Education ministers from more than 40 European and Asian countries met in Copenhagen last week to discuss how to balance the flow of students between the two continents - a movement heavily biased towards Asian students studying in Europe.
Country representatives from both Europe and Asia said improving mutual recognition of higher education qualifications was a key factor for more balanced mobility, in particular to attract more European students to study in Asia, as was better information on the quality of higher education in receiving countries.
"Through quality assurance and recognition we can have proper balanced mobility of staff and students within Asia and Europe," said Rajhan Mustafa, Director General of Malaysia's Ministry of Higher Education.
The third Asia Europe meeting (ASEM) of education ministers heard that the number of Asian students on courses, including short exchanges, in Europe was around six times higher than the number of students from Europe going to Asia.
The ministers and officials who met from 9-10 May agreed to explore the possibility of a new convention on mutual recognition of degrees by European and Asian countries. This would include establishing information and degree recognition centres in all European and Asian countries to facilitate mutual recognition and establish equivalence of different systems.
The delegates also discussed lifelong learning and engaging business and industry in higher education.
Asian countries have identified funding, language challenges and immigration issues with difficulties over visa applications, as well as worries about degree recognition, as the top reasons hampering student mobility.
The main obstacles for European students wanting to study in Asia have also been identified as language and cultural barriers, insufficient funding, and concerns over the recognition of degrees back home.
However the magnitude of the problems that hamper mobility is still not clear.
"One of the problems is that many countries have difficulty in collecting the data," said Chaidarun Iamphak, officer in charge of European countries for the Thailand education ministry's Office of the Higher Education Commission, who attended the meeting.
"It is very difficult to get reliable data, on inbound or outbound students. We can only say broadly that there are more outbound students in Asia than inbound," she told University World News.
The meeting agreed that it was important to improve data and the level of educational opportunities in Asia and Europe, and to encourage Europe-Asia joint study programmes and summer schools.
Some European countries have helped increase inward mobility by offering more courses in English. This is also a strategy being followed in Asia, with countries like Japan and South Korea offering courses in English to attract more international students including those from Europe.
Others, such as France, have set up joint diploma agreements or annexes of French universities and engineering schools in Asian countries.
The European Union provides funding for joint degrees to be undertaken at a combination of European and Asian universities, under the Erasmus Mundus programme. However, most initiatives are country-specific, an ASEM document circulated by Denmark's education ministry found.
In concluding remarks the conference chairman, Denmark' Minister of Education Troels Lund Poulsen, said the ministers had agreed to strengthen inter-regional cooperation between quality assurance agencies and networks in Asia and Europe with a view to developing common principles across the ASEM education area.
However, representatives said that with so many different systems of education to contend with there was a great deal more to be done before the number of European students studying in Asia could match Asians coming the other way.
The Bologna process, which helped harmonise higher education in Europe to improve mobility within the continent, started in 1989. It has taken more than 20 years to break down mobility barriers and the process is ongoing.
Chaidarun said: "It might take some time before a balance in mobility can take place."
The ASEM meeting was attended by participants from more than 40 nations in Europe and Asia, including Australia, New Zealand and Russia, which joined last year. Apart from countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations and the 27 members of the European Union, the group also includes China, Japan and South Korea.
Malaysia will host the next ASEM education ministers meeting in 2013.
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