The need for an ASEAN University

With the ASEAN Community set to be established in December 2015, there is a need to revisit the failed 1992 ASEAN initiative to establish an ASEAN University. Its failure should not be attributed to lack of political will among ASEAN member states, but rather to an immature regionalisation process.

Compared to 1992, the ASEAN region today has progressed dramatically towards ASEAN regionalism, creating a community with a population of over 600 million and a regional economy with a gross domestic product (at current prices) of US$2,318,156 million and with total trade of US$2,476,427 million based on 2012 figures.

The establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1992, the expansion of ASEAN membership in 1997 and 1998 to include Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia, and various regionalisation initiatives – including the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services and Mutual Recognition Agreement on key professions – provided the core policy framework for ASEAN regional integration.

It has also encouraged collaboration between a demographically, politically, socio-economically diverse group of nation states at a time of increased competition brought about by neo-liberal globalisation.

A beacon university for the ASEAN

Although the ASEAN University initiative was shelved, it facilitated the establishment of one of the core organisations in ASEAN regionalisation of higher education, the ASEAN University Network, AUN.

With AUN university membership representing two to four key universities from each ASEAN member state, the network has facilitated enhanced collaboration at institutional level and more recently at regional level with other key regional organisations dealing with higher education.

The ASEAN Credit Transfer System, Student Mobility Programmes and Internal Quality Assurance have been initiated, established and implemented across AUN member universities.

Although its mandate is not at the regional level, AUN member universities and the policies and programmes initiated within the AUN aim to promote good practices among all ASEAN universities.

While there is a growing number of ASEAN-related courses and a few programmes, there is a lack of ASEAN centeredness in any ASEAN university.

This can be attributed to the highly competitive global higher education market and the competition within ASEAN universities for students, funding and global recognition primarily in terms of global rankings.

No single ASEAN university or institution is focused on conducting research on ASEAN-related issues such as history, culture, society and the challenges and opportunities brought about by the establishment of an ASEAN Community.

Furthermore, there is no authoritative institution that serves as a repository of ASEAN-related knowledge or serves as a think-tank focused on the current and future challenges of the ASEAN and its member states.

European University Institute

The original idea of an ASEAN University was based on the need to promote ASEAN-ness among its regional population as well as regional collaboration and integration.

The ASEAN University that I envision, however, looks to the European University Institute, or EUI, located in Florence, Italy.

The EUI is a graduate research institution funded by the 21 European Union member states, which not only serves as the historical archive for the European Union but is also engaged in research on various European issues and challenges usually focused on political science, social science and the humanities.

The ASEAN University should have an institutionalised funding arrangement with ASEAN member states, institutional autonomy and full academic freedom. As such, it will be free to engage in graduate research on ASEAN-related topics especially focused on political science, social science and the humanities.

Such an ASEAN University will not only serve the original idea for the institution but also create new knowledge on ASEAN-related challenges, serve as an authority on ASEAN topics and enhance the promotion, conservation and dissemination of the ASEAN region’s rich cultural diversity.

The challenges of establishing an ASEAN University will centre on finding a sustainable institutional funding arrangement, a governance structure that enhances institutional autonomy and inculcating a culture of academic freedom given its focus on ASEAN-related topics.

Lastly, its collaboration with existing research centres and institutions focused on ASEAN studies and the need to deliver ASEAN-related courses needs to be addressed.

The success of an ASEAN University will depend on the ASEAN region’s commitment to establishing and sustaining institutional funding, and ensuring institutional autonomy and academic freedom, but in return the region will have a beacon university embodying ASEAN’s core values while respecting the region’s cultural, political and socio-economic diversity.

For these reasons, I call for ASEAN leaders to revisit the establishment of the ASEAN University in the hope that the region will truly have a beacon university in the near future and in time for the challenges the ASEAN Community faces in the coming years.

* Dr Roger Y Chao Jr is the international consultant for higher education for UNESCO Myanmar. This article is based on his presentation at the Global Education Dialogues meeting in Myanmar earlier this month.


Many universities that are not part of the ASEAN University Network (AUN) already feel alienated by the exclusivity of the AUN and are talking about forming their own group of schools in response to being kept out by the AUN. How much more alienated would the 'ASEAN University' make other universities feel? This is a bad idea but it ranks right up there with the AUN.

Mark Hefner on the University World News Facebook page

I was very interested to read this since my researches on the early history of European cooperation education led me back to the storms around the idea of a supranational university for the EEC and the eventual deal in favour of the much more modest European University Institute in Florence. (See 'Universities and the Europe of Knowledge', Palgrave 2005) for what I found a riveting story.)

Anne Corbett on the University World News Facebook page

Anne Corbett, thanks for your interest and the reference, which I will look into. I do know that it took quite a while to establish the EUI due to a number of issues and I expect the same situation may occur with the establishment of a similar institution in the ASEAN region but we need to be proactive and innovative

Roger Chao Jr on the University World News Facebook page

A comment in response to the statement 'No single ASEAN university or institution is focused on conducting research on ASEAN-related issues such as history, culture, society and the challenges...' There are in fact several HEIs established in the 60s although they do not bear the acronym ASEAN:

QueAnh Dang on the University World News Facebook page

QueAnh Dang, I was thinking of a regional institution with no national affiliation, and funded regionally.

Roger Chao Jr on the University World News Facebook page

Here's another model from South Asia:

University World News on the University World News Facebook page

Another thing is ISEAS [Institute of Southeast Asian Studies] is located within another institute - NUS, if I recall correctly.

Thanks for the SAU link. The ASEAN University I am thinking of is a graduate research university, and hopefully funded through an institutionalised arrangement with ASEAN member states. It's good to see the SAU model, though. I expect some challenges in establishing the ASEAN university

Roger Chao Jr on the University World News Facebook page

Perhaps more crucial questions are: Is convergence a means or an end for regionalism in ASEAN? What are other possible outcomes or consequences? What would be the real benefits of a single ASEAN University, given the informal 'gentlemen's agreement' in the 'ASEAN-style' regional cooperation?

QueAnh Dang on the University World News Facebook page

That's true, QueAnh Dang. I seem to prefer an institutionalised regional institution with institutionalised funding and full academic freedom. I just think it's the right time to revisit the original idea and establish a slightly different version of the ASEAN University. It's difficult to answer the question about the exact outcome of a single ASEAN University; it all depends on its core mission and flexibility to undertake this mission. I would presume that such an institution would be able to conduct research and facilitate graduate researchers' and scholars' dialogue and joint research much faster than an informal agreement. A regional status being not within the confine of one member state should provide the necessary space to conduct unbiased and unrestricted research.

Roger Chao Jr on the University World News Facebook page