The Asian International Mobility for Students (AIMS) programme (formally known as Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand Student Mobility Programme) is a unique and regional-level mobility programme led by the regional organisation SEAMEO Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO RIHED) while working in cooperation with governments and higher education institutions (HEIs). The ultimate goals are to create a common space for regional higher education using mobility, with credit transfer as a mechanism to harmonise and internationalise regional higher education. AIMS celebrated its 10th-year anniversary in 2019, which marks an important milestone for its expansion of mobility in nine countries, with 77 universities involved and more than 4,150 alumni. In 2018, a systematic assessment on the impacts of AIMS on participating students reflected high levels among selected intercultural outcomes, namely the ability to understand people from different cultures, ability to network with people in other countries and knowledge of ASEAN host countries (AIMS Research Working Group, 2018).
To celebrate the 10th-year anniversary, the authors jointly reflect on the experiences of two pioneering universities, Mae Fah Luang University (MFU), Thailand, and Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Malaysia, by asking two important questions on the key achievements and contributing factors for the success of AIMS in the area of curriculum, teaching and programme management.
MFU and UiTM: AIMS Experiences
MFU is a public autonomous university established in 1998. It is located at the border province adjacent to the Greater Mekong Subregion1 (GMS) and at the heart of ASEAN. The university charter states its commitment to developing human resource needed by the GMS, with the ultimate goal of creating global citizens. These global citizens are graduates who are equipped with knowledge relevant to GMS and global issues, the ability to work in a multicultural setting and a sense of social responsibility.
UiTM was inaugurated in 1956 as a training centre, and was subsequently developed and upgraded to Universiti Teknologi MARA in 1999. UiTM aspires to be world-class in all its endeavours and to forge ahead in a direction that is in tandem with the latest developments in the world. An internationalisation agenda has been central to UiTM through its mobility programmes, sabbaticals, collaborative network, research and consultancy activities, as well as an increase in international academic staff.
Both MFU and UiTM have prioritised internationalisation but with different goals: developing global citizens in the case of MFU and pursuing global academic excellence in the case of UiTM. A question worth asking is: what has AIMS contributed to the internationalisation process of both universities, especially in curriculum, teaching and learning, particularly from the faculties’ perspectives?
Do Mobility Programmes Enhance the Quality of Curriculum and Teaching by Default?
It is perceived that better academic curriculum quality and higher visibility are benefits of a mobility programme. In the case of MFU and UiTM, participating in AIMS means an opportunity to benchmark curriculum, learning outcomes, programme structures, contents and management. Working with partner universities enables better understanding and stronger relationships as time goes by. In the context of MFU and UiTM, it also means visibility, trust and recognition of quality food technology programmes in the region. However, in order to facilitate mobility and connect with global communities, we learnt that a crucial factor is the quality and standardisation of the programme itself. Hence, there has been an effort to attain international accreditation by the Institute of Food Technology (IFT) based in the USA for the food science and technology programme in AIMS.
Arguably, being part of AIMS is a constant reminder of the importance of the ASEAN wisdom, culture and local knowledge on food technology. Even though the food technology programmes have been internationally accredited, we have avoided a one-size-fits-all, Western-centric programme. For instance, MFU retains national and regional strengths by adding new courses, namely: (i) ASEAN Food and (ii) Traditional Thai Food in the IFT-accredited curriculum. As food is cultural, the programme has set a learning outcome for graduates to be equipped with global competencies with a regional outlook. Mobility under AIMS not only ignited the thought of adding these two courses, but also contributed to the presence of exchange students from ASEAN countries in these courses. In short, students under AIMS, when sitting in these classes, are fully benefiting from the impact of internationalisation.
Mobility under AIMS has also increased understanding of the teaching and learning culture of food science and technology programmes in ASEAN countries. In laboratory experiments, special attention is given to students with diverse backgrounds and needs. Raw materials, such as halal meat, are arranged for Muslim students in courses such as meat technology. This can also be a case for discussion and awareness-raising for Thai students who are predominantly Buddhists. Another example is the demand of inbound mobility students for certain courses. Some non-Muslim students studying in predominantly Muslim countries have requested to enrol in beverage courses, wanting to learn about alcoholic drinks as these are not offered in their home institutions. Vice versa, students from MFU are interested to learn more about concept of “halal”. In the field, students were exposed to halal meat production and related matters.
Ms. A from UiTM shares her opinion regarding the ASEAN food-related courses:
“…the course ASEAN Foods which I find very interesting… This course, as the name implies, introduces students to the types of foods which are distinct to each of the 10 ASEAN countries; Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. I found this course very insightful as it explores in detail the different types of foods consumed by the people of the Southeast Asia regions, including the respective National Food for each country. Not only (are) we able to understand the food consumption patterns in these countries, we can also relate the dietary patterns to the culture, geographical locations and the effects of history on the food consumption style in each country.”
All of these experiences prove that improved academic curriculum quality did not happen by chance but with the efforts of faculties and programme managers in their continuous internationalisation and ASEAN-isation of the learning process. Efforts were made to maximise resources, and AIMS was perceived as an opportunity to create a community of learning for the high-standard food sciences and technology curriculum uniquely shaped by local and regional knowledge. All of these are a learning process for both lecturers and students. A constant reflection process can help ensure continuous improvement to the curriculum that meets international standards without losing its ASEAN and local identity.
Does a Quality, Standardised and ASEAN-ised Curriculum Mean Quality Graduates?
Reflections from students who participated in AIMS upon their return from their host country indicated that:
i. they have gained confidence in their academic, professional knowledge and skills and feel that they are ready to work anywhere;
ii. they have gained a better understanding about the ways of life and the culture of their host countries;
iii. they are aspiring to work and live in ASEAN or other cultures.
To revisit the process of AIMS, it can be argued that these are the fruits of a systematic process of facilitation for participating students. In the context of both MFU and UiTM, it can be summarised that the process can be classified into three stages, namely pre-, during and post-mobility. For the pre-departure, the home universities’ faculty members-in-charge will discuss the student learning outcomes and collaborate with the host universities while international affairs officers will arrange for cultural orientation, set the target goals for exchange and facilitate all the logistical arrangements. Special language programmes for basic conversations are also provided to outbound students. During the exchange, faculty members are sent to visit outbound students to check on their learning and to minimise learning obstacles. In parallel, international relations officers create active and reliable communication channels with outbound students, making sure of their safety, wellbeing and maximising their learning abroad experiences. Upon students’ return, faculty members would organise academic experience sharing sessions for them with other faculty members and non-mobile students in order to create an interest in internationalisation at home. International affairs officers also created a system of evaluation for students’ self-reflection and opportunity for sharing with home students in other study programmes.
Do Only Participating Students Gain from AIMS?
Mobility programmes are often criticised for being expensive and benefiting only the few who can afford to join. We also learnt that without good design and collaboration with clear learning outcomes, these limited numbers of mobility students may not get full benefits from the exchange. More often than not, it is presumed that the faculty holds the main responsibility to create the best learning culture and deliver the expected learning outcomes of mobility students. It is learnt that the faculty is one of the key players in determining the quality of mobility and students’ learning, but we should expand this opportunity to further explore the internationalisation process of higher education and to ASEAN-ise our own learning cultures.
The adjustments as a result of joining AIMS include the aforementioned international accreditation, harmonisation of systems, introduction of new subjects for ASEAN-isation, cultural sensitisation of laboratory settings, and maximisation of inbound students for internationalisation at home. These are possible due to the faculties’ continuous learning. These adjustments would not have been possible if faculties had not been working in collaboration with their AIMS or international partners. It is also important to point out that there are other stakeholders who are important in making students’ learning sustainable. These include the universities’ management who allow changes and flexibility in the system, international relations officers who support the intercultural learning and logistic arrangements, and surely both inbound and outbound students who are the key resources for the internationalisation of learning spaces.
Key Lessons Learnt
AIMS can be perceived as a catalyst for the region to create a common higher education space. For MFU and UiTM, benchmarking with institutions in the network has expedited the process of the international accreditation of relevant degree programmes with increasing visibility.
ii. Internationalisation at home (IaH)
For many mobility programmes, it is often argued that only small numbers of students are the main beneficiaries. However, this article argues that if the faculties engaged in the mobility programme recognised the real benefits of the mobility programme, then it would be different. Faculties can create learning cultures among themselves, non-mobile students can significantly benefit from internationalisation at home and mobile students’ experiences of mobility can be maximised.
iii. Stakeholder responsibility
Another key issue in maximising the benefits from AIMS is that concerted efforts in implementing AIMS are needed. At the institutional level, it is not only the faculties that determine the success of students’ mobility or learning. High-level administrators and international relations officers are also important players in the internationalisation process. The university’s vision and mission regarding internationalisation and ASEAN-isation need to be clearly identified, with sufficient support for implementation. From this discussion, it is also shown that the process of internationalisation occurs both in and outside of the classroom.
iv. Sustainability of AIMS
To ensure the sustainability of the programme, the issue of return on investment was discussed. This is because after ten years of implementation, universities need to find ways to facilitate students’ mobility with sufficient amount of funding in order for this networking to continue growing and not solely depend on governments for funding.
- Universiti Teknologi MARA. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.uitm.edu.my/index.php/en/about-uitm/others/historical-development?showall=1
- AIMS Research Working Group. (2018, Nov. 8). Survey of the AIMS Programme Participating Students (SAPS) [Conference session]. 12th AIMS Annual Review Meeting, Hanoi
DR. ROMYEN KOSAIKANONT
Dr Romyen Kosaikanont is Associate Professor, Mae Fah Luang University, Thailand.
NORDIANA MOHD NORDIN
Nordiana Mohd Nordin is Senior Lecturer, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Malaysia.
- The Greater Mekong Subregion is the sub regional cooperation supported by the Asian Development Bank in 1992. The members of GMS includes Myanmar, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and two provinces of China, namely Yunnan and Guangxi. The member countries of the GMS except for Thailand had gone through the Cold War and had decided to open up their economies in late 1980s.