Higher education systems in Asia, Latin America and Africa bear prominent similarities to those in Europe. Historically, Latin America, Asia particularly Southeast Asia, and Africa had adopted the systems of their respective colonizers who also provided the major part of the funding mechanism, teaching staff, and ideologies on higher education at one time in history. The very obvious imposition by the colonizers is the language with a large part of Latin America using Spanish, Asia using English and Africa using French. The American higher education system became more influential after the early twentieth century with the stress on research as the main activity of universities. Apart from that, the American system was the first to introduce massification of education which had been adopted by many countries around the world. Higher education institutions of today emphasize on mass higher education which results in increasing access to tertiary education.
Arguably, emerging countries are in dire need of a forum to deliberate on possible models for higher education for countries of the South, in particular the Commonwealth countries where a majority of the bottom billions resides. Countries from the South, particularly Asian countries have been adapting models from Europe and US for decades, be they sprung from voluntary adoption or influenced by external factors. Instead of borrowing from western models and putting them to test by going through the whole process of adaptation, evaluation and experimentation, the same amount of time and effort can be utilized to examine the prospect of identifying a model in a South-South context. This model will be made up of elements of locality, taking into consideration of the persisting cultural and scholarly values. Globalization and internationalization of higher education should not be adopted at the expense of local knowledge.
Notably, the effort to break away from the clutches of the dominating Western model is not new as evidenced by the implementation of national language in post-secondary education by Malaysia and Indonesia. However, fundamental models practiced in Asian countries remain biased towards European/American model. This factor has contributed to the peripheral status of Asian higher education institutions and with the rapid globalisation, the so-called central higher education institutions in Europe/America would remain dominant, more striking in the context of higher education internationalization. Indeed, lately Malaysia has once again beginning to embrace the English language after so many years experimenting with the Malay language as the medium of instruction in public higher education institutions. Whither Asia/indigenous models of higher education development?
The Asia models that we have in mind is deeply entrenched in the belief that even within the context of the globalization process that every country is unique; this provides ample reason to relook or reassess the higher education systems which are very much inclined towards the European/American models. The present higher education models adopted by many countries in the South, characterized by the Western ideologies may have been tailored to suit local needs, but the extent to which the adaptation serves the emerging need to strengthen the standing of each country demands a rethinking. There has never been a time when higher education in the South faces more opportunities and challenges than in this current global economic downturn. We are in urgent need of models that can handle Asia’s peculiar situation with respect to quality and accountability as well as funding mechanism with shrinking public funding. To this date, the responses to these challenges are typically European/American in character: corporatisation/privatisation of higher education, management of higher education based on entrepreneurial approach, competition within the higher education sector and the evident rise of higher education as a commodity. Major issues mentioned above may come under the same umbrella across the world higher education systems, nonetheless a more thorough inspection would indicate varied issues faced by different regions which are subject to social, political, economic and national pressures.
The appropriateness of the growth trajectories of existing higher education systems, dominated by European/American models poses the challenge of how far the present models are justified in a South-South context, one with much greater diversity from those of the North. In essence one may want to view that the world ranking system of universities and the notion of world class universities as proposed by the North more as concepts or attempts at standardizing universities rather than appreciating the distinct elements of each university within its national socio-political context.
The Second Global Higher Education Forum (GHEF2009) to be held in Penang, Malaysia from 13 to 16 December 2009 will serve as a platform for debates and discussions on higher education that recognise the different characteristics of higher education institutions and systems in different regions. It will encompass topics ranging from the current trends to the future perspectives of higher education with the present global economic downturn as the main backdrop. GHEF2009 will consider and examine the possible effects and offer alternate avenues for mitigating the global financial and economic effects, particularly for countries of the South. Furthermore, the current and future challenges faced by the nations in the South require different models for the development of higher education institutions and systems. There is also an urge to attempt exploration of the possibilities as well as opportunities for regional harmonisation of higher education. Apart from that, discussions will also explore how the North and South will be able to have bilateral collaboration to weather global issues with the emphasis on serving and promoting sustainable development for the cause of humanity.
Morshidi Sirat and Ooi Poh Ling