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25 March 2017

The Rise of Asian Universities in a Globalized World
President's Speech at Chulalongkorn University Centennial Celebration

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

1) Congratulations to Chulalongkorn

First of all, I would like to offer my most sincere congratulations to Chulalongkorn University on its 100th anniversary. For the past 100 years, Chulalongkorn University has been a pillar of the Kingdom and a source of knowledge, nurturing generations of talent who would go on to excel and become pillars of society. Your importance is felt not only by the Thai people, but also by other nations and friends around the globe, as evidenced by the presence of all the distinguished guests here today.

Indeed, the stage is set for Asian universities in general to take on a more prominent role. Every year, more and more universities in Asia are making their marks in multiple global rankings. In May 2016, the UK newspaper Independent has this headline: “UK universities’ world reputation ‘diminishing’ as Asian institutions gather pace”. “East is rising”, says a banner in the HK Standard newspaper. In last year’s Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings, the continent’s institutions have taken a total of 18 places in the Top 100 list - an increase of 10 from 2015. In last year’s QS world university’s rankings, 9 of China’s top 13 universities moved up, with 4 of them by at least 10 places. 3 of Hong Kong’s 7 universities were in the top 50. 11 of Japan’s 17 universities, which were already in the top 500, improved their positions. 12 of South Korea’s 16 universities in the top 500 moved up and one was a new entry. And Singapore maintained its position as the top-performer. Phil Baty of THE has also reported that “Among the TACTICS (Thailand, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, Iran, Colombia and Serbia), Thailand has increased its representation in the 2017 Asian University Rankings from 7 to 10 in the top 300…” So congratulations, Thailand and Chulalongkorn!

These are all reasons for us to celebrate, and today, I would like to share with you my thoughts on why Asia universities are on the rise, and the opportunities and challenges that come with it.

2) Universities of the past—their raison d’etre in the old times

For a long period of time in history, the university, as an entity in western traditions, had always been related to the Church, and its audience were elites of the society. Its teachings were limited to the powerful, its knowledge scarce among the general populace. The university, in today’s terms, was an “exclusive club” for a selected few.

How much that has changed today. In the 19th and 20th centuries, states in Asia began establishing universities of their own, to serve as engines to produce capable personnel to work in both the public and private sectors. For many states, there was a dire need to educate and empower their own people to face the mounting challenges of the time. The gold standard for education was that of the West—Asian countries, individually and collectively, were underdeveloped, their economies were weak, and the power balance of the world was in heavy favor of the west.

3) Why the rise now?

Now in the 21st century, we are witnessing a sea change in that power balance. The world today is more globalized and connected than ever before in human history. Advancement in technology has given humans unforeseen mobility, as well as unprecedented communication and information sharing capabilities, and that has make the world a much more competitive place. We now always know what others are doing—just look at our non-stop cellphone messages—and we as educators are always benchmarking with one another and improvising ways to make ourselves better.

With many Asian economies registering unprecedented growth, the world has shifted its focus to the continent, and we are seeing more and more Asian states trying to shift their focuses from a labor based economy to a knowledge based one. The rise of a growing middle class, with aspirations for a better living and an even better education, means that Asian universities must keep up with the times and the needs of society to stay relevant. Our governments’ stakes in education are also higher than ever—they need a highly skilled work force with global knowledge and awareness to keep fueling the growth engine of their economies, and as a result we are seeing more and more states in Asia raising their investment in higher education. Political leaders expect universities to not only conduct knowledge transfer, but also nurturing graduates who would start their own companies that bring growth.

China, for example, is en route to outspend the U.S in research and development by 2020, with the lion share of the investment going to universities. With a strong influence of policy and influx of funding, it is no surprise that Asian universities are flourishing today.

4) Challenges and opportunities

With such favorable factors, Asian universities are poised to go on a rise and, inevitably, there will be challenges which we must address. For starters, how do we maintain quality? With newfound mobility, rising family finance, and global competition, students and faculty can now go anywhere to pursue knowledge and area of interest. Just as it has gotten easier to recruit students and faculty from around the world, they will also have an easier time to choose one destination over another. The need to recruit and retain talent is now higher than ever before.

A second important challenge is how do we maintain our relevance. The cautionary tales of once-prominent global brands which have fallen into obscurity, such as Nokia, Kodak, Motorola, Blackberry, and even Yahoo, serve as a great reminder to us that we must, too, always keep up with the times or someone else will eat our lunch. The world is changing at a breakneck pace, and our role is constantly evolving. Some have said that we are now witnessing the 4th industrial revolution—a digital revolution with a speed of no historical precedent, disrupting almost every industry in every country, characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. To maintain our relevance amidst this revolution, we, as educators, will have to be at the forefront to lead change. We have to fight our innate tendency to stay conservative, and be quick to adapt with a flexible mindset. An open mind and willingness to embrace innovation and technology, both in teaching it to our students and also in employing it to deliver the education, will be key, and a commitment to lifelong learning will be essential. There are new enterprises being set up, using new educational models based on innovative technologies, to not only compete with traditional universities but also to “replace” them!

For years, we have always taught our students to be determined to pursue their own dreams. It is our turn now, as educators, to rise to the occasion. Should we succeed, I believe, we will all be witnesses to an unprecedented golden age of Asian universities. Thank you.


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