Originally designed as a tripartite pilot programme, what is today the Asian International Mobility for Students (AIMS) programme began life as the Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand (M-I-T) student mobility pilot project in 2009. Today, nine countries and over 70 universities participate in the programme.
In this concluding article to this issue of HESB, we situate student mobility programmes within the larger aims of internationalisation in the ASEAN context, the implications of student mobility beyond education, and we propose some perspectives for addressing gaps in student mobility opportunities in the COVID-19 ‘new normal’.
Student Mobility and the Larger Aims of Internationalisation
While laudable, the AIMS programme of student mobility is but one component of a larger internationalisation strategy for ASEAN and Asian universities. Indeed, the stated objective of the AIMS programme, as expressed in the latest edition of its handbook, is to “contribute to the internationalisation of higher education in the region.”
The July 2018 special issue of HESB focused on the university internationalisation project in which various policy challenges and opportunities around internationalisation were explored. The project examined the institutional policies and initiatives for internationalisation with regard to academic programmes, research, governance and leadership. It also sought to determine the extent to which institutions accommodate internationalisation policies and initiatives with local knowledge, capital, systems, identities and cultures.
That HESB special issue surfaced the realisation that countries as diverse as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand all had some level of ambition to be international or regional educational hubs, whether that impulse came from government or the institutes of higher education. In discussing the Malaysian case, Hazri Jamil, Wan Chang Da and Ooi Poh Ling explained how the Malaysia Education Blueprint (Higher Education) 2015–2025 (MEBHE) encapsulates the aspiration to establish Malaysia as an international education hub that is valued by students for its “competitive advantage in providing value-for-money higher education — that balances quality and affordability with the added value of rich cultural experiences.”
Yet the 2018 British Council report “Shape of Global Higher Education: Understanding the ASEAN Region” noted that while student mobility has been important to institutes of higher education, it had not been its defining feature in ASEAN as it is in many other parts of the world. While mobility is important in the ASEAN region, it has sat alongside the development of academic talents as the core part of this ASEAN-centric approach to the institutes of higher education.
For most students, the primary motivation to pursue an overseas education is to expose themselves to new and innovative ideas in their area of study and expand their employment opportunities. As the articles in this issue have demonstrated, the benefits can extend beyond one’s field of study.
Through the leadership of SEAMEO RIHED, the ASEAN Secretariat and other regional organisations, significant resources have been devoted to fostering a sense of camaraderie and friendship among Southeast Asian countries, and between the region and her neighbours. Countries within a region as culturally diverse as ASEAN stand to benefit greatly from student mobility programmes, such as AIMS, which provide a potentially powerful platform for bridging these different cultures.. Beyond providing a quality education, mobility programmes allow students to immerse themselves for an extended period in the culture and practices of their host country. This deeper understanding of the culture and practices of others, particularly among ASEAN’s youth, bodes well for regional integration and cooperation.
A prolonged decline in birth rates in economies such as Japan has resulted in serious labour shortfalls, that could potentially stymie economic growth – or at least as classical economic theory would posit. Student mobility programmes like AIMS provide these countries a pathway towards attracting talented international students to consider staying on and contributing to the local economy. Beyond mobility programmes, countries such as Singapore offer attractive scholarships to exemplary international students keen to enrol in local universities. Most such scholarships, in Singapore, require the recipients to stay on and work for at least three years upon the completion of their studies. Beyond being a potential source of talent to mitigate the effects of declining birth rates, student mobility programmes give countries a way to project soft power.
It would not be wise for smaller countries – as most SEAMEO member states are – to project global presence through military might. Their relatively small physical and population sizes will make such an endeavour costly and ineffective. As many larger countries begin to deglobalise and pay less regard to multilateral institutions, smaller countries have to find ways to project their importance and maintain their relevance. Quality higher education is certainly one such way. Inclusive and internationalised higher education allows smaller nations such as Singapore and Cambodia to project a ‘larger than life’ global presence.
Mobility in the ‘New Normal’
COVID-19 has disrupted most facets of our lives including education. Lockdowns have resulted in many schools and institutes of higher learning (IHE) being forced to cancel physical classes, and in many cases move them online. Even as restrictions are eased, international travel is still tightly controlled, with many nations keeping their borders closed to non-residents. Over the last few months, these restrictions have forced IHEs to embrace new modalities of education, such as blended learning: we expect this and other modalities to stay after the pandemic.
Is student mobility doomed in the COVID-19 ‘new normal’, or at least in the next foreseeable few years, during which about half a generation of students would have lost out on international mobility opportunities?
Here, the prescriptions related to “internationalisation-at-home”, as discussed in HESB 4 (July 2018) earlier, may provide some inspiration. Conceived to widen the benefits of internationalisation for students, and with cost constraints both for students and institutions alike, the idea behind “internationalisation-at-home” is for institutions to increase the proportion of international students and diversify the list of their countries of origin.
Hazri Jamil, Director of the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN) Malaysia, and others have noted the additional financial burden for students on top of their tuition fees – particularly for those in private universities – in being able to go abroad to gain overseas experience. Seen in this light, “internationalisation-at-home” is then a “set of instruments and activities for developing international and intercultural competences among all students within the home country.”
The corollary for students and universities is that there continues to be opportunities to gain international exposure – the ultimate aim of student mobility programmes – where the possibilities of student mobility per se are severely curtailed because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions. This does not have to come in the form of student exchanges and mobility programmes as we know them, but may require a more concerted push to design programmes, attachments and internships in international companies and organisations in the home country.
S. Gopinathan is Academic Advisor, The HEAD Foundation.
Vignesh Naidu is Director, Operations, The HEAD Foundation.
LOKE HOE YEONG
Loke Hoe Yeong is Editor of Higher Education in Southeast Asia and Beyond (HESB).