Higher education system in Laos: Opportunities and challenges

Higher education systems are critical in modern societies for the contributions they make to innovation and wealth creation. These systems, which comprise public and private colleges and universities, support human endeavour of all kinds, including in areas of human resource development, scientific and technological discovery, and the introduction of new ideas to a society.
It is instructive to reflect on the future role of the higher education system in Laos, given current global and regional circumstances and trends.
Importantly, the system will need to become a producer of patents to establish ownership of new inventions created for the benefit of society, as well as for commercial gain.
A patent provides the owner of an invention with exclusive ownership of the idea for an extended period of time, often in the order of 20 years. During that period of time, the owner of the idea exercises a monopoly over how the idea may be applied, marketed and commercialised. If the patent generates a process or product that is globally in high demand, then there is a worldwide market open to the owner of the patent.
Famous examples of patented inventions include Alfred Nobel’s patent for the creation of dynamite, and Microsoft Corporation’s patent for the Word and Excel software packages.
Universities worldwide are active creators of patents. It has been estimated that in 2014 there were more than 42,000 patents filed by Asean countries, with Singapore and Malaysia the dominant sources (Walker, nd).  Many, if not most, of these patents had their origin in research conducted within universities.
The challenge ahead for the higher education system in Laos is that of living up to expectations that it will also be a source of patents which contribute to the advancement of the economy. In the world of competition, it can be seen that those who sleep more tend to get left behind. 
The future of our global society will be dominated by technology. Indeed, technology is already having a huge impact on the employment needs of society. 3D printers, for example, can print all kinds of soft and hard products, with raw materials that include food ingredients, paper, wood, fabric, plastic, glass, ceramics and iron, thereby dispensing with the need for a huge amount of labour.
Similarly, computer technologies capable of enabling machines such as autonomous cars, air taxis, delivery drones, and airplanes to function without any human involvement are being developed at an exponential rate.
As is often the case, military exploitations of these technologies lead the race, but technology equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) is spreading well beyond military applications. Some hotels in Japan, for example, now have humanoid receptionists, and in some countries, such as United Arab Emirates and China, robotic police are now being introduced on a wide scale. 
Eventually, a great deal of human physical labour will become obsolete. It may be anticipated that within the next 30 years this process will proceed at a galloping pace. Then, the only areas of employment for human intelligence will be in the sciences, such as biology, chemistry, physics, machine engineering, and computer science, and in the creative arts. 
The implications for the higher education system in Laos are clear. The system must nurture and develop the talent that will be required by Lao society as it becomes more technologically oriented over coming years. There will be a need, therefore, for the system to access far more funds than at present, and from a more diverse range of sources.
Concepts such as autonomy and accountability will need to be better understood, as well as being properly aligned. If higher education institutions are granted too much autonomy, they may fail to meet society’s expectations of them. Conversely, if they are weighed down too much by the burden of regulations imposed to achieve accountability, then they may lose their capacity and motivation to be creative, inspiring and ambitious. Autonomy is potentially energising, but accountability needs to be sufficient to ensure that the energy is focused on society’s needs.
One thing is for sure, though. In a more technological world, the higher education system is going to become even more precious as a form of social capital for Lao society.
Walker, J. (2016). Patent strategies for the Asean region. Retrieved from https://www.iam-media.com/patent-strategies-asean-region
Dr Nanludet Moxom works at the Department of English, Faculty of Letters, National University of Laos. He holds a Master’s in Education from Flinders University and a PhD (comprehensive) from Southern Cross University, Australia. 

By Dr Nanludet Moxom
(Latest Update February 4, 2019)

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