A few trends in higher education are clearly discernible. No single university or institute is in a position to respond to the burgeoning demands of society. The collective demands on higher education are so high that governments are not in a position to meet the requirements. Two of the biggest markets in Asia - China and India - have realised that the market is simply too huge for the governments to serve, and they are actively inviting foreign partners. China was an early starter, and in 2003 it had already invited foreign universities to establish partnerships in China. In March last year, India introduced an act in parliament allowing foreign universities to establish a base in India.
Both China and India are examples of how foreign universities and local universities can collaborate with each other and bring the best in foreign education to meet its local needs.
This trend is visible in Southeast Asia as well. Singapore and Malaysia have already adopted this path. At the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand already has its first international inter-governmental institute of higher learning. It is time that Thailand moves in and takes the lead in partnering with foreign universities. This has the twin benefit of not only preventing brain drain, but bringing world class education to one's doorstep.
Second, universities have to be innovative and adapt to emerging situations quickly. Institutes of higher learning have to realise that the market can be ruthless when it hires people. Top level companies only hire the best, and if the institutes or universities are not producing graduates who match the market requirements, chances of them getting hired are remote. The private sector on the other hand, has been complaining regarding the under-supply of globally competitive graduates and the lack of skills required by the market place.
The need for universities to launch innovative programmes and partner with industry is now almost mandatory for universities to remain relevant. Experience has shown that when universities fail to innovate, their students remain confined to bookish knowledge and remain unemployable. If students are unemployable when they leave university, then the spectre of the institution becoming irrelevant looms large.
One innovation that can prevent such occurrences of redundancy is the concept of a University of Professions. Such a university seeks to cater towards professions by integrating scientific knowledge and information from various professions. Knowledge often hinges on practical applications. If universities fail to validate the knowledge generated by various professions, then this cache of knowledge would be lost for future generations.
Knowledge is not the exclusive domain of institutes of higher learning. The corpus of knowledge in the private sector, industry and even indigenous knowledge is so huge that even documenting it would be a gigantic task for universities.
But the task of universities does not end in merely documenting and validating this corpus. As innovators, they need to delve deeper and build further, generating more knowledge.
To be able to achieve this goal, universities need to partner not just with the private sector, but also with communities who are the repository of indigenous knowledge. A two-way relationship is required and universities need to respond by giving them something in return. For the private sector, the relationship could be in the form of better trained graduates. In the case of communities, universities can help them in solving their problems and come up with innovative solutions. These solutions can be based on the collective wisdom of the community, coupled with the application of cutting-edge technology brought to them by universities. Such partnerships could collectively further the cause of creating a knowledge society.
Apart from partnering with global universities and local partners, a third significant way universities could innovate is to take the lead in forging financial partnerships. Finance is a key issue for universities all over the world, and with the decline in funding from traditional sources; they have to be innovative in tapping fresh resources. Funding from governments and international agencies to institutes of higher learning is no longer guaranteed. Lack of government finances has reached such a stage that 71 public universities in Pakistan have stated that unless the government releases funds, they will be forced to shut down.
An alternative model is associating all partners including the government, the private sector as well as the universities at one platform. The model need not be a straight three-way relationship but could involve more than one university, or more than one private partner.
The modalities of such a partnership will have to be tailored to the needs of the university. If the university wishes to establish a branch campus in a new country, then local partners and the local government could be considered as possible partners. Both foreign and local investors can be tapped for financing the operations.
The days when one single financial model could be applicable to all are over. One size fits all is no longer valid in universities. For partnering with the private sector, funding can be tapped from not just the private sector but also the beneficiaries. The public-private partnership model has been used extensively by governments, particularly in the field of infrastructure.
An example is the Partnership Victoria initiative by the state government of Victoria in Australia which was launched 10 years ago. Universities have been very active in this initiative.
The initiative came from the government which decided to adopt public-private partnerships for provision of public infrastructure and related ancillary services. So far there are 21 "Partnership Victoria" projects with a capital investment worth A$10.5 billion (300.5 billion baht). Since 2003, "Partnerships Victoria" projects have accounted for approximately 10% of annual public asset investment commitments. Their project on Biosciences Research Centre Project valued at $288 million has partners from government, universities as well as the private sector. The Department of Primary Industries, La Trobe University and three private sector partners have an agreement to create a new world-class facility for agricultural biosciences research and development.
Innovations require new thinking and a critical approach. For universities in Thailand to stop being imitators of the west, it is time to actively search for innovative solutions. This is the era of partnership, but even to partner with the west, universities have to find innovative ways.