Education Strategy Action Plan endorsed at the APEC summit – the first educational blueprint up to 2030 since the inception of APEC in 1989 – as a new example for multilateral education collaboration, including in delivering the skills required for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“It is increasingly important that education and training deliver competencies that reflect the current and future needs of the regional labour market and that these competencies be commonly understood and recognised across borders, and systems,” according to the policy document drawn up earlier this year on APEC’s education strategy and submitted to the summit by the APEC Human Resources Development Working Group.

International trade lawyer and digital trade expert, Robert Holleyman, previously deputy US trade representative during the administration of former US president Barack Obama and now CEO of C&M International, a trade and public affairs consultancy, told the forum that university collaboration with the private sector and policy-makers in APEC can produce the next generation of leaders who will understand how better to collaborate.

“Government officials are focused on short-term initiatives,” Holleyman said, and this can be as short as their own term in office. Yet the disruptive changes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can seem threatening because of the pace of change and extensive global competition.

Universities bring to the table, especially in APEC, things that policy-makers are looking for, “in some cases before the policy-makers know what the questions are”, including understanding what is happening in a fast-changing technological and research environment, Holleyman said.

“Artificial intelligence poses opportunities for more quality jobs in the future,” said Huang Dinglong, founder and CEO of China’s Malong Technologies, which focuses on artificial intelligence.

Companies will need more people to do interesting work in these areas. “The best job has not been created yet, it is still coming,” he told the forum.

Skills mismatch

APEC economies have identified structural unemployment and a skills mismatch as major concerns for the region. There is a gap between the skills of workers looking for work and the skills required for emerging job opportunities according to the 2017 APEC Economic Policy Report on structural reform and human capital development.

In Danang, the Association of Pacific Rim Universities announced a partnership with APEC’s Project DARE on data science, analytics and raising employment to bridge the skills gap in the region. “Higher education institutions will play a critical role in addressing the future DSA [data science and analytics] skills shortages,” said Nguyen Kim Son, president of Vietnam National University, Hanoi.

“The lack of DSA skills currently sits on top of the skills shortage in the APEC region, not just in terms of the size of the gap, but also its essential role in driving artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, cyber-physical systems that are at the centre of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the future of work and the future of global prosperity,” said Project DARE Co-chair Clay Stobaugh, executive vice-president of Wiley, a global publishing and research company.

“One million jobs will go unfilled in APEC because the skills sets won’t be able to provide for data analytics as required by employers,” Stobaugh told the University Leaders’ Forum.

Project DARE was launched by APEC earlier this year to develop the competencies required for future DSA workers.

“DSA-enabled knowledge workers will have skills not easily replaced by automation; instead they will be better prepared to unlock the promise and potential of data and the technologies that depend on it,” according to the APEC Human Resources Development Working Group in a June communication in preparation for the November summit.

The competencies were developed by a 50-person advisory group from 14 APEC member economies, co-chaired by Wiley and the Business-Higher Education Forum. Advisors included business leaders who oversee data science and analytics within their companies, academics involved with inter-disciplinary data science initiatives and curricula, and government officials involved in human resources development.