Building Asia’s platform for student mobility

A time scale has been established for setting up a common credit transfer scheme between several South East Asian and neighbouring countries, which will be crucial for encouraging student mobility within Asia.

The Great Mekong Subregion – which includes Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and China – and neighbouring countries Japan and Korea, are working together to set up a higher education platform, similar to the European Union’s Erasmus programme, to increase mobility within the region.

The platform’s first plank will be a common credit transfer scheme, which could be adopted by all higher education institutions in the subregion as early as the next academic year (2013-14), according to Sauwakon Ratanawijitrasin, director of the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation – Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO–RIHED), which organised a regional workshop in Bangkok last month.

The student mobility programme will be piloted with selected universities and courses from the beginning of the 2013 academic year for a period of 18 months before the rollout of an agreed credit transfer system to the whole region and beyond, she said.

“Our goal is to build a practical and feasible credit transfer system for the region, which may help to stimulate and promote student mobility in order to improve the quality and quantity of human resources in the economy as well as in the Greater Mekong Subregion education sector,” Sauwakon said in her opening speech at the workshop, which was sponsored by the Asian Development Bank and attended by more than 100 higher education leaders, government officers and experts.

“Initially, we planned to have only 45 delegates to join the workshop,” Sauwakon told University World News. But the final tally of those attending revealed much greater enthusiasm for the project.

Although the subregion is the largest source of international and exchange students, the lack of transparent quality assurance and a credit transfer system hasmeant that students prefer to study outside the region. A credit transfer scheme that helps students save time and money by avoiding repeating parts of a course could facilitate student mobility and cooperation among higher education institutions.

Although universities in the region are increasingly willing to allow credit transfers, progress varies between member countries. According to information gathered by SEAMEO–RIHED experts, credit transfer schemes in the region are either too general to be useful, or too narrow and applicable to only a limited number of universities.

In Malaysia and Thailand students’ credits are easily recognised by domestic and partner institutions. However, credit transfer is at an early stage in Myanmar, and students can only move within the country, rather than abroad.

In Vietnam, a paradoxical situation has arisen where students can more easily transfer credits between international partner universities than between domestic institutions because of the limited number of multidisciplinary universities that provide a wide range of course options.

Taiji Hotta, vice-president of international affairs at Hiroshima University, Japan, said that ensuring compatibility within the existing diverse systems, especially in the treatment of grades, was a challenge.

“Each university and professor already have their own grading system and it’s not easy to persuade them to change to another system,” he told University World News .

Key constraints include differences in national regulations, curricula and quality. In some countries bachelor degrees are awarded after three years, in others after four.

Hotta proposed a dual grading system where students receive two scores – one based on the host university regulation and the other on a common credit system.

Nguyen Duc Chinh, deputy director of academic affairs at Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City, suggested that a ‘one-way’ mobility programme may be more feasible in the Asian context as “students [in Asia] seem to prefer to stay in the host country until the end of the programme rather than coming back after one or two semesters abroad”.

To ensure that a future credit transfer system is sustained, participants also suggested that a suitable finance arrangement for sharing costs be taken into consideration.