Major regional higher education organisations in Southeast Asia this week launched a roadmap to 2025 aimed at the establishment of a common higher education space in the region together with a plan for implementation over the next two years.
Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Education and Training Nguyen Van Phuc said the roadmap, agreed during a meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam on 27-28 July, will “enable greater harmonisation and internationalisation of ASEAN higher education, especially in enhancing people-to-people connectivity and supporting ASEAN community building”.
Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Lim Jock Hoi said the finalisation of the document is a “significant achievement for the education sector”.
The roadmap, endorsed by senior education ministry officials of the countries in the region, draws inspiration from Europe’s Bologna Process for higher education harmonisation initiated in 1999 and which is still ongoing.
But Southeast Asia’s efforts are being closely watched by higher education organisations elsewhere, including in Latin America and in Africa, as a model for regions with more diverse economies and systems and levels of development than Europe.
Libing Wang, chief of the section for educational innovation and skills development at UNESCO Bangkok, noted that the social and economic consequences of not having a harmonised regional higher education space can be “tangible and hard to ignore”, pointing to the contribution of a common higher education space to regional economic integration.
“On top of the efforts to increase the transparency and comparability of qualifications among countries in the region, ASEAN higher education integration is very much needed to support the more ambitious ASEAN integration process, particularly the consolidation of the ASEAN Community, which was officially established in 2015,” Wang said.
Philip Masterson, officer in charge at Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization’s regional centre for higher education and development (SEAMEO-RIHED) in Bangkok, noted that “with a rapidly changing landscape in higher education, there is a crucial need to work closely and quickly together to redefine the common space in regional higher education and put forward a more dynamic platform from which to address tomorrow’s challenges and synergise our efforts”.
A central plank of the roadmap is promoting the mobility of students, faculty, researchers and interns within the region, the development of common quality assurance benchmarks and mutual recognition of higher education credentials within Southeast Asia, which includes the 10 ASEAN members plus Timor-Leste.
But it also proposes new approaches in response to higher education changes since the pandemic. These include cross-border digital learning collaboration and new initiatives such as an ASEAN-branded scholarship and a Southeast Asian version of Europe’s diploma supplement – a document that details qualifications content to allow easier cross-border comparability and credential recognition.
UNESCO’s Wang noted that much still needs to be done. For example, mutual recognition agreements currently covering six sectors (engineering, nursing, architecture, medicine, dentistry and tourism) which allow these professionals to work outside their own country, needed to expand further to cover more sectors and implementation improved at the national level.
Further down the line, Wang envisaged – if funding can be brought together “by pooling resources from existing scholarship providers in the region, both public and private” – an ASEAN version of the European Union’s Erasmus+ and Erasmus Mundus student mobility programmes.
It seems an ambitious agenda, as even ongoing common quality assurance arrangements and degree recognition within the region with its huge disparity of higher education institutions has been a slow-moving process despite being initiated over a decade ago.
“The roadmap is only to 2025 but it’s a starting point”, Roger Chao Jr, head of the education, youth and sports division of the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, told University World News, noting the need to set priorities and make sure that these actions are time based, “otherwise we will not accomplish anything”.
SEAMEO-RIHED’s Masterson told University World News that “with the rate of change in higher education, the uncertainty makes it very difficult to plan forward for five or 10 years”.
“We want all the partners involved and we want to be able to define it together,” Masterson said, adding that “it will take time – 2025 is not the end date”.
EU involvement in Southeast Asia
The EU has been funding the SHARE (Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region) programme since 2015 to help build capacity in higher education and strengthen regional cooperation and internationalisation, drawing on its own considerable experience with the Bologna Process.
It has included a series of conferences or ‘policy dialogues’ involving regional organisations over the past two years to work towards a higher education space, including the July meeting in Vietnam.
“Cooperation in education has gradually become an important instrument for the implementation of EU external policies as an indisputable instrument of soft power,” Giorgio Aliberti, the EU’s ambassador to Vietnam, said, noting the EU will provide “stronger and more coordinated support in education” as a key to tackling the eradication of poverty, inequalities and discrimination as well as inclusive education.
EU-SHARE team leader Darren McDermott said the Bologna Process had huge consequences for higher education in Europe that went beyond higher education. “It was probably one of the most significant things the EU ever did in terms of building identity. So this (roadmap) is building a regional higher education identity in Southeast Asia,” he told University World News.
The Southeast Asian roadmap “is not the same as the Bologna Process, because the context is very different. But it is setting in motion in a number of areas a greater understanding, a zone of trust in higher education in the region, and that then lends itself to greater cooperation, greater partnership and more development in the sector,” McDermott said.
ASEAN’s Lim Jock Hoi told the launch event in Hanoi, the roadmap on the ASEAN higher education space and its implementation plan was “also our attempt to synergise our work, consolidate our efforts, and appreciate the valuable work that has been done by the ASEAN member states and regional partners on implementing a common higher education [space] in Southeast Asia”.
Building on earlier efforts
A number of delegates noted the roadmap also builds on previous efforts within ASEAN, but the region had not been ready to create a common higher education space till now.
ASEAN began to step up intraregional student mobility and the painstaking process of mutual credential recognition and quality assurance around 15 years ago, Chao noted.
“The discussion on higher education collaboration or a higher education space in Southeast Asia started in 2007 with initiatives that are ongoing. But the region and the higher education sector was not that mature yet to effectively implement regional cooperation and internationalisation of higher education,” he said.
The EU, with its SHARE programme since 2015 “put in significant efforts to build capacity, promote higher education’s role in the region, not only in terms of simple integration, but also in terms of addressing Sustainable Development Goals”, said Chao, referring to the need for joint efforts to tackle global SDG challenges. “This facilitated increased collaboration across regional organisations, higher education stakeholders and, in particular, teachers, researchers from higher education, even students.”
SEAMEO-RIHED’s Masterson told the meeting: “If we went back five or 10 years in the region, we’d see many of the same organisations that are here today. But we wouldn’t necessarily see the same level of trust, of close cooperation, and partnership that we have.” He added that as a result of the pandemic, “we’ve actually become more partnership driven”.
Masterson said there was a greater need for closer higher education partnerships “because the context and landscape for higher education is changing rapidly. And we could not expect the disruption that we’ve seen. There is a greater need to come together to look at what we have, work more closely together, and more dynamically to reflect the new realities”.
McDermott also noted: “There is now more cohesion between the major organisations which have a mandate for higher education in the region … it’s something that they acknowledge themselves. There’s greater consensus on how to approach things. The fact that they’ve all signed up to this roadmap is a very good indication, and there’s a great willingness to make progress on the development of a common space of higher education for the region.”
Wesley Teter, senior consultant to UNESCO, Bangkok told University World News: “With this shared agenda, you have a chance to accelerate the need for collaboration and build for new solutions.
“That includes addressing the gaps and moving forward. The near-term goal can energise people. But it’s certainly not a finish line. I don’t think anyone envisions we’re going to cross the [finishing] line in 2025.”
But he believed the two-year implementation plan was feasible “because it builds on our prior commitments and common understanding.
“The implementation plan is a living document because we don’t want to cast the initiatives in stone”, Chao told the meeting, adding that it leaves room for key stakeholders to come out with new initiatives.
The implementation plan will involve setting key benchmarks and ensuring a strong steering committee. “Without this the process could lose momentum, so we need inclusive participation from all regional and even international organisations working on higher education in the region,” Chao told University World News.
The roadmap and implementation plan
Officials of the ASEAN Secretariat, SEAMEO-RIHED and ASEAN Foundation will jointly lead the roadmap process and two-year implementation plan, involving senior officials from ASEAN education ministries and the ASEAN University Network (AUN) under the ASEAN Secretariat and the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network.
Other major organisations such as UNESCO, the British Council, Germany’s Academic Exchange Service and The Netherlands’ Nuffic will be involved. The ASEAN University Network under the ASEAN secretariat will provide support.
Reka Tozsa, acting director of education at the Asia-Europe Foundation in Singapore, told University World News: “This roadmap is very much focusing on building structures and systems for better harmonisation of the system, which we know is very difficult because of the different levels of economic development (in the region). After all, you need a certain level of harmonisation of economic development before you can really prioritise higher education.
“We have shown that connecting systems and connecting people and connecting communities who wouldn’t be connected otherwise does result in a better flow of ideas and a better flow of knowledge which results in creativity and innovation. So what we can expect from this roadmap in the coming couple of years could be better measured in terms of flow of knowledge and flow of innovation and flow of ideas than in economic returns.”
Funding and impetus
But with the EU-SHARE programme due to end by December, some have expressed concerns about funding, including ASEAN’s Lim who said increased funding was needed for the implementation of the roadmap.
“One challenge would be where to get funding because ASEAN doesn’t work like the EU,” Chao acknowledged, pointing to the EU’s substantial member state-contributed funds. “We [need to] get money from member states, or support from member states, and we can somehow ensure that our education initiatives will be ongoing, either led by a member state or collectively.”
UNESCO’s Teter said: “It’s going to take a lot of different stakeholders to contribute to the plan.”
He added that without funding “mobility will be hurt because it’s going to need targeted scholarships to be inclusive”.
“Without those finances, vulnerable learners are going to be hit hardest. Elite institutions will continue to promote internationalisation because they have the resources and they understand the value for their learners, but mid-tier universities and others that wouldn’t have access to mobility programmes are going to be missing out on internship opportunities, missing out on cross-cultural learning.”
Teter added: “It does impact the value of the higher education space if we don’t have all learners on board. If we don’t have all institutions that see their value and see their place in this, then we’ve created just another elite network.”
AUN Executive Director Choltis Dhirathiti told University World News he had some doubts about implementation and, in particular, funding. “We need the investment, the budget allocation otherwise this roadmap cannot go anywhere. But we need also to find the [right funding] model because we cannot rely on money from government only.”
He pointed to the need to explore other ways of funding including through industry-university collaborations.
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.