Asian higher education changes: Perspectives from within

Alongside major economic and social transformations over the past decades, there have been significant changes and reforms in Asia’s higher education, many of which are driven by factors and processes such as national and regional development, demographic shifts, globalisation, internationalisation, transnationalisation, urbanisation, privatisation, commercialisation, neoliberalism, educational mobility and global rankings.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has been seen as another significant factor influencing current and future higher education orientations globally as well as regionally and nationally.

Embedded in the dynamic and changing landscape of Asia’s higher education are many nuanced questions and issues affecting and inspiring those working and studying in Asia in varied ways, as several published collections from Collins and Ho, 2018 and Mok and Chan, 2020 to Mok and Montgomery, 2021; Phan and Doan, 2020 and Phan and Fry, 2021, among others, have shown.

Building on the above studies and on other published works such as Michael A Peters's 2019 commentary China’s belt and road initiative: Reshaping global higher education, Phan Le Ha’s 2017 book Transnational Education Crossing Asia and the West, and Ravinder K Sidhu, Ho Kong Chong, Brenda S. A. Yeoh's 2020 book Student Mobilities and International Education in Asia, these questions and issues will be addressed and interrogated in a new series of articles by the International and Comparative Education Research Group at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (ICE@UBD) and University World News.

The series presents selected accounts and insights from the lived experiences and rich perspectives of a group of scholars, researchers and graduate students from diverse backgrounds who are currently affiliated with universities in various countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The group meets on a regular basis to share research ideas and personal and professional experiences and to discuss policies, practices and issues in one another’s respective higher education contexts.

The quest for global recognition

The series will touch on issues such as the quest for national, international and global recognition which is prevalent across higher education systems in Asia. Asian institutions are investing heavily in many aspects so as to be included in reputable university rankings league tables.

A new culture is being created in the course of this global rankings race, and this culture is gradually shaping many actors’ and participants’ dreams, well-being, policies, strategies and practices regarding research, teaching, learning, training, recruitment and engagement with society.

Indeed, Asia’s higher education is both energised and exhausted by this very quest. What have those working and studying in Asia got to say about all of this? What are their views on knowledge production and knowledge mobility?

These questions and discussions will be unpacked and examined, including one article which pays particular attention to knowledge production in the age of metrics and global rankings – also the theme of the upcoming 13th Engaging With Vietnam Conference to be held in Vietnam from 23-31 October 2022.

Graduate education

Our group discussions have also focused a lot on graduate education, bringing to the fore multifaceted debates about the varied requirements, desires, promises, realities and complexities regarding pursuing masters and PhD degrees in Asian universities.

While higher education systems in Asian countries vary quite significantly in their approaches to graduate education, they all seem to be moving quickly towards the publication-driven imperative which demands that both supervisors and graduate students meet specific publication criteria prior to and during the supervisory process.

Via our group discussions, it seems much easier on the surface to be admitted into PhD programmes in English-speaking Western and European countries than to satisfy the very demanding requirements for PhD programmes in universities in some Asian countries.

At the same time, despite the growing availability of many high-quality educational programmes offered at all levels in their home countries, Asian students have continued to search for mobility opportunities in other countries. There are many aspirations, reasons and explanations behind the mobility journeys of these students, whether inter-Asian mobilities or out-of-region mobilities.

The relationship between educational mobilities, the English language and Asia’s higher education is multifold. The spread and penetration of English is not in any way slowing down in Asian societies and higher education institutions.

With universities in Asia joining the university global ranking race, teaching, research and publications in the medium of English are mushrooming. Those courses, programmes and publications in English are in high demand and English-driven mobilities are also on the rise.

There are many implications for local institutions, local journals and for those who do not produce knowledge in English or those whose English remains insufficient for writing and doing research.

There are also implications for those moving to Asia from other regions for education and-or employment purposes. Are there any policies in place to address these implications and new realities, and to offer solutions and alternatives? If they are, what do they offer and what are they like?

Language and culture issues

In the midst of all these intertwined happenings, the teaching of certain Asian languages is also growing quickly across Asian universities. What do these language programmes look like? What is creating the demand for them? What opportunities and challenges lie ahead for those who teach and those who learn these Asian languages? How about journals that publish in languages other than English, particularly when these language teachers or lecturers are also required to publish in English and in international journals?

And, as internationalisation and globalisation take place and are driving local higher education systems, many governments in Asia have also introduced policies to strengthen their political, cultural and educational ideologies in varied ways such as via compulsory training and curriculum mandates which apply to all teaching staff and students.

Above are brief summaries of some of the many issues and questions that our group members have engaged with over the past few months in our regular group meetings. The upcoming articles included in the series from the group will provide more detailed discussions and analyses. We look forward to stimulating conversations with readers as the series progresses.

Phan Le Ha is senior professor in the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education and head of the International and Comparative Education Research Group, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Brunei. She is also honorary professor at IOE – Culture, Communication & Media, University College London, UK. She is the founder of Engaging With Vietnam and its annual academic conference series.