The Case for Regional Cooperation in South Asian Higher Education

July 7, 2023

South Asia’s higher education sector has been growing, but education policy reforms have taken place largely in isolation at a country level. Photo credit: CRS PHOTO /

South Asia is a region of contrasts. Despite the differences, the countries here share many commonalities, including a consistent expansion of their education sectors over the years. The region’s higher education sector has been growing, with over a quarter of the young people in the age group of around 18 to 22 years enrolled on the tertiary level. This has been fueled by demographic growth and expansion of secondary education. The education policy reforms, however, have taken place largely in isolation at a country level. In South Asia, the efforts at regional collaboration in the education sector have been limited to a handful of initiatives —for instance the Asian University of Women established in 2006 and South Asian University in 2010.

As countries struggle to accommodate the increasing student numbers with limited financial resources, working together in the higher education sphere will significantly determine development outcomes and the extent to which human capital investments can be leveraged in the region. What do these collaborative pathways look like and how can countries work together?

Why cooperate on higher education?

The World Bank’s new report on Regional Integration for Higher Education Development: Options for the South Asia Region makes a strong case for benefits and opportunities of cross-country collaborations. 

First, collaboration in higher education can help policy makers and practitioners understand and embrace global and regional trends. Learning about good practices in higher education can enhance provisions in their own countries.

Second, there are practical implications of working together. For example, the exchange of peer reviewers can support quality assurance in higher education and has the potential to help find new solutions for national problems. For this to happen, mutual recognition of academic degrees obtained in other countries is critical.

Third, pooling resources among neighboring countries is an effective way to overcome the exorbitant costs required to train a critical mass of high-level researchers and to set up leading-edge scientific infrastructure.

And last, global and regional problems like the climate crisis require collaborative solutions which can be better developed and supported through cross-border, regional and international research collaboration.

Catching up – The first steps have been taken

Despite a strong rational for cooperation in higher education, South Asian countries lag behind regions like Europe and East Asia. Both have made strides with powerful agreements on recognition of higher education qualifications and credit and quality assurance frameworks, and they have established dynamic ties in research and innovation. As a part of the Bologna Process, 48 European countries have been engaged in discussions on higher education reforms and have established the European Higher Education Area to facilitate student and staff mobility and make education more accessible across the region. Similarly, in East Asia, there is a critical role of institutional set ups like South-East Asia Ministers of Education Organization, Asia-Pacific Quality Assurance Network, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Quality Assurance Network.

South Asia can learn from these experiences and benefit from knowledge exchange on higher education and labor market connections, the development of a common scorecard on policies in quality assurance and degree recognition, and peer-learning events on quality assurance and the green agenda in higher education.

Our new report notes that even as regional cooperation via government channels can take time, South Asian universities and higher education practitioners can achieve more tangible results by participating in bilateral initiatives with like-minded institutions and individuals in other countries or by collaborating through national, regional, and international networks and associations. 

Participants at the Pan-South Asia Conference on Higher Education, held in Colombo in June 2023. Photo: World Bank

South Asia is taking some initial steps in this direction. Recently, a pan-South Asian higher education event was organized by the World Bank, in partnership with the Government of Sri Lanka and the country’s University Grants Commission (UGC). The latter is a powerful body guiding tertiary education institutions through rules and regulations and exists in nearly all South Asian countries in one form or the other.

“As we get increasingly interconnected, the future of international collaborations in higher education is much broader than knowledge exchanges. It holds potential for better geopolitical understanding, and global innovation in the time of climate change.” Dr. Archana Thakur Joint Secretary of UGC in India

With advancements in technology, countries and people are becoming more interconnected. Working in silos is no longer an option for any of us. If education can help remove divides, then a good start has been made. The UGC Bangladesh has extended an invitation for the evolving South Asia Higher Education Network to come together in Dhaka in Spring of 2024. The dialogue continues.

By Cecile Fruman and Linne Sherburne-Bens for the World Bank Blogs. To access the original post, please click here.