EU to step up support for ASEAN higher education, research

The European Union is to broaden and increase its strong cooperation and support of higher education and research in Southeast Asia as part of its new Global Gateway ‘sustainable connectivity’ scheme launched this week.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, during an EU-ASEAN summit in Brussels on 14 December, announced a €10 billion (US$10.7 billion) package for ASEAN until 2027, as part of the EU’s Global Gateway initiative. The European Commission said the package would focus on the green transition and ‘sustainable connectivity’ in Southeast Asia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

New funding under the scheme will also enable the EU to build on its highly successful €15 million (US$16 million) EU Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN region (SHARE) programme, according to European Commission officials. The EU-SHARE programme began in 2015 but comes to an end at the end of 2022.

The EU’s Global Gateway, launched in 2021 and backed by €300 billion to 2027 for all regions around the world, is often seen by governments in Southeast Asia as the EU’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but the EU emphasises it involves both hard and ‘soft’ infrastructure, including cooperation in higher education and research among the five main areas of focus, in particular for strengthening student and academic mobility and EU-ASEAN university networks.

Other areas of focus are digitalisation and digital connectivity, climate and energy, transport and health.

The new funding for ASEAN “boosts sustainable investments in digital, transport, energy and climate relevant sectors and in health, education and research systems. It will help to tackle the most pressing global challenges, from fighting climate change, to improving health systems, and making economies more resilient,” the European Commission said in a statement on Wednesday 14 December.

Building ‘soft’ infrastructure

“Soft infrastructure is critical as it is about strengthening health, but also education and research. It is about investing in people, creating opportunities for our young people, and forming sustainable links, not dependencies,” said Jutta Urpilainen, European commissioner for international partnerships, addressing a pre-summit event held in Brussels on 12 December celebrating EU-ASEAN people-to-people cooperation on higher education.

The ‘Sustainable Connectivity’ Global Gateway flagship is worth €1 billion of the €10 billion package for ASEAN that will consist of grants from the European Commission and the member states as well as infrastructure loans from the European Investment Bank and member states’ national development banks.

“We are highly interconnected and interdependent regions and economies. Both the EU and ASEAN, we face global crises like climate change, biodiversity loss and rising inflation and we both understand the power of education and research in addressing such challenges,” Urpilainen said.

Building on the successful EU-SHARE programme, “priorities include strengthening students’ and academic mobility as well as reinforcing cross-regional university networks,” she said on 12 December, ahead of the official launch of the Sustainable Connectivity flagship.

The seven-year SHARE programme focused initially on student mobility. Some 590 scholarships and exchanges between the EU and ASEAN, and within ASEAN, were funded over the project’s seven-year duration as part of the Erasmus+ initiative.

SHARE also facilitated ties between universities, building capacity for both teaching and university governance as part of building a Southeast Asian university space. “But I think we can do even more,” Urpilainen said.

“It’s about cooperation projects and academics working together, and I think this is why it’s built into Global Gateway’s people to people [initiative]. We recognise that this is a crucial and very effective source of cooperation between two countries or two regions,” Adrian Veale, policy officer for international cooperation in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture, told University World News.

Veale added: “Higher education cooperation projects are often working on the same sort of priorities as Global Gateway – green transition, digital health, etc. So, I think we won’t really see a big change [in that type of cooperation between the EU and ASEAN] because the two sides are well suited to each other.”

Extending universities’ role on SDGs

ASEAN delegates noted that the Global Gateway initiatives would help extend the role of universities in working towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in resolving global challenges, including building capacity within universities to enable them to contribute to the SDGs.

Cynthia Bautista, vice president for academic affairs at the University of the Philippines and a keynote speaker at the 12 December event, in remarks to University World News, described the higher education projects between the EU and ASEAN under the Global Gateway scheme as “a transitional arrangement as SHARE comes to an end, but it also tackles important issues such as the SDGs”.

“Asia and Europe are transforming education through partnerships and must work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and leave behind a better world for all,” Cambodia’s Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron told the 12 December higher education meeting.

“I believe in using the power of education – especially the advancements in science, technology, innovation and partnership – in order to equip our young people, our young students, [and in using] the knowledge, the skills, the global citizenship and also commitment to address the challenges together,” the minister added.

Antoaneta Angelova-Krasteva, director of innovation, digital education and international cooperation in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture, said the Global Gateway scheme would help “further foster cooperation on issues relating to sustainable development”.

“What is important here is to further foster cooperation between the academic institutions, but also to work on policy issues and mentors, which are contributing to further expanding and improving the capacity of the higher education institutions, but also their governance structures,” she said.

It also provides “the possibility to focus on very specific issues of common interest”, she said.

Tom Corrie, team leader for Southeast Asia in the Directorate-General for International Partnerships, speaking to University World News, pointed to capacity-building projects between universities in the EU and ASEAN regions, alongside the different Global Gateway themes, which will also enhance and support cooperation on the other themes.

Corrie, who was previously with the EU delegation in Vietnam, noted that “one of the interesting trends is that now Southeast Asian universities are taking the lead in some of these capacity-building projects, which is a new and very positive development”.

Digitalisation of higher education and skills

ASEAN delegates also emphasised the importance of cooperation in digitalisation of higher education and skills and other economic areas, which is another focus of the Global Gateway connectivity flagship.

Cambodia’s Hang Chuon Naron noted that digital tools were important to transform education to meet employers’ needs for a smart workforce and his own government’s policy of digitisation.

He pointed to the need, in his country, to improve existing digital platforms, integrating the use of technology into teaching and learning, developing digital infrastructure in areas such as learning management systems, and developing short programmes in areas such as coding and robotics.

ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi noted that the region is home to 7,000 universities and around 12 million students. “We continue to give priority to promoting higher education and digital skills as part of the [COVID-19 pandemic] recovery process, especially by strengthening ASEAN human security and accelerating inclusive digital transformation in the region,” he said.

“One of the key initiatives post-pandemic is to equip our youth, our students, for digital literacy and 21st century skills needed to adjust to the changing world of work,” Lim added.

Chris Humphrey, executive director of the EU-ASEAN Business Council in Singapore, told University World News: “Every business today is involved in digital somewhere along the line, it doesn’t matter whether they’re an e-commerce online platform, or an insurance company, a bank or a manufacturer of plastic buckets. They are involved in [the] digital economy somewhere.

“They need people to help them with their marketing, with the connections, with the data management, the data governance work. Those skill sets are absolutely vital, and that’s going to be a key part of Global Gateway.”

Humphrey also pointed to the importance of climate action under the Global Gateway. “Having people come in and understand what needs to be done, who can work on circular economy principles, who can work on sustainability principles, is absolutely vital for all our futures,” he said.

Changing geopolitical context

“In places like Southeast Asia, they’re hungry for investment in infrastructure, they’re hungry for investment in digital connectivity, and they need support on sustainability issues as well,” said Humphrey.

He added: “If Global Gateway can give them more options, provide them with another set of funds and another set of ideas, that’s a great thing. And if Global Gateway can come in and create an additional set of opportunities on top, that’s even better for the region and it doesn’t have to be a competitor to BRI [China’s Belt and Road Initiative].”

Geopolitics was a major topic of discussion during the EU-ASEAN summit with delegates noting that China’s activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, meant changing alignments.

Michael Hörig, director of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Brussels Office, told University World News: “The world has changed in the time that we have done [the EU-SHARE programme] and the changing geopolitical context is also true for the European Union in its own policy developments.

“We’re living in a geopolitical world where, obviously, diversification of partners and having partners all over the world matters,” he said.

Successor to EU-SHARE

DAAD has been a major partner in delivering the SHARE programme. “We are hoping this connectivity or the Global Gateway new SHARE or next-generation SHARE, which might have a different name in the future, will build upon what we’ve done in the previous phases in terms of the frameworks in terms of delivering scholarships, but it will go beyond that,” Hörig said.

“We still want to fund mobility, but we want to tell a different story – the reason why we need to have this mobility is so that you work collaboratively on projects, research endeavours and so that you can try to find solutions for challenges for humanity,” he said.

While the successor to the EU-SHARE programme has not yet been formulated, Hörig pointed to the whole research pipeline beyond short mobility periods that were part of SHARE, including mobility for PhDs and postdocs.

For example, with Global Gateway focus areas such as energy or transportation, it could “support research by providing scholarships for PhD candidates who want to do their research on innovative mobility solutions for the ASEAN region. So, we combine the element of studying in another country, or doing research in another country, and working on a specific topic that will bring the discussion on mobility or energy forward.”

Hörig also pointed to university networks or a call for university networks to focus on solutions for green energy, for example. “And then we would award scholarships to these networks and then deliver the mobility within the network.”

EU-SHARE Team Leader Darren McDermott noted that with the implementation of the SHARE project “there are now good frameworks in place, there are excellent initiatives in place, there is certainly the energy and the impetus to move forward with those initiatives. But it needs to be sustainable.”

“So the new package on people-to-people connectivity or sustainable connectivity proposed by the EU will certainly pick up on where the SHARE programme has left off,” he said. “Global Gateway is a fantastic initiative, but also takes a flexible approach to the needs of Southeast Asia.”

McDermott said that while some feel Global Gateway is vague and “hard to pin down”, he thinks that’s a strength. “It’s not prescriptive. It’s not saying to another region, this is what you need to do. It’s a flexible approach to international cooperation.”

This article is part of an initiative from the EU-SHARE Programme. This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content, and this does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.