As globalization and technology blur national borders, universities must work even harder to demonstrate their distinctiveness and value, said the leaders of top universities in the Asia-Pacific region.
The half-dozen presidents and vice chancellors spoke on the challenges to higher education as part of a round table during a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education. The four-day conference has drawn more than 1,300 top university administrators from around the world to Hong Kong.
Globalization and technology, including the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are changing the education landscape, but university leaders said they shouldn't allow those developments to compromise their identities.
"Globalization should not mean homogenization," said Ian O'Connor, vice chancellor and president of Griffith University, in Australia.
With the global nature of so many of the research challenges universities face today, "we have every reason to work with each other," said Joseph J.Y. Sung, vice chancellor and president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the host of this week's conference. "But at the same time we're going global, we have to preserve our own identity and culture."
For his institution, that means strengthening its scholarship in Chinese studies, even as it continues to push forward in science and medicine. (Dr. Sung was a leader in the fight against the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong 10 years ago.)
Likewise, the rise of MOOCs shouldn't be seen so much as a threat to higher education than as a new tool for universities to reach a generation of students who have been immersed in technology for their whole lives, said Duck-Ho Lim, president of South Korea's Hanyang University. "There are those who believe in a few decades there will be only one university in the world, the cyberuniversity," Mr. Lim said, his tone suggesting he was not one of them.
Rather than refusing to participate in online-education experiments, universities should consider offering MOOCs in their strongest academic areas, said Tom Apple, president of the University of Hawaii-Manoa. For his institution, that could mean courses in astronomy and ocean sciences. But Mr. Apple acknowledged that developments like MOOCs are so very new that it's not yet clear how they might be incorporated into more traditional education.
For example, online courses could help provide education in certain regions, like parts of Southeast Asia, where there are limited opportunities for formal schooling. Still, is online-only learning sufficient? Not surprisingly, many presidents say no. And it does little to tackle the inequities between those people who are wired and those who have little access to technology.
It will take time to sort out those questions, Mr. Apple said. "It will be shifting sands for some time."
What is clear, said Chorh Chuan Tan, president of the National University of Singapore, is that presidents and vice chancellors in the Asia-Pacific region will have to assume greater global leadership in education. Working with Yale University, for instance, NUS hopes to create the first East-meets-West liberal-arts institution. "As the center of gravity shifts to this region," Mr. Tan said, "what does that mean for our role, our responsibility in creating knowledge?"