Inclusion is key in HE roadmap for Asia and Europe post-COVID

A report on inclusion and diversity in higher education was launched this month, intending to feed into discussions by policy-makers and experts preparing for a meeting of ministers of education from Asia and Europe later this year. The ministers are expected to adopt a new strategy for the decade ahead, taking into account impacts of COVID-19 on education goals.

The ARC8 Outlook Report 2030: Inclusive and diverse higher education in Asia and Europe by experts and academics from Asia and Europe looks at the effects of the pandemic on higher education equity and inclusion.

It calls for inclusion and diversity to be at the centre of the higher education dialogue at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), the biennial forum for high-level Asia-Europe meetings.

ASEM includes 21 Asian countries and the secretariat of ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – as well as 27 European Union countries plus Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

“Inclusion efforts need to turn away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach and develop comprehensive context-specific measures,” notes the report launched by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), a non-profit organisation based in Singapore. “This can be achieved through dialogue, sharing good practices and identifying areas where improvement is needed in the context of each region.”

Some 25 experts contributed to the report produced for the eighth meeting of the ASEF Regional Conference, a dialogue for policy-makers and university and student leaders from 51 countries in Asia and Europe, and which informs the ASEM.

They identified potential risks that could jeopardise higher education inclusion and opportunities that should be leveraged to enhance inclusion in the next decade.

“This stocktaking enabled them [the report authors] to propose recommendations addressed to ASEM policy-makers and ASEM university leaders to advance inclusion in higher education on our common path – towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” said Leonie Nagarajan, director of the Education Department at ASEF.

“The recommendations are very tangible and propose concrete actions and initiatives that could contribute to more equitable and inclusive education environments and cooperation across both regions. We hope that several of them will be picked up by the ASEM officials when they finalise the ASEM Education Strategy 2030 and Action Plan” in December, Nagarajan said.

One of the report contributors, Mary Tupan-Wenno, executive director of ECHO – the Expertise Centre for Diversity Policy in the Netherlands – said at the online report launch event on 10 September: “What we see is that [higher education] systems have been designed for certain groups in society.

“But with internationalisation, with globalisation, with upward social mobility within societies, these systems are becoming more diverse.”

Equity in higher education was not just about social justice but also making sure that under-represented groups “have the opportunity to enter the system and to equally be successful in higher education systems”.

Pandemic disruption

In July 2020 UNESCO invited higher education institutions to put inclusion and equity on their recovery roadmaps, develop new partnerships and inclusive online learning solutions, and improve policies together with national officials and international organisations in the next decade.

However, even as higher education ministers look to getting back on track to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the pandemic has highlighted how fragile achieving the goals is – including expanding access to higher education, which is part of SDG 4 on education – says the report.

Anek Laothamatas, minister of higher education, science, research and innovation in Thailand and host of the ASEM education ministers’ meeting scheduled for December, told the report launch conference: “The COVID-19 crisis facing the world has drastically changed the education landscape almost entirely.

“Significant progress long built has now slowed, stagnated and even reversed. More importantly, it showed that higher education has become increasingly less diverse and less inclusive,” Laothamatas said.

“This calls for more decisive and effective actions by both regional and interregional communities to mitigate these critical issues, and to ensure a stronger and sustained post-pandemic recovery.”

It was important to press for inclusion and diversity to be firmly on the higher education agenda of national governments, as ministers map out strategies for the next decade, added Laothamatas.

Kung Phoak, ASEAN deputy secretary general for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, pointed out at the report launch that the issue of inequality has always existed, “with many working to put in place policies to address the problem”. But COVID-19 “makes the situation even more severe and challenging”.

“It is very clear now that some of the key targets of the SDG [SDG 4] won’t be able to be met if we don’t redouble our efforts and our investment.” He added: “All the indications show that we are lagging behind.

“We can see now that some of the gaps are still there, although governments are trying to work hard with partners, including members of the European community, to invest more in that area. But there are still a lot of things that we need to do,” Phoak said.

David Akrami Flores of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) noted that the pandemic “put a spotlight on the need for inclusion as a central challenge of our education systems”.

Equitable access

The report has four main areas of focus: equitable access and success in higher education generally; the relationship between inclusion and digital teaching and learning; inclusion in international activities including student, staff and academic mobility; and inclusion and lifelong learning.

ECHO’s Mary Tupan-Wenno said that as education sectors continue to grow – in some parts of the world quite significantly – “what we see is that education systems were never designed to accommodate the current and future diversity in participation”.

Inclusion and diversity are not just about access. They also mean “understanding the worlds where students come from and understanding the context of institutions and regions and responding to that,” she said, adding: “It does need a vision to do that and it does need an intentional policy to make it work.”

That requires agenda-setting on a national level, but also on an institutional and a study discipline level, Tupan-Wenno said.

Another report contributor, Chang Da Wan, director of the National Higher Education Research Institute at Universiti Sains Malaysia, said: “These wider groups of people with different representation could be from marginalised and minority groups, [and] will bring a different form of identity as they go into higher education, and require a different approach to education and learning. They also carry with them very different cultural practices.”

Measuring progress is still a challenge. As Emilie Degueldre, coordinator at the ASEM Education Secretariat in Brussels, pointed out: “To measure equitable access and success and to identify gaps and inequalities, more data is needed.”

The Asia-Europe Foundation has just published an ASEM-wide study on national equity policies in higher education, together with the London-based National Education Opportunities Network, and has invited all ASEM ministries of education to join what it calls “the first Asia-Europe equity policy mapping” exercise.

Among the document’s findings is that fewer than a third of 47 ASEM countries have a specific higher education equity strategy – six in Europe and seven in Asia.

In 84% of ASEM countries COVID-19 has had a significant impact on policies related to equitable access and success, the study found.

Digital access

The use of digital technologies has expanded hugely since the beginning of the pandemic, and has raised its own set of problems regarding inclusion. “It is not just about adoption of technologies and then people can benefit from this way to deliver education. We need an entire ecosystem to support the digitalisation of the delivery of education to our people,” ASEAN’s Kung Phoak said.

Emilie Degueldre, coordinator at the ASEM secretariat in Brussels, said: “Simply automating traditional [educational] practices is never an option and integrating new technologies in the learning process should only happen after in-depth and careful reflection, planning and training.”

She added: “The integration of new technologies should never happen at the expense of learners’ well-being, learning experience or students’ social and cultural experiences.”

But on a positive note, digitalisation can be part of removing barriers, according to Zamzam Ibrahim, vice president of the European Students’ Union, who presented a student perspective. “There is a lot of investment that needs to happen for young people” in order for them to be able to access education.

“For me. the digitalisation of education systems is a fundamental part of actually removing a systemic barrier, specifically on poverty,” she said, arguing for a less commoditised, more human approach to higher education.


Mobility has always been a key part of the Asia-Europe higher education relationship under ASEM. As DAAD’s David Akrami Flores told the report launch conference, deepening the dialogue between Asia and Europe through balanced mobility became a core priority of the ASEM Education Process in 2011.

“Ten years later it is still a relevant priority as mobility enhances intercultural exchange, collaboration and the exchange of knowledge.”

But he added: “We need more inclusive mobility schemes for higher education. Using the potential of digital and communications tools is certainly one instrument to make international mobility more accessible.

“Nevertheless, virtual mobility is not the solution to all challenges. Physical mobility is still important for building trust and relations for fostering cultural understanding. Therefore, initiatives to promote inclusive international mobility should consider the opportunities, both virtual and physical, that mobility offers,” Flores said.

Degueldre said: “Regardless of the type of exchange of mobility, the ASEM Education Process has a pivotal role to play to further align Asian and European architectures of recognition and quality assurance and to avoid fragmented systems working in silos.”

The ASEM Education Process encompasses the ministerial meetings at the political level, and at the stakeholder level, with ongoing dialogue between policy-makers, experts and other interested parties.

Lifelong learning

ASEAN’s Phoak noted that in 2020, prior to the pandemic, ASEAN adopted a Human Resources Development roadmap with promoting lifelong learning as one of its key pillars.

“ASEAN members were at the earliest stage of trying to integrate some of the recommendations from this roadmap into their national policies. Now they have to divert most of the resources to contain COVID-19. So I think that that [lifelong learning] is another big area for us to focus on in the next five to 10 years.”

He said there was a need to move away from the traditional way of looking at lifelong learning bridges, so that people can re-enter the education system when they need to obtain more skills. It was also necessary to “look for innovative ways to work with different stakeholders”, including the private sector.

The Asia-Europe Foundation report will be officially presented to ASEM education partners on 14 and 15 September, hosted virtually from Berlin as part of the eighth ASEF Regional Conference on Higher Education (ARC8), to prepare for the December ASEM meeting of education ministers.

According to Thailand’s Laothamatas, highlights of the December ministerial meeting will include endorsement of the ASEM Education Strategy 2030, and presentation of the action plan 2030 to implement the strategy.

This article is the first in a series in collaboration with ASEF and EU-SHARE in the run-up to the ASEM education ministers’ meeting in December 2021. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.