Education and Skills

Asia needs a world-class university. Here's what it would look like

Students take part during the "One Billion Rising" dance campaign at all-girls school St Scholastica college in Manila February 13, 2015.

Its own Harvard ... because the new ideas Asia needs are unlikely to be incubating in Western colleges Image: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Chandran Nair
Founder and CEO, Global Institute for Tomorrow (GIFT)
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on ASEAN

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings – often regarded as the who’s who of higher education – is the subject of much debate. Will the top university be American or British? Will Harvard keep its position as the world’s most respected university? And will a European university break into the top 10?

These discussions mean little in Asia. In the Times ranking, Asia doesn’t appear until number 26: the National University of Singapore. Asian universities fare a little better when the Times surveys academics about “prestigious universities” (the University of Tokyo comes in at number 12 in the this month’s “reputation” rankings), but the top of the list is dominated by America and Britain.

We could, with justification, see Asia’s exclusion as an example of near-sighted Western perspective. But it is also high time that Asia develops its own centres of learning – ones that cater to what the region needs: new ideas to help solve new challenges. These centres would not only highlight the important work done by Asia’s prominent universities, but also garner global respect themselves.

Image: Times Higher Education

What would it teach?

Asia needs new economic policies: both to improve the lives of the hundreds of millions of people that still lack access to basic needs, and to ensure their continued development on a more sustainable basis. It needs new business models, to provide products to the “base-of-the-pyramid” on a financially viable basis, and to account for the region’s expanding middle class. It needs new foreign policies to navigate a more multipolar world and to peacefully manage and include a rising China in regional stability. And it certainly needs creative ideas on how to live within limits, given the region’s resource constraints.

But, students, researchers and (to be frank) donors in Asia choose instead to devote their time and money to elite schools in the United States and the United Kingdom. It seems bizarre to argue that the best way for Asian students and researchers to learn about their own region is to travel abroad. At the same time, there’s little point in schooling Asia’s best minds in ideas that may be quite inappropriate for the region. The new ideas Asia needs are unlikely to be incubating in Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government or Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

An ASEAN university or institute could be a catalyst for the development of new solutions in a location close to the source of Asia’s problems. Such an institution would help coordinate and add to the efforts of other good Asian institutions, such as the National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University, Keio University and so on, while being a prestigious institution in its own right. It would be a centre for academics, students and researchers, whether Asian or non-Asian, to understand Asia, its problems and its potential. Such an institution could also be a lynchpin in the “ASEAN university network”, which currently links the region’s prominent academic institutions.

It’s all about academic rigour

An independent institution with a physical campus is a better solution to improving academic rigor in Asia than what has often been used: the satellite campus, which has been popular among Western universities over the past decade. Disconnected from the academic networks on the main campus, these satellite colleges risk delivering a worse version of the education provided on the main campus. This means that students are applying for nothing but a Western university’s brand, an act that both Asian societies and Western academics should probably discourage.

Satellite institutes that do not admit students, but merely act as a foreign home for a university’s faculty and students, are a little better, but do not resolve the fundamental disconnect between the satellite institute and wider Asian society. Would a student from New York University learn more about China from NYU’s Shanghai campus, or from attending an actual Shanghai university?

Building an ASEAN university is certainly realisable. The European Union – an organization that also needs regional solutions to regional issues – funds a small postgraduate research institute based in Florence. Another example is India’s Nalanda University, which was an attempt by India’s government to revive the historic university. Money from Japan and Singapore helped build it, run by the former Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo and governed by a board of prominent Asian academics. Nalanda’s first class entered its campus in 2014 and, while it’s still too early to tell whether it’s been a success, the model has a lot to teach us about pulling together regional resources towards a single goal.

Where would we build it?

There are many potential locations for an ASEAN University: Malaysia – nestled strategically between China, India and Singapore – is one possibility. A university located in the state of Johor, across the border from Singapore, would present many benefits. Manila, the home of the Asian Development Bank, is another.

Choosing a location will be difficult, to ensure that Asian countries do not use the process as a way to jockey for status and prestige. But this does not mean that the task will be impossible. Pitching the university as a cooperative ASEAN effort – initiated as a partnership between Singapore and Malaysia in Johor – would make building such a campus easier by giving multiple countries a stake in its success.

The ASEAN region needs a world-class institution devoted to its issues, in part to co-ordinate the good work already being done by the region’s universities. Asia is confronted with new problems on multiple fronts, from economics and politics to diplomacy and social cohesion. New ideas are needed to solve them; ideas that would be best fostered under a new independent academy.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 1 to 2 June.

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