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The State of Higher Education in the Region

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In conjunction with the launch of the commemorative 10th issue of HESB — Higher Education in Southeast Asia and Beyond, we invited four distinguished experts to discuss the state of higher education in the region, and its future developments.

Keynote Speaker Professor Philip G. Altbach, Founding Director of Boston College’s Centre for International Higher Education, opened discussions by touching on pertinent issues in Southeast Asian higher education. He highlighted the need for greater transparency amongst regional higher education institutions (HEIs) regarding their plans, developments, and challenges; the role of English with the rise of internationalisation of HEIs, the understanding and regulation of rising private education institutions; and the crucial need for more regional research universities. Of the current global climate, Professor Altbach also highlighted four ‘C’s reflecting current trends: the COVID-19 pandemic, Climate, China as a growing presence in Southeast Asia and globally, and the Commercialisation and internationalisation of higher education.

In response to these themes and concerns, our panellists shared their unique and sometimes differing perspectives on the state of higher education in Malaysia, Singapore and regionally as an ASEAN community. Professor Dato’ Morshidi Sirat of Universiti Sains Malaysia conveyed the unique academic challenges developing regional HEIs face in participating and finding success in global peer-reviewed journals – a criterion often required for a research university to gain prominence – when researched subjects are Southeast Asian-centric. Professor Sirat additionally shared the Malaysian government’s response to the challenge of massification of higher education through the introduction of quality assurance programmes. He also asserted the need for higher education initiatives to be pushed to the forefront of government agendas, ahead of political instability and gain.

Dr Adrian Kuah, Director of the Futures Office of the National University of Singapore, introduced the perspective of needing to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange, when contemplating developments in higher education. While the former may be easy to do, as we consider developments of Artificial Intelligence, hybrid learning and other evolutions in the education space, understanding the familiar beliefs and assumptions underpinning the ethos of higher education may be more difficult. What, for example, would be the responsibilities of universities in Southeast Asia? Would it be to train skilled workers to participate in the job market? Or is the role of universities to develop whole people and global citizens, who carry with them lifelong skills of critical thinking and creativity? And should current efforts not be a balance between both responsibilities?

Delivering a historical perspective of higher education development in the region, and in particular Singapore, Founding Editor of HESB Professor S. Gopinathan highlighted how economic growth in Southeast Asia will move nations toward becoming high-income countries, thereby leading to a greater demand for higher education. Maintaining the quality of higher education in the face of massification then requires greater investment in regional-centric research, and more dedicated research institutes such as the Office of Education Research in Singapore’s National Institute of Education. What are the appropriate models Southeast Asian HEIs can adopt to move forward, to cater to the diverse needs of their countries? Professor Gopinathan also identified that there is still much potential for greater regional understanding and collaboration between HEIs, that can contribute to a unified view of Southeast Asia.


To explore further the riveting discussions and questions raised in this webinar, read our 10th commemorative issue of HESB, “State of the Region”.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the speakers in this webinar are their own and do not represent the opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

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