8 June 2022

ASEAN University Network Executive Director’s Remarks at the Asia Universities Summit 2022

AUN Writer Team

By Suman Mazumdar, AUN Intern

Dr. Choltis Dhirathiti, the Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network, delivered his apropos dialog at the Asia Universities Summit, hosted by the Times Higher Education in Fujita Health University, Japan, from 31 May to 2 June 2022. The session was chaired by Dr. Choltis; Duncan Ross, Chief Data Officer of Times Higher Education; Kohei Itoh, President of Keio University; Naoko Kawaguchi, Acting Head of the Tokyo Centre (OECD); and Pankaj Mittal, Secretary-General of Association of Indian Universities.

The panelists had an interactive discussion on, “Where to invest to deliver secure and sustainable university systems?”  Universities require a constant supply of both revenue and students to stay afloat. In addition, they require a stable political, economic, and climatic environment. But, in a world that is becoming increasingly VUCA, how can leaders, regulators, and investors determine which systems, industries, or places will provide the best return on investment? What are the most important indicators to look for? Dr. Choltis opined that if the higher education sector in ASEAN could be invested in, it would be for what we call the kind of drivers that are the key to enabling mechanisms that enhance the individuals in institutions. The necessity for quality standardization is urgent. Coming from a region with almost 7000 universities, it will be the world's fourth largest economy by 2030.

He further elaborated that a significant need for change has been noticed in the methods that teaching, learning, and research are conducted. What is popularly known as outcome-based education is still a problem that has to be addressed as quickly as possible in many institutions in the region, particularly in many universities in the region. Certain countries, such as Singapore's universities, several of Malaysia's top institutions, the Philippines, and a few universities in Thailand, can be exceptions. The second issue is university leadership and governance, which means there is a need to improve how universities are governed and operated in a participative, effective, and transparent manner at all levels.

Pertaining to the issue of opportunities of the have-nots, he also mentioned about the initiative of the ASEAN Network on a ‘cyber university’ project with the Government of Korea, stating that the most important aspect of higher education is the access to knowledge rather than ownership of knowledge, which many universities in the ASEAN region have a 20th century mindset. We aim and try to change that mind-set by putting all knowledge online and sharing it with everyone so as to make it equally available for all, particularly for the have-nots. Moreover, there are many islands in Southeast Asia, making it difficult to manage things physically, such as a "physical hub," which is no longer a necessity in the technological age.

The ASEAN Network also provides scholarship programmes to students particularly for persons with disabilities to support them in pursuing higher education. Moreover, the top administrators of the universities are in a dilemma to choose between serving the community and the pursuit of research. If we choose to serve the community, we cannot invest in research excellence. On the other hand, if we choose to invest in research excellence, we have to move away from community projects.

He stated that ASEAN universities are improving, as seen by the network’s strong collaboration with the Japanese government on the JICA Project, an engineering collaboration between ASEAN and Japanese universities. The project has been running for 20 years and is one of the longest collaborations. Universities are particularly concerned with whether or not they can compete with the top Japanese universities in the engineering field.

However, as time goes on, they understand that being a good institution is more about forming relationships than it is about defending their own turf. He stated that there will no longer be any bilateral investment in a single university in ASEAN and Japan. The approach will be based on a cluster of universities, including two or more of the former and a couple of Japan’s top institutions. As a result, investment must be made prudently and strategically.