Intergovernmental higher education organisations in Southeast Asia are working to set up a platform to bring together university researchers and policy-makers as part of building a common higher education space for the region that will also help countries achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The initiative, led by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO RIHED), aims to bridge a gap between evidence and policy that became particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are building the network of young researchers,” explained Romyen Kosaikanont, director of the SEAMEO RIHED Centre in Bangkok in an interview with University World News. “But it is also important to build an inclusive platform where researchers participate alongside policy-makers in the region – most higher education fora do not bring the two together.”
Kosaikanont describes it as “knowledge maximisation”. “We are trying to use research to guide the direction that we are taking” towards a higher education space, she said after a three-day Inter-Regional Research Symposium in Bangkok from 23-25 November to explore common spaces for institutions within Southeast Asia as well as for Southeast Asia and Europe to work together to help achieve the SDGs.
“The sharing of knowledge and collective intelligence is very crucial. We know that we cannot solve the problems that we have today alone: We need partnerships to lead to more sustainable living and learning and to a more sustainable future of our region and also the world,” she said.
“Policy-makers usually dialogue with other policy-makers,” she noted. “Never before [was it possible] that the researchers hear what the government has to say.
“We have early career and senior researchers, higher education leaders, practitioners, thought leaders, [and] policy-makers on the global, regional and national levels. And they are sharing their research findings, higher education challenges, priorities and policy directions. And I think that is very important, that this is a true democratisation of the higher education [space].”
While governments in Southeast Asia have a commitment to work towards the SDGs, clear policy direction, efficient and practical implementation as well as monitoring systems with well-collected data would maximise higher education institutions’ contributions towards sustainable development, the symposium heard.
Pornchai Mongkhonvanit, president of Siam University, Thailand, who leads SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) of the International Association of Universities’ Cluster on Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development said universities can provide policy guidance to governments on tackling SDG issues.
“We have problems with governments in Asia,” he told the symposium. “They talk about SDGs but don’t have clear policies.”
He noted for example that the government in his country, Thailand, may have good intentions in developing a green economy, but it needed clear policies and good implementation.
“There needs to be an institutional approach where university leadership could make a difference – we need to work across disciplines,” he added.
Building on a ‘Community of Practice’
The Bangkok Inter-Regional Research Symposium in November, entitled ‘Sustainable learning in higher education: Towards sustainable development’, brought together researchers and policy-makers as well as other higher education stakeholders.
“This year, we are focusing on sustainable learning with three sub themes – equitable learning process, digital transformation skills and credentials, and advancing partnership and sustainable communities,” Kosaikanont said.
Around 90 papers were submitted by researchers in advance of the symposium, of which 30 were selected, showcasing pilot projects and community practices from countries such as the Philippines, Laos, Italy, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The aim is for the symposium to become a biennial event, according to SEAMEO RIHED. It will be complemented by an online platform under the new RIHED-SHARE programme’s ‘community of practice’ in support of internationalisation of higher education project, which will build on the community of practice previously set up with funding from the EU Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region (EU-SHARE) programme.
“Without a community of practice, how do we get input from the ground and from the experts who actually do the work?” commented Roger Chao Jr, head of the education, youth and sports division at the ASEAN Secretariat, Jakarta.
But it will also help strengthen research capacity in the region and provide ‘enhancement opportunities’ to early career researchers.
Mongkhonvanit said: “We need to create learning space in Asia on how to work with SDGs and then try to consult with other regions to learn how they do it.”
The newly launched RIHED-SHARE platform expands the coverage. It will make accessible and share ready-to-use data on regional higher education, as well as providing research findings and policy options on higher education to stakeholders in the region and beyond, according to SEAMEO RIHED.
Other partners include the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, ASEAN University Network, the Asia-Europe Foundation, the HEAD Foundation, the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Many of them have supported research on higher education and other aspects of harmonisation of higher education in Southeast Asia.
“This year, we are focusing on sustainable learning with three sub themes – equitable learning process, digital transformation skills and credentials, and advancing partnership and sustainable communities,”
The role of governments v. researchers
During the symposium, Darren McDermott, team leader of the EU-SHARE programme, pointed to a recent mapping by Dhanjay Jhurry, former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius, of the 17 SDGs, divided into 169 targets or indicators, which showed that “government alone is responsible for 47%, or 80 of the 169 individual targets, while universities on their own can contribute to just 4% alone, or seven of the targets”.
“On the other hand, universities can address 43% of the targets when working bilaterally with government or industry, and then in a tripartite manner with the two sectors,” he said. “This brings the overall contribution of universities up to a total of 47% of the targets.”
“It’s therefore important for universities to recognise of the higher education sector at large that partnerships with the public and private sector and civil society are a route to achieving the goals at local, regional and international levels,” he said.
During a panel discussion, Miguel Antonio Lim, senior lecturer in education and international development at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom, and Doria Abdullah from the University of Technology Malaysia presented the results of a survey of partner universities in 21 countries – 17 in Europe and four in Asia.
While describing it as a “work in progress”, Lim said, “there is enough research on what universities are doing for [the] SDGs, but no research on what the governments are doing for the higher education sector [to help them in SDG work]”.
Speaking to University World News after the symposium, Lim explained the project’s focus was “the way higher education institutions and higher education policy-makers come together to achieve the SDGs” and he pointed out that the study is not about making comparisons between Europe and Asia. “Within Asia, there are differences, and within Europe, there are differences in how they achieved the SDGs,” he noted.
Connection with regional and SDG agendas
Wesley Teter, senior consultant on higher education to UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, pointed to the need for input from universities and researchers for measuring progress on SDGs globally.
He said it was clear from the UN’s data that countries were not on track to achieve the SDG targets, in part due to the pandemic. “For the last three decades there has been a steady decline in global poverty, but COVID-19 has reversed that very severely,” he told the symposium.
The data is not collected by the UN but by individual member states to produce snapshots on SDG progress, Teter explained. “Even though every country in the world is committed to this type of data submission, analysis and progress reports, the evidence base is still weak in many of these areas. You [researchers] can help with that,” he told the symposium, “to supplement our understanding of what SDG implementation looks like.”
Much is being done collectively, Teter said, “but it’s not enough to keep us on track to address some of these interconnected global threats, including climate change, the loss of biodiversity, persistence of armed conflict, inequality, the decline of democracy worldwide and impacts of COVID-19. Higher education is underperforming with regards to Agenda 2030.”
This article is part of an initiative from the EU-SHARE Programme. This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content, and this does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.
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