Globalization has accelerated the pace of internationalization of higher education (IoHE) worldwide, including our 3 target countries in the South Asian (SA) region, Afghanistan (AF), India (IN) and Nepal (NP). The globalized market requires graduates to have international (int’l), foreign language and intercultural skills to communicate with int’l clients. Higher education institutions (HEIs) plays a critical role in preparing and facilitating a skilled, knowledge workforce, they are placing more importance on internationalization. However, SA, home to a 25% of the world’s population & a youthful region with more than 600 million (M) people under 18 (UNICEF 2015), has failed to respond to the demand on IoHE. The poor internationalization practices in the region may jeopardize the socio-economic development (dev.) by unfulfilling the preparation of students’ employability & limiting the int’l profile of the HEIs. 

IoHE needs injection of capital and yet, all 3 target countries are facing insufficient public funding on the HE dev. Much of the attention has been placed on primary & secondary education to satisfy the Millennium Development Goals whilst putting HE aside on the agenda, both in terms of financial & technical assistance. World Bank (WB) estimated the enrolment number (no.) in SA would go up to 50M by 2025 while 152M are of tertiary school age currently. As education is perceived as a public good & is facing fierce competition of resources on the national/regional policy agenda, support to reform & improve HE sector is facing challenges, let alone internationalization.

The economy backbone of the region is agriculture (WB 2009) and yet AF, IN and NP are forging a path toward the industry & services sectors, representing 77%, 84.5% & 73% of the country’s GDP composition respectively (CIA Factbook 2017). The emerging market in SA is so potential to an extend that attracts foreign investments and competition. 1M new entrants to the work force every month until 2030 in SA (WB 2011). To support the changing economic model and sustain socio-economic growth, HE plays a crucial role to train and facilitate a skilled, knowledgeable workforce.

Despite the regional diversity, the 3 targeted countries share similar challenges in IoHE.  SA is constantly experiencing political instability and subsequently, the transformation and transition of HE is slow which affects IoHE. SA HEIs remain well below the average on distinctive int’l rankings. Poor quality education influences the employability of graduates and the region’s competitiveness although SA can reap the demographic windfall as East Asia is ageing. The internationalization practices in all 3 countries are at nascent stage and facing various challenges and they are i) lack of good practices and robust structure on internationalization;  ii) shortage of qualified personnel; iii) outdated technical support, e.g. mobility management, iv) absence of a regional network as a common interest/focus for collective growth & v) weak internationalization culture and regional integration/cooperation.


Having the challenges in mind, this proposed project MERGE will improve the internationalization practices through strengthening institutional capacity in SA HEIs on a regional level. More specifically, MERGE will a) strengthen institutional capacity in implementing internationalization through tailor-made trainings and accrediting strategic plans for the institutional dev. on internationalization & International Relations Offices (IROs) & b) Encourage national awareness & regional integration through establishing a regional network on IoHE in SA.

Prior to project and activities design, MERGE has also taken account into the national & institutional challenges and needs through needs analysis & thorough discussion with each project partner.

In AF, little has been done to HE reform due to the 30 years of conflict, albeit the increasing no. of students enrolled in HEIs. Since the end of Taliban era in 2002, the no. of public HEIs has grown from 6 to 38 as of today. Over 20% of its population is in the university (uni) age group (15-24), public uni enrolment rose from 7,800 in 2001 to over 170,000 in 2015, according to the U.S. Agency for Int’l Dev. and Afghan Central Statistics Organization. The transformation of economy cries for more highly trained labor force – AF’s GDP relies on industry and services sector, 21% and 56% respectively (CIA Factbook), rather than agriculture. However, HEIs in AF do not have adequate capacity to accommodate the growing no. of students, demand of mobility, academic/research exchange, post-graduate and doctoral studies. Afghan students suffer from shortage of HE opportunities (WB 2013).

Of the 6 priorities announced by the Ministry of Education, reforming of the current 35-year-old system, capacity building for HE staff and improving students services on internationalization lie within this proposed project objectives. AF also targets at increasing regional and int’l academic/research exchange to improve the quality of teaching and learning, and regional integration.

The 2 participated HEIs in AF share similar problems and needs: Kabul University & Nangarhar University – they have no IROs in place to handle int’l students or related subject matters, let alone standard practices or qualified staff specially trained for int’l cooperation. Currently, professors/researchers/administrative (admin) staff of each department is responsible for handling int’l cooperation. MERGE will support them to i) enhance human capacity to develop up to EU standard internationalization practices; ii) create structure by establishing IROs with websites and required technical support; iii) create long term strategy for IROs; iv) enhanced internationalization culture and awareness; v) encouraged regional integration and cooperation on IoHE via establishing a network.     

The land-locked country, NP, ranked 1 of the least developed countries in Asia, 144th out of 188 countries in UN Human Dev. Index. While the Nepali government expected the population would climb up 15% by 2031 to 33.6M and WB estimated uni age group at 36% in 2016,

HE dev. suffers from slow progress due to the earthquakes in 2015 and political instability. UNESCO Institution of Statistics (UIS) revealed that there were only 107 int’l degree students in NP in 2011. On the other hand, the no. of outbound students rose exponentially by over 800% in 2017 (UIS). The absence of standard internationalization practices and quality unis in the country lead to an imbalance of outbound and inbound of students and staff, brain drain and very little cross-border academic/research cooperation. It will, therefore, hinder the socio-economic dev. of the country, esp. on the increasing important industry and services sectors, 13.5% and 59.5% respectively (CIA Factbook).

To elevate the status of NP to a middle-income country by 2030, the Ministry of Education is committed to strengthening institutional capacity dev. and quality education (incl. IoHE) outlined in the School Sector Dev. Plan 2016-2023.

Both participated HEIs, Tribhuvan University (TU) and Mid-Western (MWU), are dedicated to improve the quality of education by enhancing their presence in the int’l platform for mobility and research collaboration. However, TU, the oldest uni in NP holding 550,000 students, does not own an IRO or a website specially for int’l affairs. A simple 1-page website of MWU’s IRO with no descriptive information for mobility or collaboration. The non- or barely existence of IRO did not invite int’l actors for collaboration. Nevertheless, both unis agreed to allocate sufficient resources to implement MERGE as well as create/upgrade its IRO with websites to accommodate int’l audience. MERGE will support both HEIs as described above for AF’s.

Being one of the BRICS countries, IN has over 600M young people under the age of 25. By 2020 at least 50% of uni age learners will receive HE. UN projected Delhi would become the largest city in the world with 37M people by 2028. Despite of its relatively mature HE system in comparison to AF and NP, its unemployment rate remains over 10% (WB 2018).  Graduates are struggling for employment & many companies prefer to hire students with a foreign degree. Quality education is in doubt as well as its research performance, albeit the growing no. of HEIs in the country (over 900 in 2018). The combined research outputs of 39 federally funded IN unis produced less than that of either Cambridge or Stanford University alone between 1990-2014. The poor quality of education is not in favour of the industry and services sectors, which composed 23% and 61.5% of its GDP respectively. Although IN is relatively attractive to its neighbouring countries for HE, the inbound students is simply a 0.9% of 36M tertiary students going abroad.

Vision 2020 of IN is paying more attention to IoHE dev. The country is seeking how to attract more int’l students in order to internationalize and modernize the education system, aiming at quadrupling the no. of foreign students to 200,000 by 2023. However, the HEIs lack institutional capacity to achieve the target, grab the opportunity for int’l expansion on mobility and exercise poor admin and internationalization practices for research collaboration.

Neither regular training nor strategic plans for internationalization are found in the IROs of Anna University (AU) and Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University (BAMU). Both unis also suffer from inadequate financial assistance to expand their int’l activities as well as infrastructure in the office over the last 3-5 years. With the assistance of MERGE, both AU & BAMU can be directly benefited from on enhancing human (7-10 staff in AU & BAMU) and technical capacity (2 IROs), strengthen the regional integration, internationalization culture and practices, expand int’l coverage to further benefit the teaching & learning environment.

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