Ministers seek Asia-Europe cooperation on skills gap
Latvia’s Minister for Education and Science Marite Seile chaired the fifth Asia-Europe Meeting, or ASEM, of education ministers, known as ASEM ME5, that drew education ministers and officials from 56 countries.
At the 27-28 April meeting, Seile said ministers “do not have easy answers” to the problem of the skills gap between university education and what employers required, and the high unemployment levels among young graduates, for example in Europe.
However, she told a press conference on 28 April: “We realise this problem and are looking for concrete solutions. We hope that cooperation in Europe and Asia will facilitate this process and we will be able to learn from each other and find the best solutions.”
Facilitating balanced mobility between Asia and Europe, fair recognition of qualifications and study periods were crucial goals according to the stocktaking report drawn up by ASEM this year and delivered to ministers at the Riga meeting.
Seile earlier told the conference that higher education cooperation between the two continents helped “promote tolerance in society, better understanding of one another and experience-based confidence”, and these contribute to the soft skills that employers are looking for.
Education for employability
“Education has to be the starting point of our efforts to increase employability, raise productivity, address the skills mismatch and prevent social exclusion. And the international dimension of education has a crucial role to play in this,” EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Tibor Navracsics told the meeting.
“We see that those who take part in the [EU’s Erasmus] programme are only half as likely to experience long-term unemployment as those who have not studied or trained abroad,” Navracsics said referring to the EU-funded exchange programme.
“They not only get new insights in their specific disciplines, but also develop vital cross-cutting skills and attitudes such as tolerance, confidence, problem-solving ability and curiosity which 92% of employers are looking for.”
The new Erasmus+ programme will help develop international partnerships, he said. These include partnerships with universities in Asia.
“Despite a wide variety of languages, cultures and specific structures in the different countries, Europe's higher education systems are comparable and compatible. Why shouldn't we be able to replicate a similar system across Europe and Asia, in particular with the support of Erasmus+ and our expertise?” Navracsics said.
Malaysia’s Education Minister Idris Jusoh said not just Europe and Asia, but also Latin America, China and other countries, need to “redefine education” to provide a more holistic experience and “balanced” graduates.
He added that some Asian countries, and Malaysia in particular, were able to conduct a “comparability exercise” between institutions in Asia and Europe through international branch campus collaborations.
ASEM projects to improve mobility of students and academics, and employability of graduates, include recognition and transferability of professional skills, identifying internship or apprenticeship opportunities – though most of these are organised on a bilateral basis – and setting up more joint degrees, the conference heard.
But some member countries have also pointed to portable grants and bank loans as important, particularly for poorer students and those from developing countries.
But key to mobility is qualification recognition and credit transfer, the conference heard, with work ongoing both within regions, such as the 28-member European Union and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, and between the regions.
For example, ASEAN countries along with China, Japan and South Korea – ASEAN+3 – are currently piloting the Academic Credit Transfer Framework for Asia, or ACTFA, which establishes a standard credit system based on teaching and study hours.
The aim is to facilitate more student exchanges within the region along the lines of Europe’s successful Erasmus mobility scheme.
However, speaking just before leaving for Riga, Malaysia’s Idris Jusoh conceded that ASEAN countries faced challenges agreeing on common standards within the higher education systems.
"This is because the process [of harmonisation] would take time and there is a need to take into account matters such as language, history, culture and established practices," he said in Kuala Lumpur on 24 April.
Building on regional work on credit transfer schemes, a new project known as European Union Support to Higher Education in ASEAN Region, or SHARE, is being launched this year to strengthen regional cooperation, and enhance the quality, regional competitiveness and internationalisation of ASEAN higher education institutions and students.
SHARE will initially map commonalities between the existing ASEAN and EU credit transfer mechanisms, to develop an ASEAN-EU Credit Transfer System.
SHARE, to be implemented by a consortium comprising the British Council, the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD, EP-Nuffic in the Netherlands, Campus France, and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education or ENQA, will also help institutions to implement credit transfer systems to improve comparability of degrees, according to official documents.
Information on education systems and on recognition procedures by National Information Centres, or NICs, and the need to build networks of NICs between the Asian and European region was also recognised as important for student mobility.
A new Asian Network of National Information Centres was launched at the Riga conference by China.
But qualifications compatibility and funding for mobility are just a few of the problems being tackled, with participants noting that many more students from Asia come to Europe than European students going to Asia.
Language and immigration and visa issues are among the obstacles that cannot be tackled by education ministers alone, delegates said.