The push for Asian HE internationalisation indicators

UNESCO has begun work on drawing up a series of indicators on higher education internationalisation in Asia to help universities and education policy-makers in the region to develop an international outlook and promote international higher education links against a set of solid, accepted, quality benchmarks.

In early November UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, Thailand, hosted a meeting of high level education officials to discuss drawing up a range of indicators on higher education internationalisation in the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea – a group referred to as ASEAN+6.

The ASEAN countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

With 1.7 million Asia Pacific students studying abroad in 2013, within and outside the region, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, it is clear that higher education internationalisation is important for the region.

The aim of this first meeting, held on 3-5 November, was to draw up a checklist of possible indicators, according to Wang Libing, chief of UNESCO-Bangkok’s Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development.

“Internationalisation of higher education is very much a concern of many [UNESCO] member states in Asia,” Wang told University World News. “Almost all countries in Asia have undergone substantial higher education expansion in the past decades and have already created the momentum to produce world-class universities.”

Some governments are already playing a strong role – with a number of major government initiatives on higher education internationalisation such as China’s 985 project and more recent projects, South Korea’s Brain Korea 21, and similar internationalisation drives in Japan.

“Asia is quite unique in internationalisation of higher education,” Wang added. “Commercial higher education services such as international branch campuses are very much present in this region – other regions cannot compare.”

Rankings and existing indicators

Some higher education internationalisation indicators already exist, and several are used by commercial university rankings organisations. These mainly focus on percentage of international research collaborations and jointly published papers, student exchanges, and mobility and proportion of international staff and researchers.

Wang stressed that UNESCO was not intending to produce yet another higher education ranking but aimed to provide benchmarking for self-evaluation. “You can easily manipulate an outcome in an international league table by adjusting the indicators. We are very sceptical of ranking exercises and we prefer benchmarking tools which are quite different.”

“We are not lacking in data, but rather the tools to make the data available, accessible and transparent,” Wang said. “We would need to improve the capacity of universities to use existing data rather than create yet another platform.”

Some other benchmarks not used by commercial rankings organisations could include whether institutions have specific organisational structure to support internationalisation; whether it provides visa, residency or residents work permit services, which would benefit international students, researchers and academics; and how well international students integrate with local students, including the facilities to ensure this is the case; and foreign language webpages.

Others analysed by academics in Japan – who have drawn up some 30 effective indicators to assess internationalisation of Japanese universities – include membership of international professional associations, and the proportion of research resources secured from overseas.

“There are a lot of existing indicators around in this region, and some are very complicated,” Wang noted. “This is because they all come with different motivations. Some countries would like to increase their competitiveness. Some, like Japan, are facing the challenge of an ageing society and have an oversupply of higher education seats so they would like to have more students from other countries.

“Many countries would like to establish themselves as higher education hubs. We already have major [international student] receiving countries like Australia, Japan and South Korea but we are also seeing other higher education systems like Sri Lanka, for example, that would like to be higher education hubs, so internationalisation of higher education is not just a matter for individual institutions,” Wang said.

SDG imperative

The need for higher education indicators, including on internationalisation, has been boosted by the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs agreed globally last year, in particular SDG4-Education 2030, which includes two higher education targets.

Higher education systems around the world will need to develop targets and indicators to meet those goals. “UNESCO in particular is keen to promote a culture of accountability and reporting at national and institutional levels and to build robust statistical infrastructure to make use of existing available data,” Wang said.

Wang said the development of higher education internationalisation indicators would begin with greater transparency by higher education institutions and higher education systems, that would not necessarily require great changes.

The next stage would be comparability between degrees and courses by agreement between institutions and countries, and then setting up recognition systems that would lead to more ambitious compatibility arrangements such as credit transfer, degree recognition and joint degrees, a process already in development in the ASEAN region and moving forward under UNESCO’s auspices elsewhere in Asia.

Harmonisation on the lines of Europe’s Bologna Process would only be a final step, although it is unlikely that all countries in the Asia Pacific would want to progress towards internationalisation to that extent, Wang acknowledged. “We cannot apply the same framework to all the institutions and systems but we will map out and combine them at different levels,” he said.

At the November meeting, participants agreed to launch a regional network with UNESCO-Bangkok acting as the secretariat to bring together policy-makers and researchers to draw up an overarching framework for internationalisation indicators.