Leading the way on regional integration of HE in Asia?

Thailand is front and centre in the news again and unfortunately for the same political impasse and factional division that has defined much of its last decade. In another week of attrition for the incumbent administration and its detractors, international higher education and ASEAN integration will not be high on the agenda.

But perhaps it is worth reflecting on some positive developments that have taken place in Thai international education over the past while, including the expansion of a student mobility programme which, similar to Erasmus in Europe, could drive further integration .

With under a year to go until the much-vaunted formalisation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC 2015), 2014 is a critical year. A recent Asian Development Bank, or ADB, study – the ASEAN Economic Community Business Survey – found the Thai business community’s awareness of integration running at 70%. This contrasts starkly with awareness levels in Singapore (14%), the Philippines (20%), Indonesia (23%) and Vietnam (24%).

The ADB explained these findings as being due to the “extent to which the firms are affected by regional, cross-border economic issues”.

Levels of awareness of AEC integration are most certainly greater within Thai than other ASEAN higher education institutions.

This is largely due to the activities of national and supranational bodies such as the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development, SEAMEO RIHED, and the ASEAN University Network or AUN, both of which have their regional headquarters in Bangkok.

In this sense, Thailand has become a seat of policy formulation in the ASEAN’s education integration efforts.

SEAMEO RIHED and the AUN are key partners in the fulfilment of the ASEAN’s Five-Year Work Plan on Education 2011-2015, in which one of the key priorities is the promotion of cross-border mobility and internationalisation of education.

This is providing the impetus to develop an ASEAN Common Higher Education Area in the same vein as that of the European Higher Education Area. The similarities are striking and it is not surprising that the European experience of harmonisation through the Bologna process has been seen as useful in charting a similar course in Southeast Asia.

European Union

In March 2011 the European Union launched the Thailand-EU Cooperation Facility with the Royal Thai government. The programme focused on furthering Thailand's policy dialogue and cooperation with the EU.

A major facet of the cooperation centred on developing capacity in Thai higher education as it moves towards ASEAN integration, leading to greater inter-regional cooperation between institutions, quality assurance agencies and international networks.

The policy dialogue components of the cooperation took the form of seminars and workshops by European and Thai education experts supported by the Royal Thai Government Office of the Higher Education Commission and the European Union Delegation to Thailand.

Among the themes presented were the tuning of higher education structures to support the development of the Thai Qualifications Framework, comparative studies on learning from the Bologna process and evaluation of Thai and ASEAN student mobility programmes.

The Thailand-EU Cooperation Facility concluded at the end of 2013, but the EU is renewing its engagement with Thai and ASEAN higher education in 2014 under the EU Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region – EU SHARE – programme.

EU SHARE will be launched early this year and its objectives are to strengthen regional cooperation and enhance the quality assurance, regional competitiveness and internationalisation of ASEAN higher education institutions towards AEC 2015 and beyond.

The five-year programme can draw on funding of over €10 million (US$13.5 million), of which around half will be committed to driving mobility intra-ASEAN states and from ASEAN to the EU.

Currently leading the charge in the expansion of regional mobility between Thailand and its ASEAN partners is the ASEAN International Mobility for Students, or AIMS, programme.

AIMS evolved out of the First Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand (M-I-T) Meeting on Student Mobility held in Bangkok in August 2009.

The meeting was attended by education policy-makers from all three countries and the main thrust of discussions centred on priority curricula for mobility, the duration of the mobility period and the number of university participants and student participants.

Meetings have been held biannually since. The M-I-T programme was renamed AIMS in 2012. It is currently being implemented at seven universities throughout Thailand and 52 others in the region.

Taking AIMS

The AIMS programme has also caught the attention of the ASEAN Dialogue Partners, Japan, South Korea and China. Delegates from Japan’s Ministry of Education and universities were present at the Sixth Review Meeting of the AIMS programme in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in November last year.

This year, universities in Japan including Tsukuba University and Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology will be among the first non-ASEAN institutions to offer the programme to their students.

Much as Erasmus has been intrinsic to driving mobility and the provision of support structures through the Bologna process, the expansion of the AIMS programme across the ASEAN is seen as a significant catalyst for greater integration and the engendering of quality at the core of member states’ education systems.

The seven Thai universities participating in the AIMS programme are keen to see its expansion and welcome the opportunity it provides to develop stronger regional partnerships.

Thailand is very well placed along with its neighbours in Malaysia and Indonesia at the intersection of developments in the further integration and harmonisation of ASEAN higher education provision.

There is still work to be done on formalising and aligning structures of quality assurance, credit transfer and qualifications frameworks, but this is continuing apace.

Thailand too has the potential to promote itself as a regional hub for education, so the establishment of a national brand for Thai higher education with a defined strategy on driving inbound mobility is also salient at this point.

Once Thailand exits this latest political cul-de-sac, one hopes it can put factional politics away for a more regionalist approach, which will surely 'raise all boats'.

* Darren J McDermott is an international education development consultant.