3 August 2023

The 14th AUN Rectors’ Meeting: How ASEAN Higher Education can Stay ahead of the Fast-Changing Curve

Ninnart Ratanasukhon
AUN Programme Officer;

On 5 July 2023, the 14th AUN Rectors’ Meeting returned with colours in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with gracious hosting from Universiti Malaya. A special feature of this year’s iconic presidential forum is the open morning session, where AUN Members, together with invited guests and speakers from respected institutes of ASEAN and beyond, gathered to discuss the changing trend of higher education in the fruitful panel discussion sessions.

In our 2nd session, ‘Meeting the Expectations of the People,’ we welcomed:

  • Prof. Dr. Bundhit Eua-arporn, President, Chulalongkorn University;
  • Dr. Hazri Haji Kifle, Vice-chancellor, Universiti Brunei Darussalam;
  • Prof. Dr. Ova Emilia, M.Med.Ed., Sp.OG(K)., Ph.D., Rector, Universitas Gadjah Mada;
  • Prof. Dato’ Dr. Mohd. Ekhwan Toriman, Vice Chancellor, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia;

With Dr. Joyce Teo Siew Yean, Assistant Vice Chancellor (Global Affairs), Universiti Brunei Darussalam, as the moderator.

The core of this session is ‘the people.’ With disruptions emerging one after the other, the norms and practices as we know it are constantly being dismantled and rebuilt. People’s expectations of higher education are bound to reflect this volatility and uncertainty, and higher education is in a race against time to catch up with it.

In this session, we hear from the leaders of four AUN Member Universities about how each of their institutions is navigating and emerging ahead of this evolving curve. Who are these ‘people’ higher education needs to catch up with? What are they looking for in higher education, and how can higher education rise to meet their expectations? Our leaders illuminated the fruitful discussion with insights and examples.

Prof. Dr. Bundhit Eua-arporn, President, Chulalongkorn University

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Prof. Dr. Bundhit stressed that the much sought-after skills of today may not suffice the demand of tomorrow and the young generations are keenly aware of this. Referencing a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, Prof. Dr. Bundhit showed how ASEAN youths are conscious that their education and skills might soon go obsolete in the fast-changing environment. These findings underscored the importance of lifelong learning and future skill refinement. Education would no longer end at the graduation ceremony. Education must open itself to people of all ages with flexibility and interdisciplinarity to meet their diverse needs.

At Chulalongkorn University, a lifelong learning ecosystem is already in place, not just for the students, but also for the staff, alumni, the general public, and even public or private organisations. The ecosystem features an open platform where users can access both content from Chulalongkorn University and its external partners. Such openness allows for a collaboration between the university and the public and/or private sectors which could ensure the university’s connectivity with the industry, meaning the contents would stay relevant, effective, dynamic, and in tune with the changing trend of the world. The system also comes with a credit bank, where users can earn and/or transfer their credits to obtain degrees or certifications, allowing for lifelong learning that is flexible, personalised, and transdisciplinary to cater to the evolving needs and expectations.

Dr. Hazri Haji Kifle, Vice-chancellor, Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD)

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Digital transformation, globalisation, climate change, and changing students' expectations are some of the global trends and challenges that are changing the landscape of higher education and the expectation of the students, highlighted Dr. Hazri. Students of the upcoming generations would look for different things, and how universities answer these trends and challenges would determine their relevance to future generations. Universities now must be able to identify the expectation of the ‘people,’ which could go beyond the students and include the employers, the industry, the society, and other partners. Future skills which will prepare the students for the fast-changing future would also be the key components in ensuring universities' relevance to the upcoming generations.

Universiti Brunei Darussalam already made its move to ‘future-proof’ the students with ‘futuring together,’ a collaborative effort to explore and plan for the future, not only between students and academic staff, but with the UBD community coming together as a whole and leverage existing pools of knowledge, resources, expertise, and external partnership. UBD also set its eyes on becoming a university of national relevance and global impact through ‘GenNEXT Programme,’ its innovative undergraduate programme that offers academic rigour together with the opportunity to gain real-world experience in the Discovery Year.

The programme features a completely revamped curriculum. Departments were reduced, and faculties were merged to encourage students in taking modules from diverse disciplines. Upon the third year, students will get the chance to embark on each of their own journeys that suit their goal in this ‘Discovery Year.’ They may join a study abroad programme, undergo an internship, or participate in community outreach or an incubation programme. Discovery Year offers students the chance not only to discover themselves but also to stay in touch with the industry and global communities, obtaining and honing their skills of the future in the real playing field.

Dr. Hazri echoed as well the point mentioned by Prof. Bandhit that universities must open themselves to more diverse groups of students, for example, students who wish to work right after high school but still want to take courses for certain skills. To achieve this goal, UBD now offers online micro-credential, micro-bachelor, and micro-master programmes through UBD Lifelong Learning Centre, ensuring accessible and flexible programmes that will meet the diverse needs of each group of students.

Prof. Dr. Ova Emilia, M.Med.Ed., Sp.OG(K)., Ph.D., Rector, Universitas Gadjah Mada

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Prof. Dr. Ova Emilia shared with us the unique trend Indonesian higher education is facing and Universitas Gadjah Mada is responding to: the demographic bonus. By 2030, 64% of the Indonesian population will be in the productive age group, and the implication is clear that universities will play a vital role not only in equipping the upcoming generation with knowledge but also in nurturing them to become an innovative and productive workforce of the country.

To rise to this expectation, Dr. Ova Emilia emphasised that the context of higher education must be changed. High-quality higher education should be inclusive and be able to sustain the economic development of the country, which means, apart from academic intelligence; flexibility, innovation, and moral commitment would be some of the key elements universities should nurture in their students. 

UGM has worked with governments, industry, NGOs, and various parties to create a continuous loop of learning for the students. ‘Kampus Merdeka’ is a project in collaboration with the Indonesian government that encourages students of UGM to participate in one of the eight types of off-campus learning. These include but are not limited to: an internship, an exchange programme, an individual academic project, a community development project, a teaching assistantship, and more. Prof. Dr. Ova Emilia also highlighted UGM’s community service programme where students stay, learn, and work with a community for eight weeks. The programme offers the students a great opportunity to gain hands-on experience in working with the community. Students will be exposed to the dynamic nature of problems and reality that people are facing, thus, encouraging their solutions to be dynamic and reflect the reality of the community as well. The programme also serves as a unique opportunity for students to learn the ‘humanity’ approach and value in the community and forge a long-term network for their future. 

UGM is now inviting European and Australian universities to participate in this programme, and Prof. Dr. Ove Emelia extended her encouragement to ASEAN universities in expanding this programme as well. 

Prof. Dato’ Dr. Mohd. Ekhwan Toriman, Vice Chancellor, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

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Last but not least, Prof. Dr. Toriman raised two keywords that defy the future of AUN and how ASEAN higher education can contribute to the nurturing of graduates that we want to produce: 1. Humanising the university and 2. The ‘hardware’ vs. the ‘heart ware.’

In the wake of technological disruption, universities are now possessed by ‘technology.’ We always think about technology, and we are in a constant battle to come up with a definition of ‘good students.’ To ‘humanise’ the university is to collaborate and have a dialogue with the people. Universities want to equip their students with the necessary generic and cognitive skills, but do we want to produce robotic graduates? This is the real question that Prof. Dr. Toriman urged us all to ponder, and it also brought us to the importance of ‘hardware’ and ‘heart ware’. Well-equipped facilities are undoubtedly important in providing thorough education to students. However, as investment is made into facility and ‘hardware’ upgrades, Prof. Dr. Toriman reminded us that we must be concerned with what kind of ‘heart ware’ we want to nurture in our students as well. There are instances where graduates leave and never look behind, leaving universities with fractured alumni relations. This problem goes beyond the education universities provide and into what universities should nurture in the human side of the students. Are they prepared to rise against challenges? The ‘heart ware’ will be a critical factor in ensuring that students are impacted by education and well-equipped to face big challenges between humans, and this can be the area where AUN and ASEAN countries can play a major role.

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Overall, this session demonstrated a strong consensus between the AUN leaders that higher education now could no longer limit itself to the physical spaces of classrooms or campuses. ‘Experiential learning’ will be the key to equip our students with versatility and transdisciplinarity  that will prepare them for the volatile and uncertain world. The immersive, experiential learning also has the benefits of keeping students connected to the industry and grounded in humanity, keeping them dynamic yet holistic, in tune with the changing world and the complex dimension of their communities and society.

Education now should also go beyond the conclusion of the graduation ceremony. As new technological disruption calls for new knowledge, new skill sets, and new practices; learning will always remain a continuous process. Lifelong learning, with accessibility and flexibility to suit the needs of diverse groups of students, will be a pivotal service for higher education institutions to remain relevant among the upcoming generations.

Finally, our AUN leaders agreed that ASEAN higher education institutions should keep their arms open for dialogues and collaborations, whether with fellow education institutions or with the public and private sectors. Such connection is vital, not only for providing our students with varieties of opportunities and experiences, but to keep our courses and our classes on their toes for rising trends and evolving needs of the people and our society as well.