ASIA: Forging regional higher education integration

Plans to integrate higher education in Asia, a regional challenge that calls for streamlining of university curricula and grading systems, gathered steam at an international symposium held in Tokyo last week.

"The International Symposium on Exchange among Universities with Quality Assurance in the East Asia Region" was hosted by Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

It included China, Korea and countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and examined an Asian model of higher education integration in the context of the growing momentum to build university collaboration within the region.

Discussions focused on the need for an integrated education model to meet the region's fast-growing economic collaboration that has set timetables for creating economic and trading blocs, including the ASEAN Community by 2015.

According to the organisers, the ultimate goals for higher education integration in Asia would be to develop educated young people able to meet the challenges of increased economic cooperation, find solutions to common Asian issues such as food and energy security, and respond to the needs of local communities and industries.

"There is a need to create Asian youth who can understand and respect each other, [and] speak English as well as each other's languages. This is the basis for strengthening capacity in Asia to meet its specific issues," said Dr Illah Sailah, Director of learning and student affairs at the Ministry of National Education in Indonesia.

The CampusAsia project involving Japan, South Korea and China is being developed to encourage East Asian university integration and could serve as a model for other countries in the region.

The CampusAsia concept was launched in 2010 at the suggestion of then Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, to build on close economic relations between the three countries, which provides a sound basis for international exchanges, MEXT said.

Some 90% of international students studying in Japan are from China, Korea and other East Asian countries. Likewise, a third of Japan's 67,000 international students are studying in East Asia, according to the Japanese ministry.

CampusAsia is still being discussed by stakeholders including governments, academia and industry and is aimed at long-term higher education harmonisation in East Asia through learning about each other. It has generated strong interest in the rest of Asia.

The other important goal is reversing the brain drain of youth leaving for universities in the West, by encouraging them to remain in the region.

Quality assurance agencies in the three countries, however, are struggling to develop standards that can measure learning outcomes in integration activities such as student mobility and credit transfer. New guidelines are to be announced in November.

Deliberations among symposium participants were aimed at gaining deeper understanding of the East Asian concept in order to strengthen collaboration between universities in Southeast Asia against the looming deadline of the establishment of the ASEAN Community in 2015.

In her opening address Dr Kalaya Tingsabadh, Vice-president of Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, said the 10-country ASEAN Community would increase cross-border business and trade as well as job opportunities that would substantially expand student mobility.

"Study experience in another ASEAN country will bring much benefit to all the students involved. This activity needs the full support of governments," she said.

ASEAN higher education collaboration has already led to a pilot project involving student exchanges supported by government scholarships between universities in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia (MIT).

The MIT integration study covers selected subjects such as hospitality and tourism, and engineering. But there have been sticking points including financial support and the continued preference of Asian students to study in the West. The United States is the most popular destination, receiving 600,000 students annually from South East Asia.

Discussions centered on getting over such hurdles but burning issues remain on the table, including the urgent need to develop smooth credit transfer systems.

There have been some breakthroughs, such as a system under ASEAN allowing three credit transfers for students of the National University of Singapore and Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. The transfer is based on grades at B or above.

Experts pointed out that balanced grading is tricky in the region. Comparisons are not easy because of differences in higher education systems resulting from economic disparities.

Dr Taiji Hotta, an associate professor in the International Centre at Hiroshima University and an expert on East Asian integration, said quality assurance would always be a sticking point in higher learning.

Hotta pointed to the benefits of joint study courses as a 'strategic start' towards building trust. "The CampusAsia consortium in East Asia led to developing trust. Trust between professors, for example, is a key base for successful integration," he said.

The Tokyo symposium also highlighted the need for transparency and respect for diversity in higher education institutions in Asia where different ethnicities, cultures, political and economic statuses between and within countries are common.

Participants agreed, though, that Asian integration could be smooth despite the diverse backgrounds of universities

The symposium endorsed the notion that harmonisation should not be a model for unity but rather a means of cooperation. Syed Ahmed Hussein, Executive Director of the Malaysian Quality Assurance Agency, said: "Harmonisation is not appropriate if it means conformity."

Experts also stressed the need for student exchanges to focus on an 'Asian interpretation' that highlights the merits of fostering understanding and building respect for neighbours, an educational goal that is as important as students achieving good grades, which some experts saw as being over-emphasised in the West.

Dr Nantana Gajaseni, Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network, explained: "An Asian model must aim for enrichment. With the ASEAN regional block now ahead of us in four years, there is a dire need for students to understand and build friendships with their neighbours. That is the way to open opportunities for each other," she said.