APEC summit moves towards Asia-Pacific higher education space

Leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping have called for greater cross-border higher education cooperation in advance of building an Asia-Pacific higher education space that would include South East Asian nations, India, China, Japan and South Korea as well as Pacific Rim countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Cooperation would include enhancing the “mobility of students, researchers and education providers within APEC through the development of higher education cooperation,” according to the 8 September final communiqué issued at the end of a two-day summit held in the Russian city of Vladivostock.

The leaders acknowledged the role of education as an “essential driver of innovative” growth in the Asia Pacific region.

“All APEC economies stand to gain from enhancing collaboration on cross-border education,” a special annex to the formal declaration said.

“Education as a fundamentally important component of economic activity accounts for almost 7% of GDP in APEC economies. Cooperation in the education sectors of APEC economies fosters innovative growth as students, researchers and education providers build scientific, technological and linguistic communities,” it said.

“All APEC economies are ‘future lookers’ and we want shared goals in education and business,” summit host and Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the gathering, which normally focuses on economic and trade issues, although talks have broadened in recent years to include the environment, food security, energy, innovation and other global issues.

Fittingly, he was speaking at the brand new campus of Far Eastern Federal University on Russky Island, south of Vladivostock, where the summit was held. The university is known in Russia for its international collaborations, particularly with Asian countries.

In a commentary published in The Wall Street Journal just in advance of the meeting, Putin stressed that “special attention must be given to education” at the APEC summit.

He added: “In our view the time has already come to address the idea of forming a common educational space of the Asia-Pacific region.”

If fully implemented, the APEC initiative would dramatically increase the number of students in the region studying outside their own country and would also increase the number of foreign branch campuses in the region.

Summit declaration on higher education

Russian officials said globalisation within the education system was lagging compared to economic globalisation, due to internal barriers to education and scientific exchange.

Many developing economies in the Asia-Pacific region are rapidly moving into higher value-added manufacturing and knowledge-intensive industries driven by innovation. Access to a wide range of quality education services will be critical to sustainable growth on this development pathway.

"The APEC region also contains some of the world’s largest exporters and consumers of education services. Facilitating the flow of students, researchers and education providers, and reducing the transaction costs involved provides opportunities for a significant expansion of cross-border education services to the benefit of all economies."

"Increasing cross-border student flows will strengthen regional ties, build people to people exchanges, and promote economic development through knowledge and skills transfer. High quality cross-border education equips students with the 21st century competencies they need for their full participation in a globalized and knowledge based society."

Christopher Ziguras of the faculty of global studies, social science and planning at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, said: “What is new in this declaration is the emphasis on cross-border mobility.”

Although discussions on cross-border mobility and regional cooperation continue in a number of forums, including the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) – which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – the APEC declaration goes beyond Asia and was “an indication of the rapidly rising importance of Asia, politically, economically and culturally,” Ziguras told University World News.

Importance of Asia

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in Vladivostock: “It makes sense to build on [the] national development of our education system by looking towards the region in which our future will be defined – the region of economic growth in this century, and to enable our students, our education providers and our researchers to move more freely across the region.”

Ziguras told University World News: “Universities in every part of the world want to be well connected with the US, well connected with Europe and now they want to be well connected with Asia. APEC is an avenue for non-Asian members to boost connections with Asia; that’s why they [leaders] are using this body for educational integration.

“We are also seeing regional bodies catching up with what’s happening on the ground – short-term mobility in Asia is growing quite rapidly,” he added.

An East Asian diplomat told University World News that Russia’s proposal on an Asia-Pacific higher education space would attempt to grow cross-border education and student mobility by increasing the amount of information on courses and programmes and moving towards a system for their independent evaluation and accreditation.

Victor Smirnov, deputy director of the international cooperation department of Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science, said the conference sought to provide a political impetus to cross-border education cooperation.

Challenges ahead

He admitted that existing education projects within APEC had failed to take off previously “due to differences in approaches – including the issue of regulating the education process among the different economies.

“This is our main problem,” he said after a preparatory meeting in Vladivostock in July attended by trade and education officials and academics.

“Originally our idea was based on the assumption that we would establish certain mechanisms, perhaps at the government level", but the focus had shifted to cooperation at the university level because of bottlenecks at the government level, said Smirnov.

However, Ziguras said there was “a gap between aspirations and initiatives” and that the region was a long way behind Europe in creating a higher education space, with few concrete targets to achieve the goals and little funding to promote student and faculty exchanges.

Deane Neubauer, of the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, said there were still significant barriers to cooperation and student and faculty mobility. “We have to find a way to recognise each others’ institutions.”

This included an efficient credit transfer system and “even ASEAN is moving very slowly on this”, said Neubauer, who is also co-editor of Mobility and Migration in Asian Pacific Higher Education, published this year.

Neubauer pointed to significant overlaps between ASEAN initiatives and APEC, and said mutual recognition was as important as measures to set up partnerships.

In addition to the ASEAN countries, the APEC members are Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Russia, Taiwan and the US.