Higher Education in ASEAN:
Since the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967, human resource development has been one of the key areas for collaboration. Especially with the expansion of ASEAN Member States in the 1990s and the increased focus on regional integration related to the establishment of the ASEAN Community, the renewed focus on higher education is clear. The ASEAN higher education agenda has shifted from cooperation to collaboration, and ultimately to regional integration and in support of the ASEAN community-building project.
In my chapter ‘Changing Higher Education Discourse in the Making of the ASEAN Region’, I have traced key developments in ASEAN and argued that since as early as 1977 ASEAN’s role in higher education has included supporting regional economic integration and community-building, initially framed within manpower planning and development objectives and eventually by economic regionalism with the establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS) in the 1990s. AFTA and AFAS facilitated regional economic integration and mobility of goods and services, with the latter addressing issues of recognition of qualifications and mobility of professionals, labour and services in the region.
Human resource development, including higher education, is clearly one of ASEAN’s key strategies supporting regional economic integration and development. It addresses key challenges including employment generation, poverty alleviation, narrowing socio-economic disparities and ensuring equitable growth through investment in education, training and development in science and technology. ASEAN reached a consensus on the benefits of and necessity for higher education cooperation, including the need to produce highly qualified graduates, to ensure competitiveness and the sustainable development of the region and to develop a regional knowledge-based economy.
The developments leading to the establishment of the ASEAN Community in 2015 also influenced the role of higher education in ASEAN. The influence of the ASEAN Vision 2020, the Declaration of ASEAN Concord II, and the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 shifted the role of higher education to contribute to the ASEAN Community’s three pillars (ASEAN Economic Community, ASEAN Socio-cultural Community, and ASEAN Political-Security Community); this is clearly presented in the 2015 Kuala Lumpur Declaration on higher education. Starting with the ASEAN Workplan on Education 2011–2015, there has been a focus on promoting ASEAN awareness, increasing the quality of education performance, standards, lifelong learning and professional development, cross-border mobility and the internationalisation of education, and supporting other sectoral bodies with an interest in education. The ASEAN Workplan on Education 2021–2025’s outcome for higher education is stated as “Enhanced regional capacity in higher education as part of lifelong learning provision, including the harmonization of ASEAN higher education’, which leads us to ask what sort of higher education partnership should be pursued in the Southeast Asian region.
The Need for Inclusive Complementary Higher Education Partnership
Discussions of the regionalisation of higher education in Southeast Asia started with SEAMEO RIHED developing and implementing the ‘Harmonizing Credit Transfer in GMS and Beyond’ project in 2008, and subsequently the Asian International Mobility for Students (AIMS) programme and the Academic Credit Transfer Framework for Asia, to name only a few. ASEAN’s key momentum in higher education regionalisation started with the 2015 Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Higher Education, which involved the European Union establishing the European Union Support for Higher Education in the ASEAN Region (EU-SHARE) programme in 2015 to enhance the capacity and development of ASEAN higher education guided by the development and experience of the European Higher Education Area. The establishment of the ASEAN University Network and their ongoing initiatives on higher education cooperation also contributes to higher education regionalisation in Southeast Asia.
The establishment of the ASEAN Working Group on Higher Education Mobility in July 2021, through the support of the SHARE programme, and the development and launch of the Roadmap on the ASEAN Higher Education Space 2025 and its implementation plan are important steps to advance higher education regionalisation in ASEAN. However, it should be noted that SEAMEO and SEAMEO RIHED have also been undertaking initiatives to harmonise Southeast Asian higher education. Furthermore, there is a need to ensure the inclusive participation of various international and regional organisations working on higher education in Southeast Asia, and key stakeholders including higher education institutions, their management and students in the establishment of a common higher education space in Southeast Asia.
The launch of the Roadmap on the ASEAN Higher Education Space 2025 in Hanoi provided the opportunity for representatives of the ASEAN Working Group on Higher Education Mobility, the ASEAN Secretariat, SEAMEO RIHED, and various international and regional organisations (e.g. the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, the Asia-Europe Foundation, the HEAD Foundation) and key stakeholders (e.g. the SHARE Community of Practice on Higher Education, Students and Alumni) to discuss their communal vision, and work out how to implement a Common Higher Education Space in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the ASEAN and SEAMEO Secretariats and SEAMEO RIHED also discussed the possibility of developing a joint declaration on a Common Space for Higher Education in Southeast Asia with a mandate from our Ministers of Education, in order to enhance collaboration between ASEAN and SEAMEO. The development of this Joint Declaration and eventually a strategic plan of action should ensure the complementarity of ASEAN and SEAMEO higher education initiatives as the region develops a Common Space for Southeast Asian Higher Education.
However, the need to ensure the inclusiveness and complementarity of higher education initiatives, particularly the development of the Common Space for Southeast Asian Higher Education, should go beyond ASEAN and SEAMEO. There is a need to include international and regional organisations who are working within the field of Southeast Asian higher education, and also to include the voices of key higher education stakeholders, particularly higher education management, faculty, researchers, and students and alumni, since the development of a Common Space for Southeast Asian Higher Education directly affects them as well as the entire Southeast Asian region and its population.
Transforming Higher Education Through Higher Education Partnerships
Framing this article within recent education dialogues, the Transforming Education Summit held in New York in September 2022 highlighted the need for education systems, including higher education, to adapt to the shifting skills needed professionally, making learning more student-centred, connected, dynamic, inclusive and collaborative, and reaffirmed the important role of teachers in transforming education. The UNESCO World Higher Education Conference in May 2022 urgently called for substantive changes requiring the involvement of all higher education stakeholders. These changes focus on enhancing inclusiveness and equity, adopting a lifelong learning perspective within higher education, and offering pedagogically informed and technologically enriched higher education learning experiences.
Both of these fora clearly articulated their acknowledgement of the learning crisis and the need to utilise digital technology to transform education (and higher education) systems, along with a recognition that business as usual is not enough. Innovative and creative approaches need to be initiated and inclusive, equitable and complementary higher education partnerships are necessary, involving all the key higher education stakeholders in Southeast Asian higher education. The establishment of a Common Space for Southeast Asian Higher Education, with the inclusive participation of key stakeholders in governing and directing programmes and initiatives including regional quality assurance, recognition and mobility mechanisms, may be the exact approach that is needed in the Southeast Asian region.
ROGER Y. CHAO JR
Roger Y. Chao Jr., PhD, is Assistant Director/Head of Education Youth & Sports, ASEAN Secretariat.