On 20th March, Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University will welcome visiting education professionals to the 12th annual conference of the APAIE – the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education.
Under the umbrella theme of ‘New Era, New Horizon, New Frontier Higher Education in Asia Pacific,' the conference will provide an opportunity to share ideas and strategies regarding globalization trends, international collaboration, student mobility, and the changing impact of digital media on international higher education.
The region has seen unparalleled growth in the postsecondary sector over the past four decades, a reflection of changing attitudes as much as economic development. Asia has its own rich history of education and personal development, and globalization and increasing economic freedom have made a more western-style education culturally appealing to today’s students. Meanwhile, governments have recognized that investing in a competitive and internationally recognizable education system can be a lucrative policy. Consequently, we’ve seen key universities in the region rising through global rankings.
With Asia Pacific's share of world GDP almost doubling from 15 percent to 27 percent between 1970 and 2012, and the area's middle classes expected to swell to around 3.2 billion people by 2030, this is an important moment for institutions in the region to question their role in the broader picture of globalization. The opportunity now exists to take a major role in the continuing conversation about what will define a 21st-century education – and student experience.
For many in the region, it currently means online or distance learning. Asia has more than 70 open universities, while in China one in ten degree-level students are taking part in online learning. Virtual field trips, video conferencing, and the sharing of materials are all highly modern ways to connect with remote students - while also raising the profile of an institution among the international academic community. The Chinese government actually funds professors at the top universities to develop their teaching materials and publish them online, to the benefit of lower-ranked Chinese institutions; a progressive attitude when, elsewhere in the region, concerns are held regarding states' allocation of funds to flagship universities at the expense of smaller schools.
However, it is worth noting that rural areas in China and elsewhere in the region are still developing a workable ICT infrastructure. The World Bank’s Global Development Learning Network and the Asia-Pacific arm of UNESCO’s Higher Education Open and Distance Learning Knowledge Base are among organizations making such development a point of priority. The issue reaches beyond the stuff of cables and connectivity to the predominance of English-language content on the web and in ‘standard' software packages.
That’s not to say that there is no infrastructure in place. Students of Indira Gandhi Open University alone account for 20% of all tertiary learners in India. And Asia has over one-third of the world’s mobile users. Educators in the region can work towards narrowing the gap by also acknowledging the value of mobile learning (“M–learning”) – using relatively prevalent smart/cell phone technology to share materials.
The region's governments will now be looking to the post-graduate sector for ways to expand on the economic and cultural progress of the past few decades. The thinking here is two-pronged. In the first instance, the region's ballooning undergrad scene is fast outgrowing its infrastructure. In short, more teachers with more rigorous academic practices are required to address issues of capacity and quality. This phenomenon is more profoundly felt in private institutions, whose academic staff are half as likely to carry a Masters or doctoral degree.
Secondly, governments are looking beyond education in itself, to the internationally thriving world of R&D. Research and development is a potentially lucrative and culturally progressive investment. But here, it pays to be cautious. Despite our apparently shrinking globe, the science and tech industries tend to be territorial: they flourish in established ‘tech zones' (think of Silicon Valley) where healthy competition and multi-tiered collaboration are part and parcel of daily business. More isolated institutions may find the investment costly.
This is not to say that provincial universities cannot compete. Indeed, the Global Research Benchmarking System (GRBS) has indicated that pockets of great work are being done even in universities that are not highly ranked. Asian institutions that might not otherwise consider themselves to be headline material should look closely at departments in which they excel, and flag these up when connecting with potential students and investors. The wider world is watching carefully: between 2005 and 2011 alone, inbound international students doubled to 492,000 in East and South Asia, largely on the strength of perceived improvements in the quality and profile of the region’s educational institutions.
Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia are among those at the forefront of the quest to attract international students; likewise, Australia can wield its English language base as a valuable point of attraction for students from Asia and further afield. But if Asian governments are wary of a seeing their brightest talent lured abroad, they are likely to make up the balance by borrowing another of Australia’s secret weapons: its generous permanent visa policy towards international graduates of Australian universities.
It’s an attractive proposition, although it’s not as simple as that for many Asian students. Countries such as Malaysia who both export and import a large number of students can be seen to illustrate a complex form of intraregional traffic that may be influenced as much by religious affiliations and colonial legacies as by language.
Smart institutions will balance the immediate appeal of rising demand against more complex ongoing cultural, educational, and economic factors. In the meantime, online provision, offshore provision, ‘split campus' programs, and twinning arrangements will operate both as testing grounds and as new opportunities for continuing international cooperation. After decades of astonishing development in the Asia-Pacific region, the region is poised to impress.
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