“Expanding Tertiary Education Out And Up To Stimulate Economic And Social Development: An Emerging Research Agenda For Asia And The Pacific”

to be held in Malaysia, 13-14 November, 2014.

By Phạm Thị Ly (2014)

Higher education (HE) across the world has expanded dramatically in recent years, especially in Asia. Between 1998 and 2014 the total number of HE students in China has increased from 6 to 29 million and is now the largest system in the world. Its proportion of gross enrolment has increased from 7% to 25% during last 15 years[1]. India has a student population of 11 million. Globally, the total number of students in tertiary education was 13 million in 1960, then 82 million in 1995 and 200 million in 2011 (Altbach, 2012). Vietnam also has impressive growth from 162,000 students in 1993 to 2,177,299 in 2013, a 14 fold increased in numbers over 20 years[2].

Alongside this expansion in student numbers is increasing concern about the quality of education. The contributions of research and innovation in socio-economic development are regarded as important elements of higher education. However, the ability of universities to produce a highly skilled workforce and to lead the development of the knowledge economy is being challenged because graduate unemployment is increasing, and there is generally poor collaboration between universities and industries. This is especially true in developing countries where expectations are high but the capacity of institutions to deliver outcomes is limited.

To improve the quality and effectiveness of higher education, developing countries tend to look to lessons and experiences from established institutions in the Western world. Along the way, one recognizes the disparity of research capacity between developed and developing countries and significant cultural differences. Therefore, there is an increasing need for sharing experiences between countries in region that share similar characteristics and that face the common issues so as to learn from each other.

Discussion Issues

The symposium included 35 participants from 11 countries, namely, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Uganda, India, China, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. They comprised practitioners in various roles and positions in higher education as well as senior experts such as Molly Lee (Malaysia), Lynn Meek, Alan Pettigrew (Australia), the UNESCO representative in Bangkok, Thailand. Most participants are university administrators and leaders of research institutes for higher education. The symposium was organized and led by Asa Olsson and Professor Leo Goedegebuure from the LH Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne and included a contribution from Professor Hamish Coates from the Centre for Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne.

The symposium discussed the current policy agenda in the region and focused on the challenges in quality issues and research capacity building in the current transformation from an elite to a mass education system. Three issues gained a lot of attention, namely, managing quality in the context of expansion, internationalization in education and research, and PhD education.

The expansion of the higher education sector

Ly Pham in panel discussion on managing higher education expansion

It is surprising that in spite of the differences in cultural and socio-economic background between countries in the region there are many common issues. It seems that all countries represented are facing the same issues, such as expansion at the expenses of quality of education (Morshidi- Malaysia; Tilak- India; Ly Pham- Vietnam; Chenwen Hong and Fang Fang- China; v.v.); the degree-oriented mode of learning; the declining values of higher education degrees and falling appreciation of university education (Seeram- Singapore, Molly Lee, v.v.).

However, each country has its own responsive strategies and experiences. Malaysia, for example, is managing this transformation through affirmative action to address diverse student populations. India is striving for equitable expansion of higher education, and the transition from elite to a ‘massified’ and ‘diversified’ higher education system in China is extraordinary. In Vietnam, the role of private 
institutions and offshore campuses in responding to the need of higher education access whilst providing an internationally recognized education is a significant characteristic.


Regarding internationalization, the symposium discussed the implementation and effectiveness of various development strategies. Chenwen Hong and Fang Fang (China) presented their evaluation system on the level of internationalization in institutions, based on 80 criteria. They have created 7 first level criteria (including strategic plans, teacher qualifications, students capability, teaching quality, curriculum design, specialization, and facilities). There are 21second level indicators (which are specialized to the first level criteria), and 54 third-level indicators (which serve the second level criteria).

Japan’s top universities achieved a distinguished status in Asia by the 1990s through the strong protection of a national higher education system based on Japan’s inherent language and culture. However, it is now recognized that these factors are barriers to internationalization that will inhibit competitiveness in the global knowledge economy. However, as Akiyoshi pointed out, the motivation was set by government policy rather than the autonomous initiatives of the universities. The challenges faced by Japan are revealed by the decline in total publications (Thompson Reuters 2010), the lower level of international co‐authorship compared with 
the UK, France and Germany (NISTEP) and the decline in the number of Japanese studying abroad (82,945 in 2004 to 57,501 in 2011). Moreover, China, Korea and other Asian countries have become rivals in the intake of international students. To respond to these challenges, Japan has introduced an internationalization strategy with key indicators including: the diversity of staff (the proportions of international faculty, faculty 
with foreign degrees, female staff, and international students); mobility (Japanese students with study abroad experiences; student exchange based on university partnership agreements; support for student exchange; and support systems for Japanese 
students to study abroad and for international students to study in Japan.); language (the provision of foreign language classes; the number of degree program in foreign language; introduction of the GPA; the level of teaching in English; quality assurance systems and international recognition of the educational programs) (Akiyoshi Yonezawa, Japan)[3]. It can be said that many Japanese HEIs are working to improve their internationalization profile using the same strategies as those in other HEIs in the region.

Research capacity building

PhD education is critical for building national research capacity. Seeram Ramakrishna (National University of Singapore)[4] imagines a new prospect on PhD education in 21st century based on the reality today:  there have been 200 m. students studying in 20,000 universities across the world, of which 5-10 m. are post graduate students. Thomson Reuters holds 58 m. research articles created mostly in recent decades. He argued that graduate education is very critical because universities need well-qualified academics, industry and businesses need specialists and experts, and research, invention and innovation need specialists in addition to the generalists. In the meanwhile, the working environment for doctoral candidates is increasingly complicated and demanding. They must hold a strong base of fundamental skills (usage of research tools and methodologies), research ethics (to avoid plagiarism, fraud, and exercise safety practices…), and writing skills (to publish research articles/books, to complete grant proposal, to transfer the knowledge…). Moreover, they must have articulation skills (through communication such as conference, seminar, workshop…); teamwork, multicultural and cooperative skills; mentoring skills; and public scholarship ability.

Seeram Ramakrishna emphasized the fact that graduate education in the past used to be mono-disciplinary, depth focused, and localized, but now it must have an interdisciplinary approach, international collaboration and global learning, and a focus on the impact of the work.

Ranjit presenting team discussion results

Ranjit Gajendra (India)[5] argued that for research to contribute to addressing major social, technical, economic and environmental problems, collaboration across national borders and disciplines, and between researchers, practitioners, policy makers and business leaders is essential. It is recognized that universities play a central role in the formation of a knowledge-based innovation-driven economy. However, the emphasis given to the balance between teaching, research and third stream activities differs across both individual institutions and nation states, and is reflected in the diversity of strategic priorities of universities.

In the context of globalization, as collaborations move from between nations in the developed world to collaboration with and between the newly-developed and developing world, from between individual scholars to between institutions, from co-authored, joint publications to commercialization, layers of entrepreneurial, cultural, legal, political and systems nuances are added.

Asia and the Pacific region presents a great historical, cultural, and ethnic diversity as well as a variety of stages of political evolution and economic development. Sustainable transnational research collaboration in higher education requires greater engagement with stakeholders, deeper analysis and understanding, and honest appraisal of processes. These processes include alignment of rewards and recognition, establishing entrepreneurial mindsets, providing access to research funds and venture capital and finding solutions to differences in legal systems, national regulations, export controls, protection of intellectual property, political agendas, research environments and practices, and Working sensitively in culturally diverse settings is also essential. Whilst higher education institutions continue to compete for students, academics, scholars and research funding, they must also appreciate and develop deeper understanding of cross cultures, policy frameworks, entrepreneurial academic leadership, and commercialization-savvy management that all contribute to the success of creation, distribution and application of knowledge through sustainable research collaborations across national systems (Ranjit Gajendra, 2014)[6].

Academic mobility was also addressed in the symposium, most significantly in Lynn Meek’s (Australia)[7] presentation. Meek, citing Adams’ argument, pointed out that there are four stages of research: the individual, the institutional, the national, and the international collaboration between elite research groups.  Moreover, citation and other measures of impact are greater when researchers collaborate internationally. “Institutions that do not form international collaborations risk progressive disenfranchisement, and countries that do not nurture their talent will lose out entirely”. Adams added that “Excellence seeks excellence, so elite national universities are also leading international collaborators” (Adams 2013). Meek emphasized that scientific mobility must be a two way street – not just migration from the peripheral to the metropolitan laboratories; and policy must take account of what motivates scientists, as academic free trade is becoming inevitable.

Building a regional higher education network

The above discussions made clear the argument that countries in the region are sharing some common practices and concerns even though each might have different approaches to address the problems. Further, it was recognized that countries can learn from each other, even despite contextual differences in economy, politics and culture, simply because research and innovation is a common human endeavour.  This philosophy is a fundamental driver for establishing a regional collaboration network that would be greatly helpful to a range of countries in the region. There is both a need and an opportunity for support from international agencies such as UNESCO, the World Bank and other international organizations. Even though UNESCO is no longer a funding agency it plays an important role in connecting organizations and individuals in the activities that would be beneficial for the region. The UNESCO representative provided very positive in-principle and technical support to the network proposal.

Molly Lee (Malaysia)[8] presented a comprehensive picture on transnational organizations in higher education existing in the Asia-Pacific region. Instead of “internalization” Lee talked about “regionalization”, using the definition of Jane Knight (2012): “Higher education regionalization introduces the process of intentionally building connections and relationships among higher education actors and systems in the region”. There are three approaches in regional cooperation: functional, political, and organizational. Functional approaches focus on practical activities such as policies/strategies that facilitate closer alignment of HE systems (e.g. QA, academic credit systems, qualification frameworks). These include programs such as student mobility schemes, cross-border collaborative education programs, pan-regional universities, and CoEs.  Political approaches refer to political will and strategies that put HE initiatives on the agenda of decision-making bodies. These initiatives help to launch major programs or funding schemes and to formalize initiatives, and include declarations of intent, binding conventions, treaties, agreements, summit meetings and policy dialogues. Organizational approaches refer to entities and networks that evolve to develop and guide regional initiatives in a more systematic manner, such as frameworks, structures, or agencies to help establish and oversee regional-level and intra-regional initiatives. This can be government and non-government bodies, professional organizations, foundations, and networks. These organizational strategies work on a variety of responsibilities such as policy-making, funding, research, capacity building, regulation, advocacy and others.

There are many existing transnational organizations or networks in higher education that are based in the Asia-Pacific or that have positive participation of the countries in the region. On functional approach, there are networks on student/faculty mobility (such as   UMAP – (1993), SEAMEO RIHED (2009), AUN (1992) – ASEAN + 3, +EU,  CAMPUS ASIA – (2010), and APAIE – (2006)). These networks are typically exclusive, focus on first-tier universities and have different effectiveness. On quality assurance, the transnational organizations include Universitas21 (1997), SEED-NET, ASEAN Graduate Business Economic Program, APQN (Asia Pacific Quality Network, 2004), and AQAN (ASEAN Quality Assurance Network, 2008). On research, there is APERA (Asia Pacific Educational Research Association, 2001); HERA (Higher Education Research Association, 2013); and AIR (Association of Institutional Research, 1965). On service learning, there is SLAN (Service Learning Asia Network, 2000), APUCEN (Asia Pacific University Community Engagement Network, 2009), and the AUN-USR&S (AUN Universities Social Responsibility and Sustainability, 2010).

Discussion Outputs

However, there is no network for regional higher education practitioners who are connected by common issues and common interests in research leadership and management, and who are committed to sharing ideas and practices and learning from each other.

The symposium participants reached consensus in terms of the value of forming such a network and its future contributions. It would be a network for not only higher education administrators and researchers but also other stakeholders such as government officials, businesses, industry, funding agencies, etc. The network would aim to facilitate the  exchange ideas and inform policymakers about what should be included in policy development agendas. It would not be a global network but would focus on the most relevant issues for countries in the Asia-Pacific region, seen in the global context. By participating in this network, members would have a chance to share information, to understand the realities and policies in neighbor countries, to strengthen awareness of international developments and to expand the opportunities for collaboration.


The need for strengthening research capacity in developing countries is now even greater than before because research is now a global pursuit. The development of the higher education sector during last two decades has occurred mostly in terms of expansion the size of the system. There are now some serious “bottle-neck” problems related to academic and research staffing and capabilities, as well as quality in the supply of research capable graduates. To address these problems, more involvement of HEIs with industry and the society will be a central requirement of policy development. Regional collaborations for sharing experiences and learning from each other will be key to promote the changes needed. This symposium provided a fundamental discussion for building such a network for the Asia-Pacific region. With the participation of some developed countries and educational champions and prominent scholars in each country, we can hope for the contributions that such a network can make toward the development of the future higher education system in countries in the region.



[1] Source: Kai-ming Cheng, Hong Kong University.

[2] Source:

[3] Dr. Akiyoshi Yonezawa works at Graduate School of International Development (GSID) Nagoya University, Japan.

[4]  Seeram Ramakishna obtained the doctoral degree in University of Cambridge, is one of 16 most highly cited scholar in the world, Thomson Reuters identified him among the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds (see:

[5] Ranjit Gajendra was business and finance analyst and member of an international leadership team that established and managed a UNESCO-award winning dual sector tertiary education system in the UAE and now is PhD candidate of University of Melbourne (Australia).

[6] Source: Ranjit Gajendra (2014). Transnational Research Collaboration: Foresight and a Holistic Solution, IERR Research Digest 5, Oct 2014.

[7] Professor Lynn Meek is the former Director of LH Martin Institute, Australia.

[8] Prof. Molly Lee was UNESCO co-ordinator in Asia.


I would like to express my sincere thanks to the organizers for invitation and Nguyen Tat Thanh University for support my attending the symposium. I am also grateful to Professor Alan Pettigrew for his invaluable comments and editions on the first drafts. All remaining errors are obviously mine.

Left to right: Wang Libing, UNESCO representative in Bangkok, Asa Osson, LH Martin Institute, Prof. Molly Lee (Malaysia), and Ly Pham (Vietnam)