Sunway president: universities must focus on bridging frontiers

Sibrandes Poppema shares how his institution is strengthening links across countries and with industry and society

April 22, 2024
Lion dance performers seen during a closed rehearsal climbing up steps  in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to illustrate A bridge to all areas
Source: Annice Lyn/Getty images

No university exists in a vacuum, but the world’s best higher education institutions are prodigious collaborators. They build bridges across countries and campuses through transnational education; they build bridges with industry, to improve graduate employability and help close skills gaps; and they build bridges with society to facilitate positive impacts on their local communities and work more closely with authorities.

Bridging frontiers is especially important in Asia, where the landscape of education is rapidly evolving. That’s why it is the major theme of the upcoming Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit, which will be hosted at Sunway University.

Here are some of the ways we are working on building bridges at Sunway.


For several years, the major modes of internationalisation of higher education have consisted of student mobility from Asian countries to Western universities and the establishment of branch campuses of Western universities in Asia.

Sunway and Lancaster University chose a different approach that enables students to obtain two degrees while studying in Malaysia, one from each institution. Over time, this has become the most popular UK degree programme in South-east Asia. Later this year, Sunway and Arizona State University will start several US degree programmes that will enable students to obtain degrees from both institutions.


There is a widely held view among employers worldwide that students are not sufficiently prepared for employment. The question is how to narrow this skills gap and how to prepare students to be entrepreneurial and job creators rather than job seekers.

Sunway offers a holistic education model for all our students that integrates knowledge and skills, values and mindset, and employability. Knowledge includes expertise from research staff and industry players, while skills include language and communication fluency, digital savviness and leadership.

Our students get daily exposure to sustainable development goals and planetary health on campus, while all second-year students now take three general study courses focusing on integrity and sustainable development, community service for planetary health and sustainable entrepreneurship.

The community service course will take place in an urban housing complex with 30,000 residents. It will be a great opportunity for students to put their communication skills and values into practice while simultaneously developing leadership skills.

Our career support office also organises countless opportunities for students across all years to learn about expectations in the workplace, through career forums with industry, mock interviews and career planning workshops.

As a result of all these activities, Sunway alumni have been singled out as the most employable graduates by Malaysian employers, according to TalentBank. But this is only one half of the solution. The other half is to instil a sustainable, entrepreneurial mindset.

To achieve this, Sunway iLABS – the innovation arm of Sunway University – has developed an online game called Paradox of Theron, in which students form teams of 10 players and tackle challenges relating to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. We have also developed LaunchX, together with public and private partners, as a start-up competition for students from all Malaysian universities.

Developing an entrepreneurial mindset and skills is relevant to all students because employers want staff who are enterprising and take initiatives. But it is perhaps most important for students on arts, psychology and hospitality courses, because graduates from those subject areas frequently end up developing their own businesses.


Another increasingly important issue for universities is how to demonstrate our value to society. Saying that we train the workforce of the future and generate the knowledge that will stimulate innovation is not enough. We must engage with governments, industry, other knowledge institutions and the general population.

Sunway, through its Institute for Global Strategy and Competitiveness (IGSC), contributes to the strategic transformation and competitiveness of government, industry and society in the context of rapidly changing global dynamics. It extends its research focus beyond the traditional economic boundary of competitiveness to also take in social and environmental considerations.

Our university also established the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development in 2016, and the UN-SDSN Centre Asia and the SDG Academy in 2022, promoting sustainable development teaching at all education levels and green deal policies for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

In 2021, we opened the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, focusing on research and education on the mechanisms causing a decline of planetary and, consequently, human health. The centre engages with national and international stakeholders to advocate for measures that will mitigate and reverse this worrying trend.

I look forward to hearing how other universities are tackling these issues and bridging frontiers at the summit.

Sibrandes Poppema is president of Sunway University in Malaysia. The THE Asia Universities Summit will take place 29 April to 1 May. Browse the full results of the Asia University Rankings 2024.

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