Lessons for Asean on the globalisation of education
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Lessons for Asean on the globalisation of education

The latest Open Doors report has once again demonstrated the urgent need for Asean countries to take immediate steps for the internationalisation of education. While China, India and South Korea have quickly emerged as players in the domain of international education, Asean, and in particular, Thailand has not made its mark as yet.

This is doubly unfortunate, since it was Thailand that took the first step in the internationalisation of education over five decades ago, when it established Asia’s first institute of international education in the form of the Seato Graduate School of Engineering, now known as the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT).

Before we examine the reasons why this region is not a major player in global education, we must look at the figures released by the Institute of International Education (IIE). Their latest report, titled “Open Doors”, shows that over 300,000 students from China now travel to the United States for higher education. India follows next with 132,000 students. China and India combined together now send 45% of international students to the United States.

Combine two other Asian countries, namely South Korea and Saudi Arabia, and these four countries account for nearly 60% of international students in the United States.

This leads us to a moot point. Why can't Thailand and Asean attract these students to study here rather than travel to the United States? No doubt, the US education system is par excellence and has always encouraged globalisation and internationalisation. But this does not mean that we should not learn from them or try and compete, even if in a small way. The US Department of Commerce estimates that in 2014, the US earned US$30 billion from its international students.

Dr PJ Lavakarea, a senior IIE adviser, while recently delivering a talk at AIT stated that the monopoly enjoyed by the United States has now been broken and China is increasingly emerging as a destination of choice for students.

It is not just international students who are traveling to the US, but over 300,000 US students also travelled abroad for higher education. While the United Kingdom receives the highest number of these students, Thailand receives less than 2,000 of them. Interestingly out of non-European destinations, China is the leading destination for US students.

Based on our experience at AIT, which was Asia’s first international institute of higher education established in 1959, we can offer some suggestions on how to emerge as a global destination. First, internationalisation does not merely mean hiring international faculty members.

Besides globally recruited faculty and students, and world-class facilities, we need to inculcate a global outlook among our students. Our graduates should possess the ability to apply global solutions to local problems, and this will help us produce global citizens who are employable in any part of the world. It is this internationalisation that helped AIT achieve the first rank in the world in terms of international orientation in a recently published U-MultiRank Ranking.

Secondly, it may not be financially and technically feasible to emerge as global leaders in all fields of study or disciplines. This is where another lesson can be learnt from AIT. We have always concentrated our energies in a few select disciplines rather than start teaching each and every subject. This has helped AIT emerge as a global centre in many subject areas. The recent QS ranking by subject testified to this when our Civil and Structural Engineering department emerged among the top 150-200 in the world. It is indeed an honour that we were ranked at par with Colorado State University — a university which helped us in establishing the discipline of structural engineering in the 1960s.

A third factor that takes time to build is the reputation and performance of the alumni. When alumni perform well, the global reputation of the institute increases manifold. For too long, many national universities have been content with producing graduates who excel only in their home countries. At AIT, we have always attempted to go beyond boundaries. Today, it is not just in Thailand that our graduates have excelled. One of our alumni has become the premier of Taiwan, and when we met him to congratulate him, he had extremely fond memories of the institute.

Finally, institutes have to foster regional and international networks. I mentioned this at the “World Science and Technology Forum in Korea” recently, where I mooted the idea of increasingly educational and research networks in this region. Held as a prelude to the OECD Ministerial meeting, scholars from all over affirmed the need to look at Asean and Asian-level networking institutions like AIT.

Building on these factors, through our targeted focus in select fields of study, alumni excellence and building international networks, helped us reach a stage where we are the envy of many global universities. Other universities in the region can join hands and start moving towards building this region as an academic and research hub.

Prof Worsak Kanok-Nukulchai is President of the Asian Institute of Technology.

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