Universities in Europe and Asia must collaborate, say rectors

Universities in Europe and Asia must collaborate to make their graduates employable in a globalised world, with joint programmes and dual degrees paving the way for greater student mobility, heads of universities in 37 Asian and European countries heard at a major conference in The Netherlands this week.

Although some joint degrees exist between European and Asian universities, Karsten Warnecke, deputy executive director of the Singapore-based Europe Asia Foundation, said there were eight times more Asian students going to Europe than European students going to Asia.

With high graduate unemployment in many southern European countries, “it is not a solution for graduate unemployment in Europe for students to go to Asia [for jobs], but they should go to Asia to increase soft skills and to get a different perspective and experience,” said Warnecke.

However, “not enough European students at the moment see the advantage in going to Asia to study,” said Sibrandes Poppema, president of the University of Groningen, which hosted the third Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) of university rectors on 25-26 September.

The conference recommendations, including promoting a credit transfer system within ASEM, were agreed to by 100 heads of universities from 27 European Union countries and 10 Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

They will feed into a meeting of ASEM education ministers in Kuala Lumpur in 2013.

Interim mobility arrangements

But full credit transfer could take a while to be set up. “We need a transition period on the way to full mobility in which we help students to see the advantages [of overseas study] by organising special programmes,” Poppema told a press conference after the meeting.

Interim arrangements could include shorter non-degree programmes that should be set up jointly between partner universities with greater support for students studying in another culture. “We believe this is an attractive proposal and one of the ways to go forward,” Poppema said.

The need for international exchanges and experience of other cultures was emphasised time and again at the conference as being vital for student employability.

“Any opportunity to have a global perspective and feel part of the global community is fantastic,” said Vicki Baars, vice president of the UK’s National Union of Students. Student groups were invited to participate in the ASEM rectors’ conference for the first time this year.

Halbe Zijlstra, Dutch secretary of state for higher education, said in a keynote speech: “Every country that makes room for internationalisation in its higher education system, sees the quality of its own education improve.

“The countries with outbound students – because these students bring additional knowledge back with them on their return. And the countries with inbound students – because they receive top talent from across the globe. And this has a mutually stimulating effect.”

Imbalance in student flows

The imbalance in student flows between the two continents is a recurrent theme at ASEM higher education conferences.

One reason, identified at previous ASEM meetings, is the perception of European students that universities in Asia are not of comparable quality to those in Europe. Another is the inability to transfer study credits to their home institutions.

But Piniti Ratananukul, deputy secretary general of Thailand’s Higher Education Commission, speaking on behalf of the ASEAN University Network, said it would never be possible to balance flows as Asia had a huge population compared to Europe.

“We are looking at the quality of higher education instead,” he told University World News.

He said it was important that universities were of sufficient quality to meet the demands of the workplace. And quality included the cultural environment and adapting to rapid changes in society.

ASEAN is developing a quality assurance system to increase mobility within the region. “The job market in Asia is expanding and graduates should be able to work anywhere in Asian countries,” Piniti said.

ASEAN credit transfer scheme

A credit transfer scheme within ASEAN is also being developed. Credit transfer will also be extended to ASEAN partners such as Korea, Japan and China.

As this would be a huge undertaking for the entire university sector in all ASEAN countries, Piniti told University World News: “We are looking at the leading universities in each country at first, then we can expand it to other universities locally.”

European universities also stressed the importance of transferable credit. But even within Europe the number of universities registered for the European Credit Transfer Scheme (ECTS) is still limited, and ASEAN could take some years to put its own credit transfer scheme in place.

Once this has been achieved, “the next step will be marrying the European credit system and the ASEAN credit system", Poppema said.

“This is an excellent time to ensure that the ASEAN scheme is similar to the European one. It would be wise for them to look at the ECTS, not to copy it, but to develop their own one. The next step would be to ensure they are [mutually] transferable,” Poppema told University World News.