Interview: David Willetts

What role can universities play in achieving greater regionalisation amongst ASEAN countries?

DAVID WILLETTS: Universities in the UK and major education centres around the world continue to see increasing demand from foreign students, both regionally and internationally. A strength of prominent universities in the ASEAN region is that they are seeing considerable numbers of applicants not only from ASEAN, but from other regions as well. Clearly, part of Malaysia’s broader strategy is to be a centre for higher education in South-east Asia. In the UK we benefit from the long-term cultural connections fostered by cross-cultural education, as well as the sheer diversity and excitement that comes from a foreign student population.

How can ASEAN universities optimise relationships with foreign higher education institutions for exchange, knowledge transfer and collaboration?

WILLETTS: The hunger for education among the expanding middle classes of rapidly growing emerging markets is incredibly exciting as this demographic transition unfolds in many countries. While qualified foreign students are welcome to study in the UK, we are equally keen to see more British universities delivering education abroad. This is most commonly undertaken via overseas campuses. However, we are also keen to work with foreign education ministries to help grow their higher education sectors. We offer assistance in areas such as training academic staff and curriculum consultation, as well as providing internationally recognised external exams. We have set up a number of operating frameworks to broaden these linkages with agreements such as UK- India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI), UK-China Partners in Education Programme, and most recently a memorandum of understanding signed with Indonesia in May 2012.

There are 14,000 Malaysian students currently studying in UK universities, and we would like to encourage more British students to go overseas and see equal numbers exchanged. Foreign study broadens horizons and shows other countries that you are committed to a genuine exchange based on mutual respect.

How are the structures of leading institutions changing as they expand into emerging market locations?

WILLETTS: There is a range of models for delivering of higher education abroad. Whether via online courses, external degrees or fully fledged campuses, many have seen sustained success. The market for foreign campuses is becoming very competitive, which naturally drives quality. The UK has an independent body – Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) – that assesses education standards of both domestic universities and overseas British campuses. There are 58,000 Malaysian students currently studying for UK qualifications in Malaysia, and 80 British tertiary institutions have links to Malaysian counterparts. With numbers like these, we believe that a rigorous external audit should be performed by an independent auditing organisation that maintains the highest possible standards for higher education around the world.

What are the challenges in exporting education to places with different curricula and cultural norms?

WILLETTS: One of the challenges is developing students as independent learners. Students need both time in class and time to develop their own ideas. In some countries, higher education is characterised as being in a classroom, whereas in the UK it is seen as a distinctive hands-on form of learning. As countries work through the middle-income stage, students tend to demand technical vocational qualifications at first.

Then, as they become more affluent, more demand for arts and humanities follows. This is when it becomes particularly important for international education institutions to foster an interactive environment among the student body. There tends to be sensitivity about foreign universities respecting domestic culture and traditions. This is an important issue discussed when devising frameworks for cooperation with foreign countries.