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 November 1997    

Building tomorrow's Asian universities
All over the world, there is a growing consensus that education is the key to prosperity - for countries as well as for individuals. Few people would now dispute the idea that the struggle to raise a country's living standards is fought first and foremost in the classroom.

It is widely believed that the reason Asian economies have grown so quickly is that their governments have made determined and successful efforts to raise educational standards. In fact, their investment in schooling and their intense dedication to education have set a standard for the rest of the world. Now, governments across the region realize that their countries' economic futures depend much more on knowledge-based industries than on manufacturing methods and cheap labour. This realization is creating a new appreciation for university-level education and, at the same time, creating new worries.

While Asia's primary schools may be the envy of educators worldwide, its universities are under great strain. With high enrolments, declining public financial support and inadequate facilities, universities are causing Asian governments to worry that they will not be able to develop in their students the intelligence, skill and imagination that knowledge-based industries require.

To help Asian countries solve some of their university-related problems, the UNU hosted a conference called "National Strategies and Regional Cooperation for the 21st Century," from 8 to 10 July. The conference was the joint effort of four parties: the UNU; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Japan's Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture; and the Association of Universities of Asia and the Pacific (AUAP).

The conference's main aim was to strengthen academic cooperation and improve university education in the region. Similar conferences have already been held in Africa, the Arab states, Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean. The recommendations that come out of these regional meetings are to be discussed in Paris at UNESCO's 1998 "World Conference on Higher Education."

The most important outcome of the conference was a declaration produced and agreed to by the Asian Pacific countries that are members of UNESCO. This declaration outlines what these countries want their universities to accomplish in the future and how they should go about doing it. The declaration's action plan is divided into four main areas:

  • Relevance. Asian countries want their universities to become more reflective of what their societies expect of them.
  • Quality. They want universities to improve the way they teach students. In many of these countries, instruction and learning are based on memorization and recall. These ways of learning may be useful in economies based on manufacturing, but they do not prepare students well enough for jobs that are based on creative thinking and problem-solving.
  • Management and finance. Asians want their universities to adopt responsive, forward-looking management practices, and they want university presidents to be good fund-raisers, as increasing student enrolments are putting more and more pressure on already inadequate amounts of funding.
  • Cooperation. They think that universities in the region need to cooperate more and establish closer links with industry to ensure that graduates are learning what they need to in order to make their countries prosperous.

All of these problems, the participants said, urgently need to be addressed.

As a result of this conference, many Asian and Pacific governments now have an agreed-upon action plan that they can use to improve their countries' university education. This is good for the region. Countries with a long-standing commitment to educating their populations have the most prosperous economies today. And this will undoubtedly be true for tomorrow as well.
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