Towards a Southeast Asian Higher Education Area

The year 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN. As with many such milestones, there is a natural tendency to evaluate the significance of what has gone before and, perhaps more importantly, to predict what lies ahead.

This is invariably a time that witnesses vigorous conjecture on ASEAN’s progress, as was last seen during the formalisation of the ASEAN Economic Community. In the intervening period, it is fair to say that ASEAN’s integration journey to the realisation of its ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’ motto has not been characterised by rapid action.

Laying the foundations

One noteworthy area of ASEAN’s integration progress, often overlooked by regional and international commentators who are perhaps more concerned with economic development, is that of regionalisation and the harmonisation of the member states’ education systems. Intra-ASEAN collaboration among universities has grown considerably over the past two decades and is set to continue apace.

Flowing from the ‘ASEAN Vision 2020’ adopted by ASEAN heads of state or government at the Second ASEAN Informal Summit in Kuala Lumpur in 1997, there has been increasing reference to the importance of education integration.

Acknowledgement of the value of education for human capital development in the region was made in the Hanoi Plan of Action in December 1997 and subsequently in the Vientiane Action Programme of 2004.

The Cha-am Hua Hin Declaration on the Roadmap for the ASEAN Community (2009-2015) was definitive in asserting the importance of the education sector “to achieving enduring solidarity and unity among the nations and peoples of ASEAN”.

In addition, reference was made to a statement from the ASEAN Ministers of Education First Meeting (Singapore 2006) that education “permeates through all the three pillars of the ASEAN Community in enhancing competitiveness of individual member states as well as ASEAN as a region”. The Hua Hin Declaration advocated practical joint initiatives, such as promoting regional cooperation on higher education.

With a vision for a ‘Dynamic ASEAN’, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint 2025 was launched in March 2016. The blueprint further advocated the promotion of “an innovative ASEAN approach to higher education” which will “promote greater people-to-people interaction and mobility within and outside ASEAN” leading to “the free flow of ideas, knowledge, expertise and skills to inject dynamism within the region”.

It is envisaged that this will ultimately “strengthen regional and global cooperation in enhancing the quality and competitiveness of higher education institutions” across ASEAN. All these initiatives suggest that momentum is building.

Architecture for an ASEAN Higher Education Area

In addition to the ASEAN Secretariat’s Education, Youth and Sport Division, the primary entities driving ASEAN’s cooperation and internationalisation agenda forward with dialogue partners are the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization’s Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development and the ASEAN University Network.

Among ASEAN’s closest dialogue partners is the European Union. In 2017, the EU and ASEAN are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of formal cooperation at the 10th Ministerial Meeting in 1977. Since that time, there have been extensive inter-regional policy dialogues on higher education cooperation and internationalisation.

The most current iteration of this engagement is the EU-funded Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region or SHARE programme, launched in 2015. The aims of the programme are to strengthen regional cooperation and enhance the quality, competitiveness and internationalisation of ASEAN higher education institutions and students.

The SHARE result areas that EU and ASEAN partners are collaborating on are: ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework and ASEAN Quality Assurance; development of an ASEAN Credit Transfer System and ASEAN-EU Credit Transfer Systems; and Intra-ASEAN and ASEAN-EU mobility scholarships. This is the architecture that will facilitate, support and expand both intra-ASEAN and ASEAN-EU mobility.

Mobility makes for connectivity

The EU’s Bologna Process is often cited as the driving force behind the European Higher Education Area’s integration and has become a model for other regions’ cooperation efforts in higher education. It is salient to note, however, that the architecture of Bologna was instituted largely to contend with the critical mass of mobility created by the Erasmus programme.

Celebrating 30 years this year, Erasmus is considered the gold standard of mobility programmes inasmuch as mobility is the lifeblood of regional cooperation and connectivity. A key finding of the 2014 Erasmus Impact Study showed Erasmus students as well as alumni felt significantly more connected to Europe and people from other European countries.

ASEAN too has recognised the importance of increased mobility to the task of building a regional identity. To this end, in 2010 the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization’s Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development launched the Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand pilot project and that has evolved into the ASEAN International Mobility for Students or AIMS programme.

The AIMS programme offers students a single semester exchange across a choice of 68 institutions in six ASEAN member states (Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam) and two of the ASEAN Plus Three dialogue partners: Japan and South Korea.

The programme seeks to engender a sense of ASEAN citizenship and identity among student participants and is widely considered to be the flagship higher education mobility programme under ASEAN’s people-to-people connectivity enhancement initiatives.

A central tenet of the AIMS programme is the concept of ‘balanced mobility’. Through a multilateral platform, participating governments select appropriate higher education institutions under defined fields of study. Then the number of inbound and outbound exchange students is mutually agreed to determine a balance. While this ensures reciprocity and control between national systems and universities, it could be criticised as an overly managed framework that stifles mobility.

With a total of 1,700 students having participated to date, the AIMS programme remains relatively small and will likely have to modify its structure to augment its scale and impact. AIMS is certainly a valuable programme that should be expanded to include all ASEAN member states including Singapore, which as the most advanced system of higher education, is notable by its absence.

The next 50 years

It can be asserted that ASEAN has looked to the architecture and initiatives of the European Higher Education Area as a source of inspiration. Should it wish to, the approach to the development of an ASEAN Higher Education Area will be qualitatively different. This has as much to do with the paradigmatic differences between these two regional communities as their structural differences.

For now ASEAN’s education harmonisation is moving in the right direction. As former Singaporean foreign affairs minister K Shanmugam said at the ASEAN Day Reception in 2015, efforts to build a regional identity must complement the economic integration of ASEAN. He added: “We are on the right track when our youths see themselves as part of the ASEAN community and feel a shared sense of responsibility for ASEAN’s future.”

Based in Singapore, Darren McDermott is an international higher education development consultant and represents the newly established Global Impact Institute as its senior advisor and regional expert, East Asia. Twitter: @EURASEANEDU. This article was originally published in Higher Education in Southeast Asia and Beyond, a publication of The HEAD Foundation.