ASEAN countries move forward on internationalisation

Higher education internationalisation as a regional policy was initially mainly European, courtesy of programmes such as Erasmus and the framework programmes for research. Building on the experiences of the European programmes, other world regions started looking into the opportunities presented by regionalisation. Twenty-five years later, ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – is the clearest example of a regional approach.

A British Council-funded study in 2018 focused on the higher education internationalisation policies of countries such as Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The study recognised higher education’s powerful role in international relations, diplomacy and in supporting an integrated and aligned ASEAN community. In this vibrant, rapidly-growing region with a population of more than 620 million, the study provided information and findings that support increased higher education activity with nations inside and outside the region.

One key finding is the ASEAN emphasis on openness and mobility in higher education, at varying levels according to individual countries’ developmental stage.

‘Openness’ – by which we mean a government-level commitment to internationalisation via international mobility for students, researchers, academic programmes and university research – assists the development of a ‘we-feeling’ among different peoples. Almost all the countries in the region have high levels of openness and mobility.

Openness and mobility introduce new ideas and understanding, which underpin interaction between countries. For instance, in Malaysia, the networking that accompanies international co-operation strengthens internationalisation.

These factors are also integral to higher education positively contributing to society; and to students developing as global citizens who can work and live internationally, something that contrasts with the type of internationalisation that emphasises economics and student recruitment.

Openness and mobility in the ASEAN region

One of the factors studied by the report was the presence of an international education strategy in the ASEAN countries’ policies and this was evident in higher education strategic planning in most ASEAN countries.

Relevant ministries or bodies had responsibility for progressing internationalisation in all ASEAN countries. Overall, the study indicated strong ASEAN government support and commitment to internationalising their higher education sectors.

Interestingly, internationalisation is not a separate strategy in any country, but integrated in the broader higher education planning framework.

All ASEAN countries have relevant bodies with responsibility for higher education internationalisation, but one major difference across countries is how this is governed. This ranges from being under a single entity and ministry, or under separate entities, or multi-ministries.

For instance, in Cambodia, the strategy is embedded in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport’s ‘Higher Education Roadmap 2030 and Beyond’.

In the Philippines, the International Affairs Staff within the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) coordinates the international dimensions of CHED's work, including establishing cooperation through international and regional bodies or networks and linkages between local and overseas institutions.

Student mobility

Ninety per cent of ASEAN countries scored high or very high on student mobility, with focused efforts across the region to streamline relevant visa procedures. Mobility, both regional and international, is emerging as a significant regional policy and as a key component in most countries’ strategies.

For instance, in Singapore the 2002 ‘Global Schoolhouse’ initiative included establishing the country regionally and globally as an education hub and attracting 150,000 foreign students by 2015. With recent Singaporean private education developments, the ‘Global Schoolhouse’ is now being revised to focus on quality.

Across ASEAN, the rapidly growing market for international student recruitment and student mobility offers national governments many opportunities. However, those implementing policies must consider the socio-cultural diversity of the ASEAN region, where student mobility policies are intertwined with differing socio-political contexts and values.

Academic mobility and research collaboration

Most countries scored highly with high-level policy commitment and proactive approaches to establishing or developing international research collaborations and partnerships.

In most countries, several approaches have fostered regional and international research collaborations. For instance, the National Foundation for Science and Technology Development of Vietnam fosters international research collaborations through funding of scientific and technological projects and supporting Vietnamese institutions’ and researchers’ international engagement.

While assessment of internationalisation strategies was not widely observed in the ASEAN region, Indonesia showed clear evidence of it for international research and collaboration. The government’s strong support for building research capacity is evident in the recent initiatives listed on the ministry of research and technology website. Greater weight is allocated to academics publishing in international rather than domestic journals.

However, several of the ASEAN countries’ national research reviews indicated limited or no features of internationalisation, with little support for inbound academic mobility through preferential visa policies or working opportunities.

Despite these positive indications of efforts to train and retain talent, ‘brain drain’ appeared to be a challenge for most countries. This is compounded by the lack of a comprehensive and integrated system to facilitate mutually beneficial academic exchange throughout the region.

Institutional and programme mobility

Regulations are in place in most countries for cross-border programmes by foreign providers, but institutional and programme mobility indicates wide differences across countries, with several countries scoring very highly and being global leaders in domestic international provision.

However, several countries are at the very early stages of development in this regard with little evidence of domestic institutions setting up abroad. As domestic partnerships and local knowledge are essential for countries in establishing international linkages, this is an area for development regionally.

One example of national commitment in this area is Malaysia, where the mushrooming of internationally linked tertiary programmes and cross-border programmes is occurring, especially in the private sector. The setting-up of new foreign entities is clearly regulated under private higher education law and implementing this strategy has led to an increase in private institutions in Malaysia.

Although there is little outbound institutional and programme mobility regionally, Malaysia-based higher education providers, especially private ones, are expanding internationally, with the Malaysian Ministry of Education exploring public universities setting up branch campuses regionally, as occurs in Indonesia.

Future directions

In examining the strengths and challenges of ASEAN higher education internationalisation policies, a strong commitment to internationalisation in terms of openness and mobility is promising.

Of the different forms of mobility, student mobility had the most policy support, and most likely, openness and student mobility will continue as significant drivers for systematic regional development over future decades.

One key area highlighted by the study is the need for regional harmonisation of higher education systems, but with consideration of the diversity and the commonalities that characterise national internationalisation strategies. This underscores the importance of developing an ASEAN-centric framework that could lead to a more representative and distinctive evaluation of the development of higher education regionally.

Twenty-five years after the European programmes, another region, ASEAN, has developed regional and national policies for internationalisation of higher education. This marks an important step forward.

Dr Graeme Atherton, Professor Glenda Crosling and Siti Norbaya Azizan are based at Sunway University, Malaysia. Associate Professor Dr Munir Shuib is at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Contact:

Hans de Wit has issued a call to readers and contributors to
University World News to send him their essays of between 800 and 1,200 words on what went well and what went wrong in internationalisation of higher education over the past 25 years. This is one of the essays he has received. He will select one essay to be published by University World News and at the end of 2019, will bring all these essays together in a book.