Programmes for regional student mobility at the university level have been part of larger political projects for forging regional identity, even as the programmes themselves bear the desired scientific, cultural and economic impact.
Among the various action plans set out at the 14th ASEAN Summit in Cha-am, Hua Hin, Thailand, in 2009, regionalisation of higher education profiles was a priority item on the agenda. The Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand (M-I-T) Student Mobility Pilot Project, initiated that same year, has grown into the ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) programme, which has built a student mobility programme at the higher education level for citizens of all SEAMEO (Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization) member countries.
The Erasmus Programme, which provided the inspiration for a number of regional student mobility initiatives in ASEAN, is a European Union (EU) student exchange programme established in 1987, which involved collaboration with the European Commission. There is now Erasmus+, the EU’s programme to support education, training, youth and sport in Europe, to contribute to the Europe 2020 strategy for growth, jobs, social equity and inclusion, as well as the aims of ET2020, which is the EU’s strategic framework for education and training.
Student mobility programmes are highly predicated on the globalisation of higher education and, in turn, of human capital. In his article for this issue, Nakao Nomura notes how the AIMS programme presented an opportunity for another dimension to the globalisation of higher education in Japan – a top priority for Japanese universities because of reasons pertaining to the country’s declining, ageing population. This reflects the phenomenon in higher education in non-English-speaking countries, where there are moves for instruction to be increasingly delivered in English. And to the bane mostly of academics, university league tables have had the effect of catalysing a convergence that is to the detriment of national higher education cultures.
What, then, is the value and rationale of region-based student mobility programmes, in this context of the globalisation of higher education? Globalisation trends may have peaked for now because of COVID-19, but a number of reasons remain salient.
The volatility in global trading and economic relations in the past half-decade presents a renewed rationale for greater stability at the regional level. Through the lenses of international political economy, regions such as Southeast Asia or Europe can form the basis of building blocks of more congenial international relations, leading to a strengthening of political and economic stability. Student mobility programmes at the university level may have an impact on where graduates may decide to build their careers in the region after higher education, or certainly in building personal and professional ties which can be valuable for inter-state exchanges.
The higher education destinations traditionally favoured – the US, the UK and Australia – nevertheless retain their draw among students in ASEAN and Europe. “Market forces” – to use the economic language – mean that students are free to choose where to pursue higher education. But then the raison d’être of regional student mobility programmes such as AIMS and Erasmus is that one cannot simply “leave it to the market” to ensure the smooth operation of such initiatives – to further stretch the economic analogy. Regional student mobility programmes are complex initiatives, as the experience of AIMS and Erasmus demonstrate, involving technical issues such as mutual recognition. This mirrors the complexities of regional integration initiatives at the political level.
States, in banding together on platforms of regional integration such as ASEAN and the EU, have decided that there is an overriding rationale for and benefit from programmes such as AIMS and Erasmus, and the world of higher education would be all the richer for them – the sort of student exchanges and intercultural experience that technology still cannot replicate, pre- or post-COVID.
Finally, with the travel restrictions and general uncertainties relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is strong potential for a rise in student mobility within Asia, with countries such as China and Malaysia potentially competing with English-speaking countries for students.
At the onset of COVID-19 in Europe, Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford, offered the prediction that East Asia will emerge as a regional hub for international student mobility.
In turn, this might have the effect of spurring a country like the UK to maintain its status as a member of the Erasmus programme, which has been under threat in the ongoing Brexit talks at the time of writing. Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister who is also the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, has recently led calls for the UK to remain a part of the Erasmus programme. More than half of British students who study abroad do so under the Erasmus programme, yet it is not currently being factored into the Brexit negotiations. Brown had pointed out that economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis required a sharp focus on maintaining and supporting pathways to business, scientific and academic cooperation.
The rationale for regional student mobility programmes today remain, particularly as COVID-19 has begun to put the brakes on globalisation trends in higher education. It also makes possible the kind of student exchanges and intercultural experience that technology still cannot – and should not – replicate.
LOKE HOE YEONG
Loke Hoe Yeong is Editor of Higher Education in Southeast Asia and Beyond (HESB).