Catalysing development of an ASEAN higher education space

On 8 August 2021, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) celebrated the 54th anniversary of the signing of the ASEAN Declaration by the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand in Bangkok in 1967.

Originally conceived as a peace-building project in a region that was once considered the ‘Balkans of Asia’, ASEAN has gone on to unite 10 Southeast Asian countries under a banner of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”, with the signing of the Declaration of the ASEAN Community by ASEAN leaders at their 27th Summit in Kuala Lumpur in November 2015.

The 37th ASEAN Summit, hosted by Vietnam in November last year, saw the signing of the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the 10 ASEAN member states and five of their free trade agreement partners, namely Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The RCEP comprises the most populated and largest free trade zone in the world, accounting for nearly a third of the global economy.

A New ASEAN Work Plan on Education

Higher education is a key modality contributing to ASEAN’s regional development, integration and connectivity agendas. At their meeting on 31 May this year, ASEAN member state ministers for education adopted the new ASEAN Work Plan on Education 2021-25.

The higher education components of the new Work Plan are delineated under:

• Outcome 3: Enhanced regional capacity in higher education as part of lifelong learning provision, including the harmonisation of ASEAN higher education and the following outputs.

• Output 3.1. Strengthened role of higher education institutions in lifelong learning through the provision of flexible, innovative, multi-disciplinary, cross-border education and research collaboration.

• Output 3.2. Sustained and strengthened ASEAN capacity in higher education harmonisation through strategies, mechanisms and scholarship provision.

The development and implementation of the Work Plan’s activities are led by the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on Education chair, administered by the ASEAN Secretariat’s Education, Youth and Sports Division, and supported by regional partners including the ASEAN University Network, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) Secretariat, the SEAMEO Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (RIHED), the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network, UNESCO and the European Union Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region or SHARE programme.

The SHARE programme extension

The SHARE programme is the European Union’s flagship higher education initiative with ASEAN and was earlier this year extended up until the end of 2022. This is in the context of a now 44-year-old dialogue partnership between the EU and ASEAN, which was elevated to that of a strategic partnership in December 2020.

Launched in 2015, SHARE is delivered by a consortium comprising the British Council, the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and Nuffic.

The SHARE extension will see the programme continue its support of the ASEAN Secretariat and ASEAN stakeholders to establish an ASEAN higher education space, thus enabling greater harmonisation of ASEAN higher education.

Through its support of the ASEAN Work Plan on Education, and for the duration of its extension, SHARE is providing further technical assistance in the following areas, among others:

• Developing ASEAN higher education communities of practice for greater coordination, knowledge management, and monitoring, evaluation and learning.

• Supporting the further implementation of national qualifications frameworks and the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework.

• Contributing further to the work of the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network.

• Producing a study on ‘Graduate Employability in ASEAN’ as part of a series of studies to support the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025.

• Implementing digital modalities of internationalisation, including virtual exchange and collaborative online international learning.

• Piloting digital credentials recognition and portability to enhance the ASEAN-Europe Credit Transfer System mechanism.

A budget of €5,175,000 (US$6 million) has been committed by the EU, including co-financing of €175,000 (US$206,000) by the British Council, for the extension of the SHARE programme.

Shared goals

In delivering on activity 3.2.1 of the new ASEAN Work Plan on Education, SHARE held its 12th Policy Dialogue since its inception between 27 and 29 July. This was the second SHARE Policy Dialogue to be held wholly online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The theme of the three days was ‘Creating a Resilient and Sustainable ASEAN Higher Education Space’ and it was officially opened by the European Union Ambassador to ASEAN, HE Igor Driesmans, and the Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, HE Kung Phoak.

In his opening remarks, Ambassador Driesmans stated: “Education has always been at the heart of the EU-ASEAN partnership. The SHARE programme, our higher education flagship programme, contributes to people-to-people connectivity between our two diverse regions and to student mobility within ASEAN.”

Deputy Secretary General Kung Phoak asserted that “promoting internationalised and quality higher education is vital, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, to support ASEAN community building and economic recovery in the long term”.

The opening of SHARE’s 12th Policy Dialogue also saw the official launch of the ASEAN Working Group on Higher Education Mobility 2025 (AWGHEM 2025). Co-chaired by the ASEAN Secretariat’s Education, Youth and Sports Division and the ASEAN Foundation, the working group is comprised of senior officials from ASEAN member state ministries of education or higher education and regional organisations.

The primary mandate of the group is to lead the development of a cohesive roadmap to realise and implement an ASEAN higher education space for greater people-to-people connectivity and knowledge transfer across ASEAN in the framework of the ASEAN Work Plan on Education 2021-25. This will include the design, ownership and operationalisation of an ASEAN-Branded Scholarship by 2025 to boost intra-ASEAN student mobility.

The working group will be supported by the technical and operational advisory of the SHARE programme up until the end of its extension phase in December 2022. This will necessitate SHARE and AWGHEM facilitating the transfer of ownership of SHARE programme outcomes to ASEAN entities and nominated organisations to be embedded within sustainable ASEAN-led structures and processes.

It is the vision of the SHARE programme that through our partnership with the ASEAN higher education community we can extend the benefits of the project to a wider range of higher education institutions and students across the region and be a catalyst for ASEAN’s ownership of a sustainable, collaborative, inclusive and resilient ASEAN higher education space.

Based in Singapore, Darren J McDermott is the team leader of the European Union Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region (SHARE) programme. From Dublin, Ireland, he has lived and worked in Asia for much of the last 20 years, predominantly within the higher education and international development sectors. Twitter: EURASEANEDU