Diverse, inclusive education ‘key to COVID-19 recovery’

On 26 November, as the sun rose on Thanksgiving 2020 in his home in New York, Ramu Damodaran, chief of the United Nations Academic Impact initiative and deputy director for partnership and public engagement at the United Nations Department of Public Information’s outreach division, prepared to address the launch of the 8th Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) Regional Conference (ARC8).

His audience of 28 education practitioners, researchers and students, drawn from 19 countries and representing 37 organisations, had logged on from a broad swathe of 16 time zones and from as far east as Tokyo.

This global community of practice was assembled by the leadership of the Asia-Europe Foundation’s Education Department in Singapore. This year, ASEF has merged what were up to now called the ASEF Rectors’ Conference and Students’ Forum (ARC).

With the initiation of ARC8, the forum will be renamed the ASEF Regional Conference on Higher Education, ensuring the inclusion of a broader range of stakeholders and wider impact.

Over the course of the next year, the ARC8 group will work together on contributing to Asia-Europe policy dialogues and drafting an “ARC Outlook Report 2030: Inclusive and Diverse Higher Education in Asia and Europe”. The report will provide recommendations for Asia-Europe policy-makers and university leaders on achieving a more equitable and inclusive higher education landscape over the coming 10 years.

Towards greater inclusion

ASEF is the only permanent institution of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) political dialogue process. The four core priorities of the ASEM Education Process are as follows: Quality Assurance and Recognition; Engaging Business and Industry in Education; Balanced Mobility; and Lifelong Learning, including Technical and Vocational Education and Training.

Flowing from this, Education is among ASEF’s seven thematic pillars which include Culture, Economy, Governance, Media, Sustainable Development and Public Health.

ASEF is a platform to connect civil society in Asia and Europe to collaborate, promoting people-to-people connectivity and to deal with challenges of common concern. It is wholly funded by voluntary contributions from the 53 ASEM members from 30 European countries, 21 Asian countries, the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat.

In her address at the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative on 8 July this year, Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s assistant director general for education, called upon higher education institutions to put the values of inclusion and equity on their COVID-19 recovery road maps, develop new partnerships, inclusive online learning solutions and improve policies together with national officials and international organisations in the next decade.

ASEF has incorporated this vision in ARC8 and will explore how universities and students can augment inclusion and diversity in their contexts through the development of the ARC Outlook Report 2030 along four sub-themes:

• Inclusive learning and teaching in a digital world.
• Inclusive and flexible lifelong learning pathways.
• Inclusive international mobility of people and knowledge.
• Equitable access and success in higher education.

Additionally, ASEF will organise several spin-off activities to disseminate the findings and recommendations of the report to build capacity among local and regional entities.

Reflecting on the ARC8 initiative in the opening of his address, Damodaran observed: “The idea of the pillars of ARC, the access to higher education and the universality of higher education, all of these are fundamental and critical to the major objective of our times, which is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

He went on to assert that “if there is one Sustainable Development Goal which is essential for all the others to be realised, it is the one relating to education”.

The threat to education funding

The stress on the importance of education to the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a route out of the more immediate COVID-19 crisis struck a welcome note of optimism.

But Damodaran also sounded a note of caution in asking ARC8 members to consider what needs to be done to protect education as we enter what is the deepest global recession in living memory and what may happen to government investment in education as a consequence.

He stressed the need for education funding to be protected in Overseas Development Assistance budgets.

Looking ahead to the end of the pandemic and the road to 2030, Damodaran contended that: “When we come out of all of this, the one area that the United Nations, over the next 10 years and soon to be nine years, is going to be enormously dependent upon is the community of global scholarship. Because scholarship is conscience and conscience is something that we must exercise today.”

Noting the remarkable agreement of 196 countries to sign up to the SDGs, when many of the goals could be considered domestic concerns, was suggestive of not just political will but governments’ “need for solutions”. He said that “those solutions will come in laboratories, in classrooms and, above all, in the human mind”.

A Fourth United Nations

Damodaran expanded on this point by positing the global academic community as a ‘Fourth United Nations’ alongside member states, UN employees and non-governmental organisations. He called it “this movement of minds if you will, the idea that we can create a future that is sustainable, equitable and democratic”.

Responding enthusiastically to this idea, Seamus O’Tuama, chairperson of the ASEM Lifelong Learning Hub at University College Cork, Ireland, said that “the United Nations is the one entity globally that puts the citizen at the centre of its project and it’s one of the great gifts that we benefit from”.

Referencing the third of the 10 Principles of UN Academic Impact – A commitment to educational opportunity for all people, regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity – the Director of ASEF Education, Leonie Nagarajan, asked where this was most needed in the Asia-Europe context and what the core challenges were.

In his response and closing remarks, Damodaran acknowledged that, while “the task ahead of us is daunting, even at the most basic levels of education”. . . “education is an enabler to realise opportunities for every individual” … “and that brings us right back to the centrality of education to the Sustainable Development Goals”.

If there is anything that the past year has demonstrated to us, it is the importance of international networks of expertise and communities of practice in tackling the world’s greatest challenges now and to come. Education is the lifeblood of that collaboration and the opportunities that flow from it. ASEF’s work and the work of the ARC8 Expert Group continues.

Based in Singapore, Darren McDermott is team leader designate of the European Union’s Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region (SHARE) Programme. He has recently been invited to join the Asia-Europe Foundation’s ARC8 Expert Group on Inclusive Mobility of People and Knowledge to prepare the Outlook Report 2030: Inclusive and Diverse Higher Education in Asia and Europe. Twitter: @EURASEANEDU