SOUTH EAST ASIA: Bold plan to duplicate Bologna

Achieving for South East Asia what the Europeans have accomplished with the Bologna process - aligning the Asian region's 6,500 higher education institutions and 12 million students in 11 vastly different countries, and making their systems compatible within a mere seven years - is ambitious to say the least. But a recent high-powered conference in Bangkok began the first steps to do just that.

The conference was organised by the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation, or SEAMEO, which was established in 1965 to promote cooperation in education, science and culture across Southeast Asia. A major goal of the conference was to achieve UNESCO's Education for All outcomes by 2015.

Attaining compatibility between the region's education systems is a key element in the even more ambitious plans by the Association of South East Asian Nations for an economic union by 2015. As with the Bologna process, the Bangkok conference's aim in part was to improve mobility for academics and students between universities and to bring their courses and qualifications more into line.

How to achieve that hugely challenging goal in seven years when the 11, mostly developing, nations have education systems from the primary years up that vary markedly, and whose resources are already spread thinly, is a big ask. But the 70 ministers, bureaucrats and observers from countries outside the region, including Australia, who attended the conference, believed it was essential to try.

The SEAMEO secretariat worked with UNESCO Bangkok and the ASEAN secretariat to arrange the meeting - the first time the three groups had collaborated in this way to run an education conference for the Southeast Asian countries. The three-day meeting included plenary sessions, panel discussions, workshops, group discussions and field visits.

Prior to the conference, five of the member nations - Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam - were asked to investigate creating a "higher education common space" in the region and to survey universities for their reactions to the concept of harmonising their higher education systems. Each country surveyed a range of its institutions and the results showed that although there was broad agreement among those familiar with the concept, many people were unaware of the idea or of the benefits it might bring.

As has occurred with Bologna, achieving compatibility will not be easy. While a bachelor's degree in Malaysia and Vietnam can take three or four years, in the Philippines it usually requires at least four and often five years. This is to make up the fact that the Philippine primary and secondary education system is spread over 10 years and not the usual 12.

This raised questions at the conference as to how credit transfer would work, how could students study partly in the Philippines and then elsewhere in the region? The query became even more pertinent when a delegate noted that in some countries, students had difficulty changing from one faculty to another within the same university - much less moving from one university to another in a different country. These types of problems would have to be tackled first before any external harmonisation could occur.

In the event, the conference produced 11 collaborative plans that will be presented to a "high officials" meeting next month and a SEAMEO council conference in March for endorsement. A spokesman said implementation of the proposals was expected to help accelerate the achievement of the six goals of the "education for all initiative" in Southeast Asia.