The southern region of the Asian continent is highly populated, diverse in nature and homeland for almost a quarter of the world population. Geographically diversity led to a variety of educational system based on national priorities. The Hollings Centre for International Dialogue assembled over fifty senior higher education leaders in Istanbul, Turkey, to comprehend the higher education dynamics of this highly populated region of the world. Importantly, delegates attending this meeting were both from South Asia as well as across the globe. The intended outcomes of four days deliberations and discussions were comprehending the higher education landscape in the region and how global partners can assist in a variety of areas related to the higher educational development of this region. The primary focus of this group was on curriculum development and reform, quality assurance, accreditation, e-learning, distance education, and building external relations with various stakeholders. The writer had an opportunity to participate in this group of academician as a member of Pakistani delegation and also shared ongoing efforts of Pakistani higher education in the areas selected for deliberations.

There was a consensus among the participants about the commonality of challenges in higher education sector not only in the South Asian region but also globally. These challenges need immediate attention, effective strategy, and collaborations inside and outside the countries. Exchange of ideas, expertise, and learning from best practices in the higher education sector, can be much helpful in addressing these common challenges in a more effective way.

South Asia is the most populous and the most densely populated geographical region in the world, with more than 1.891 billion people. It has a bulging youth population with more than 600 million under 18 years and accounts for around 25% of the world’s population and is one of the world’s fastest growing region, with growth rates approaching 7.0 percent in 2019. On average, one million people are added to the workforce each month, and the expected trend is escalating almost in the next decade. Collectively more than 1,375 higher education institutions exist in the region. Also, South Asia‘s industry and service sector are growing and creating jobs that require skilled human resources. To meet these growing challenges corroborating with population growth, there is dire need to strengthen higher education sector through increasing financial allocations, facilitating innovations, equipping youth with knowledge & essential skills and bringing higher education sector at par with international standards.

The delegates felt a need for a well-established, properly-regulated tertiary education system supported by technology like Open Educational Resources (OERs) and distance education modalities could increase access, equity, quality, and relevance, and narrow the gap between what is taught at tertiary education institutions and what economies and societies demand. The provision of tertiary education should be progressively free, in line with existing international agreements.

The speakers and panelists emphasized the student-centric higher education policies. They were of the view that universities should provide quality education, required institutional resources, incentives, and facilities for active participation in extra-curricular activities to the students at the campuses. The students also need to be equipped with essential skills of leadership, teamwork, communication, critical thinking as well as problem-solving so that they may come up to the expectations of the community, society, and industry. The importance of role of universities was also highlighted in peace-building within the country and across the region.

The higher education institutions of the Southern Asia region should ensure a systematic approach for providing accessible and effective programs and services designed to provide opportunities for enrolled students to be successful in achieving their educational goals. The institutions should offer student services, including physical and mental health services, appropriate to their mission and the needs and intended purposes of their students.

It was also discussed that being hub of ideas, innovation, and knowledge-creation, universities’ vital role need to be reinforced in inculcating the values of responsible citizenship, leadership, peace, tolerance, harmony, pluralism, and co-existence among the youth. It will only be possible through ensuring academic, financial, administrative autonomy of the universities and academic freedom at the university campuses. Too much regulation has also adversely affected innovations and creatively in the higher education sector of South Asia. The concerned higher education bodies should play a facilitative and supportive role towards universities instead of becoming intrusive one. Following the best international practices, there is also dire need to separate the functions of quality assurance, ranking, and funding in the higher education sector. Accreditation process in South Asian higher education sector, should not be complicated, lengthy, and time-consuming. The higher education quality assurance and accreditation bodies should be autonomous so that these critical bodies may perform their functions independently without any external interference. To increase access to higher education, which is still very low as compared to even other Asian countries, South Asian countries need to encourage the role of the private sector and public-private sector partnerships.

Another critical common issue which was identified by the participants was employability challenge which is being faced by a large number of graduates of most South Asian higher education institutions due to a mismatch between the market & universities and disparity within and among the universities. It was suggested that close liaison should be created between academia & industry, and necessary modifications should be made in the curriculum along with equipping the students with essential soft skills.

The role of qualified and trained faculty was highlighted in effective functioning of universities. It was recommended that maximum investment should be made in the area of faculty development and pre-service as well as in-service trainings should be made mandatory in order to train the faculty in modern teaching and research techniques.

Under the 17 Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) adopted by United Nations (UN), now it is the responsibility of the respective countries to ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education including universities. In this regard, South Asian countries would have to take immediate effective steps through prioritizing education and providing required funds & support for equipping youth with required knowledge and skills. At the same time, they also need to learn from regional/ international experiences and best practices in higher education sector through creating close collaborations and exchange of faculty/higher education leadership.