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Valuing University Exchanges

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image Richard Whitfield - Professor, USJ

When I was studying engineering at Melbourne University in Australia in the late 70’s and early 80’s, student exchanges with other universities (where students took classes for a semester at another university) were virtually unheard of.
Also, if memory serves, nearly all the teaching staff was Australians, and I can only remember ever taking one course with a professor who was on exchange for a semester from UCLA. Furthermore, nearly all of my classmates were from the same narrow socio-economic background, except for a small contingent of Asian students from wealthy families.
By contrast, where I am now at the University of Saint Joseph we have a relatively cosmopolitan community. We have students from several countries, and many different socio-economic backgrounds, and a small but growing group of exchange students.
Our teaching staff comes from a wide variety of academic traditions, and we bring in a large number of visiting professors from all over the world. As yet, though, we have not really been able to set up staff exchanges with other universities.
In hindsight, I strongly believe that this lack of a multi-cultural dimension significantly impoverished my own university experience. I know we can still do much better, but I am already convinced that our students greatly benefit from our cosmopolitan learning environment.
Students always need incentives and opportunities to learn, and while they initially might not be interested in sitting with an African classmate for a semester inevitably leads to comments, questions and a lot of learning that would not otherwise have occurred. Similarly, teaching staff from different parts of the world approach topics and issues differently and bring different examples and case studies to the classroom which open up horizons and change perspectives.
I regularly get drawn into discussions with students and colleagues about different aspects of Australia, and as a consequence many of them know more about my homeland than they would otherwise, even if it is limited to my own views and biases. In May, we held an International Culture Day where students and staff presented information, music, dance and foods from 20+ different homeland countries – it was a well patronized event, and a lot of fun. I learned a lot.
In the long term, we aim to greatly expand our student and staff exchange activities and this is an issue we will be raising at the next meeting of the Association of Universities of Asia and the Pacific to be held in Korea this month.
In particular, we will be proposing much expanded efforts to facilitate cross-accreditation of course modules among member universities, along the lines of the Bologna Process in Europe.
It is very difficult for students to spend a semester studying at another university if the work that they do there is not recognized and accepted towards their degree at their “home” university. At present, there are only ad hoc arrangements between individual institutions, and we need an Asia wide system – something like the Bologna Process which mandates course cross-accreditation for universities throughout Europe.
We also want to propose the expansion of scholarship funding for student and staff exchanges between universities in Asia, again something like the Erasmus Program in Europe. There are significant differences in economic development around Asia, and so financial support is needed to equalize the opportunities for exchange.
Both Bologna and Erasmus have been very successful in Europe, and it would be great to see similar things in Asia. We have a way to go, but in the long term I would be very happy to see 10+% of our student population and 5+% of our academic staff being on exchange in different parts of Asia.

©MDTimes/ University of Saint Joseph

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