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By Kuldeep Nagi
Published on March 29, 2011

Last year in Bangkok, Luis Benveniste, an education specialist at the World Bank presented a report “Towards a Competitive Higher Education System in a Global Economy” indicating that the quality of Thai higher education will pose a major obstacle to country’s long-term development.

In a recent Times survey, World Ranking of Universities 2010-11 no Thai universities made the list. Some Asean countries including Thailand have ridiculed the idea of university rankings by foreign agencies. In Asean only two universities from Singapore found a place on the list. This news is not new. In the past few years there have been many committees, studies and reports highlighting the crisis in higher education.

The World Bank report focuses on the known fact that to participate in the increasingly competitive global market of higher education, universities in Asean need to recognise two major issues. The first is the stark disparities in the governance models and inability of Asean to create a unified framework for higher education across the region. The second is about university autonomy and medium of instruction, especially the use of English for borderless education.

A survey of expert opinion about “University Autonomy in Twenty Countries” conducted by the Australian National University in April 1998 indicated that Thai government bureaucracies interfered 46 per cent of the time in university operations. It is clear from the survey that Western governments also influence university operations. But in comparison, their influence stems from funding powers. This survey indicated that in Asean, governments in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have maximum interference in university operations. Not much has changed since 1998.

Universities in Asean and especially in Thailand, for most of their short history have owed allegiance to kings, rulers, the military and various governments. The price of this support has been greater government interference in the internal affairs of universities. Only in the last few decades have churches, philanthropists, embassies and foundations funded universities, expecting suitable outcomes in response to their own doctrine, policies, social values or charitable support.

“Asean’s biggest problem is that individual members haven’t been willing to sacrifice for the common good,” says Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Every European Union member has given up sovereignty to be part of a stronger union, and we haven’t seen that in Asean.”

Also there are big disparities among the Asean members. The purchasing power of the group’s four poorest countries is five times less than the other members, according to the bloc’s own website. Asean will never become similar to the EU because political and institutional differences between the countries are too large, says Razeen Sally, a director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels. “The problem with Asean is that it can only arrive at a very low common denominator. It’s not going to be a strong collective body and we can’t expect it to come up with a strong collective response to regional challenges.” This is evident from the current border spat between Thailand and Cambodia.

Globalisation is centre stage and the issue of the medium of instruction in Asean universities is critical for preparing a competitive workforce. Free markets require mobility in human capital. In the growing borderless market of higher education the use of English is the foremost of the challenges. The historical lack of foundation in the English language is a critical disadvantage for Asean universities. It has also created practices lacking accreditation benchmarks, leading to substandard degrees and educational practices. Thailand especially, except for a few universities in Bangkok, has been slow to embrace this fundamental ingredient of borderless education. It is imperative that Asean universities fully commit to higher standards for borderless education by developing a much stronger focus on English teaching-learning models.

The World Bank report indicates the biggest challenge in Asean is in the area of research and development (R&D) investment in institutions of higher learning. Except for Singapore and Malaysia, by and large Asean universities have remained academic in nature. Their traditional role has been to offer programmes leading to an academic degree. For the first time in decades, Singapore (1) and Hong Kong (2) have topped the US (3) in the IMD’s World Competitiveness Yearbook rankings. In the top 10, Malaysia has also benefited from strong investment in Asia. All other Asean members are lagging behind.

Unless Asean countries opens up borders for more direct foreign investment and recruit and retain foreign talent to engage in innovative research programmes, they will lag behind. Only Singapore and Malaysia lead the way in tapping into young talent for enhancing research potential.

The borderless digital economy is allowing those who are “e-ready” to be agents of change. Whether helping to disseminate technology, higher education or social justice, globalisation is creating new challenges. However, changes in Asean are not happening at the same pace. No matter how much pride Asean universities have in their traditional role and culture they cannot afford to remain static. We hear the mantra of Asean becoming a unified economic community by 2015. Many wonder whether this aspiration can be fulfilled without addressing the issues of higher education.

Dr Kuldeep Nagi is a Fulbright Fellow from Seattle, currently working at Assumption University, Bangkok.