Industry 4.0 needs Society 4.0. And that means universities

At the closing panel of the recent Going Global: Asia Pacific 2022 conference on the future of international tertiary education, I argued that there is a need to institutionalise inclusiveness, encourage innovation and ensure the availability of data for evidence-based policy-making. I also strongly promoted the need to ensure that social infrastructure (for example, higher education institutions) is on a par with economic infrastructure.

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) remain key challenges in international higher education and, more broadly, in higher education generally. Higher education should be enshrined as a key public good, considering the benefits to national states and society in terms of future taxes and reduced crime rates and social spending.

EDI needs to be embedded in national higher education systems and individual higher education institutions, and, if possible, we need to promote the possibility of higher education for all within a lifelong learning framework.

Taxes paid by future graduates, contributions to socio-economic-cultural well-being and the reduced tendency for conflict and war at national, regional and global levels should provide enough rationale to support the EDI agenda in higher education and revisit the discussion on higher education for all.

Furthermore, considering that the skills, competencies and values required to effectively participate in society now exceed those acquired in compulsory education, the right to education should be revisited to include higher education for all.

Going digital

Given the increasing utilisation of digital technologies in society and in higher education, there is a need for the digital transformation of higher education. The past years, particularly during the COVID pandemic, have seen a significant take-up of digital technologies in the development, delivery and assessment of higher education programmes globally.

The growing number of massive open online courses (MOOCs), collaborative online international learning (COIL) programmes and virtual mobilities and exchanges clearly highlights the need to be innovative and ensure that new forms of learning are integrated into higher education, including micro-credentials.

Higher education systems and institutions need to transform to adapt to the current times and environment (the digital world, the changing world of work, the advent of digital natives and the creative economy and workers), taking into consideration that a qualification may be replaced by a portfolio of competencies, or a skills or competencies passport in the near future.

Innovation is not limited to the challenges of the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions and the changing world of work and society, however. It also enhances and ensures the resilience and relevance of higher education to students and graduates across different generations.

It is particularly important that innovation in higher education ensures that students and graduates acquire skills and competencies that promote lifelong learning as learning doesn’t end after university or postgraduate studies, nor is it limited within the four corners of the university or digital learning ecosystems.

Better data

Another vital element of international higher education is evidence-based policy-making. However, the availability of transparent and compatible international data for higher education remains challenging.

How do we effectively discuss and develop future directives and scenarios for international higher education without supporting data? The future of international higher education will need to be anchored in the enhancement of effective data collection, transparency and comparability that serves as the foundation of effective evidence-based policy-making.

I have often revisited the economic disruptions and social changes brought about by different industrial revolutions and observed the growing gap between the growth of economic and social infrastructure.

Economic infrastructure grows and changes at a faster rate than social infrastructure (for example, higher education systems and institutions). However, we should not forget that the wider the gap between economic and social infrastructure, the stronger the possibility that the social fabric can be torn apart and that there are potential challenges to inclusion, equity and socio-economic cleavages.

Industry 4.0 needs to be accompanied by Society 4.0 not Society 2.0 to ensure that the foundations of our world remain stable, and that people, who are at the centre of society, remain skilled and competent, empathetic to the challenges that face humanity and constantly learn to adapt to a rapidly changing world.


As such, international higher education, and the internationalisation experience, should be available for all. For that reason I have argued that internationalisation of higher education should be integrated in all higher education programmes, be they in-person or virtual mobility programmes, internationalisation at home experiences or a hybrid of a wider comprehensive internationalisation of higher education approach.

International higher education remains significant to our goal of building a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous global community. But inclusion, innovation, evidence-based policy-making and ensuring that our higher education systems and institutions catch up with economic infrastructure development may be the future of international higher education.

Dr Roger Chao Jr is currently assistant director and head of education, youth and sports at the ASEAN Secretariat. Since 2013, he has been engaged in the international education development sector in various organisations including UNESCO, UNICEF and DAAD. Dr Chao has published on regionalisation and internationalisation of higher education, teacher education, refugee education and more.