Celebrating inter-regional HE in Southeast Asia

Under the banner of the Southeast Asian Higher Education Week, representatives from across the international higher education community gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, from 11 to 15 November. The five-day event was hosted by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO RIHED) to celebrate significant milestones and to advance discussions on the future of higher education in the region.

The year 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Southeast Asia’s Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (RIHED), now under the aegis of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation as SEAMEO RIHED.

The week’s events included the 10th anniversary and 13th annual review meeting of the Asian International Mobility for Students (AIMS) Programme, the University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP) Annual Conference and SEAMEO RIHED’s first ever Higher Education Inter-Regional Research Symposium and Expo.

The genesis of SEAMEO RIHED lies in the inauguration of the Regional Institute of Higher Education and Development (RIHED) in Singapore in 1959. It was co-founded by UNESCO and the International Association of Universities, in collaboration with the Ford Foundation.

Following a decision by the RIHED governing board and funding approval by the Royal Thai Government, in 1993 RIHED was officially re-established in Bangkok under the structures of SEAMEO, serving 11 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Timor.

In her welcome address to participants at the Southeast Asian Higher Education Week, Dr Chantavit Sujatanond, centre director of SEAMEO RIHED, reaffirmed the organisation’s mandate as a partner and platform for the Southeast Asian region’s higher education systems and institutions to connect people and cultures and bring about a common space for higher education in the region.

Ten years of AIMS

A major initiative in the SEAMEO RIHED regional student mobility agenda is the continued development of the Asian International Mobility for Students (AIMS) Programme as it celebrates its 10th anniversary. From the initial three participating countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand at the MIT Meeting on Student Mobility in Bangkok in 2009, the programme has grown significantly over the past decade.

With further expansion in 2012, the name changed to the ASEAN International Mobility for Students programme until 2018 when the programme was renamed the Asian International Mobility for Students programme, given the expansion of its membership to cover other countries in Southeast Asia and beyond and to reflect the broader scope of the programme.

In conveying the history of the programme to the invited audience, former centre director of SEAMEO RIHED and ‘father of the AIMS programme’, Professor Dr Supachai Yavaprabhas, recounted some of the initial drivers of such an ambitious undertaking.

He noted that the initial measures of success were not the numbers of students pursuing the mobility programme but rather the number of obstacles to that mobility which could be removed to make it easier for universities and students to participate. At the time these obstacles included academic calendar harmonisation, budget coordination and immigration requirements for students.

The occasion of the 13th annual review meeting of the programme and the signing ceremony of the New AIMS Letter of Intent saw official recognition of Singapore joining the programme as the ninth member country and Nanyang Technological University as the 78th participating university. The New AIMS Letter of Intent further asserts the collective commitment towards enhancing student mobility in the region.

As an inclusive platform on student mobility cooperation, SEAMEO RIHED held a session on ‘Mobility Beyond AIMS: Sharing experience from other mobility schemes’. This sharing session included representatives from Erasmus+, University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific, Campus Asia, Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region (SHARE) and the ASEAN Foundation.

The presentations and discussions delved into the future of student mobility across the region, including the expansion of mobility programmes in terms of the number of institutions and participating students and their perceptions about the emerging opportunity for greater intra-regional mobility in the future due to the continuing growth of programmes such as AIMS and SHARE.

A new regional research forum

Southeast Asia represents the world’s third-largest market after China and India and is on course to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030. Over half of the region’s population is under 30 years old and it has the world’s third-largest labour force. Education, and particularly higher education, will be a determining factor in whether the region can capitalise on this demographic dividend.

In 2018, SEAMEO reiterated its commitment to increase its engagement on policy-driven research and create a platform for researchers and policy-makers to cooperate on the challenges and opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the region.

Pursuant to SEAMEO Priority Area Six to promote harmonisation in higher education and research in Southeast Asia, the first RIHED Southeast Asian Higher Education (SEA-HiEd) Inter-Regional Research Symposium was held on 14-15 November 2019 in cooperation with the British Council, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the HEAD Foundation.

Through the lens of sustainable development in higher education, researchers and practitioners from around the region were invited to submit original research on the subthemes of inclusive and accessible quality higher education, entrepreneurship and employability, digitalisation of higher education and internationalisation and cross-border higher education.

The two-day symposium saw insightful presentations and engaging discussions from across the Asia-Pacific but also from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United States.

Topics included: “Linking Southeast Asian and European universities for progress on the Sustainable Development Goals”, “Cross-border collaboration in higher education: The promise of sustainable and equitable development” and “Improving university-industry linkages: Cooperation between UK and Vietnamese higher education institutions”.

A common interest for the common good

The establishment of SEAMEO RIHED’s Southeast Asian Higher Education Week as a permanent fixture on the region’s international education landscape will be a welcome development.

The palpable sense of collaboration and shared goals over the course of the week brought to mind the words of Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, and the world’s most successful regional integration project, when he said: “Make men work together; show them that beyond their differences and geographical boundaries, there lies a common interest.”

Based in Singapore, Darren J McDermott leads new product development and research commercialisation for the Center for Creative Leadership in Asia-Pacific. He is a contributor to several international higher education development projects in ASEAN and is a member of the Global Impact Institute, a panel of experts on internationalisation, innovation and impact in global higher education. Twitter: @EURASEANEDU.