The Asia pivot in Higher Education



Asia is fast becoming a key player in global higher education. Asian nations’ growing demand for education and the increased investment they have made in their universities presents opportunities and challenges to the world. And recently, some of the first systematic steps have been taken by Asia-Pacific countries to potentially coordinate their higher-education systems.

At a meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, this summer, the leaders of the nations in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, or APEC, released a declaration promoting cross-border higher-education cooperation. This statement represents a specific agenda for APEC to foster “innovative growth as regional networks of students, researchers, and education providers build scientific, technological, and linguistic communities.”

This is not the first region to call for such academic cooperation. Europe over the past decade has been working toward the creation of a common higher-education area. The so-called Bologna Process is meant to create degree recognition and credit transfer across borders, more multinational academic programs, and increased student mobility.

What APEC leaders are proposing is just a first step. There is still a long way to go before a a Bologna-like effort in the region. The declaration focuses on a standard palette of enhancing mobility of students, researchers, and educational institutions. Issues of degree recognition and academic program comparability, hallmarks of the European process, were not included. And probably for good reason—they are among the hardest collaborations to achieve.

One step, however, leads to another. In August, we attended another meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on this topic. The meeting, which was organized by Chris Ziguras, an associate professor at RMIT University in Australia, and sponsored by the Australian government and by the Australian APEC Study Centre, brought together academics, government officials, and university leaders to discuss how to create an APEC regulatory framework for cross-border higher education.

The meeting left us wondering: What if an APEC higher-education region actually came to fruition? It would very likely be a major academic player, equaling or exceeding Europe for global prominence.

The members are already an economic powerhouse. According to APEC literature, the region accounts for 55 percent of the global GDP, 44 percent of trade, and 40 percent of the people. Moreover, members of the APEC forum include an array of what one might call anchor higher-education systems—those that are well respected and well developed. These include Australia, Canada, South Korea, Russia, and the United States (though there are several obstacles to be overcome before the U.S. is likely to fully participate). It also includes a number of nations with emerging systems—those with rapidly increasing demand for higher education, but still not enough supply—despite significant investments from the governments. Such nations include China, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Even with this potential, there remain significant barriers in many countries to cross-border activities. Much of the discussion at the Malaysia meeting was about how to liberalize trade policy to facilitate greater cross-border educational flows, but concrete proposals were largely absent. We seem a long way from any sort of multilateral agreement on these issues. While some nations were very much in favor of opening borders, others had reservations about allowing too many international students or foreign education providers to overwhelm their developing domestic systems.

Current economic trends suggest that the economic powers of the next century will center around the Pacific Ocean, not the Atlantic. This means that the United States and other Western nations need to prepare their future leaders to understand and engage in the issues affecting the Pacific region. Such preparation requires a national reorientation—a higher-education version of the Asia Pivot in American foreign policy—that emphasizes the need for creating greater flows of students among the nations of the Pacific: not just Asian students coming to the United States, but American students studying in other Pacific nations as well.