The story of SEAMEO RIHED and the conception of the proposal for the harmonisation of higher education in Southeast Asia to create a common space for higher education in the region started almost 17 years ago. In 2005 I was appointed as a director of SEAMEO RIHED, and before joining SEAMEO RIHED I had served as the first executive director of the ASEAN University Network from 1997 to 2005. During my term at the AUN, the most challenging task was to promote collaboration among member universities in the network and between the member universities and others. This task included a consideration of student exchange, staff exchange, collaborative research, quality assurance, and other areas.
When institutions are engaged with these collaborative actions, one critical factor has always played an important role, namely the infrastructures within which higher education institutions in each country must operate and conform. The attention and authority of the ministers responsible for higher education and beyond were necessary to adjust these infrastructures. While the governing board of the AUN was comprised mainly of university presidents representing each member country, the governing board of SEAMEO RIHED was mainly made up of chief government officers representing the higher education sector of each member country. Therefore, the decisions made by the governing board of SEAMEO RIHED have more binding effects on the higher education sectors in each member country, and may be tabled at meetings of the ministers responsible for education in the member countries. Recognising the important role of SEAMEO RIHED, the pain point at the university network level was revisited and a proposal for creating a common space in higher education was gradually prepared.
After joining SEAMEO RIHED and learning about how the SEAMEO family worked, I realised there were at least two things to be done. The first was to create a governing body like a SEAMEO Higher Official Meeting (HOM) or ASEAN Senior Official Meeting to focus mainly on the higher education sector, and the second was to prepare a concept paper to be tabled at the SEAMEO Ministerial Meeting held once a year. With good support from the chief higher education officers of the SEAMEO member countries, especially Dr. Sumet Yamnoon from Thailand and Professor Emeritus Dato’ Dr. Hassan Said from Malaysia, a HOM for higher education was created for the first time, and through this HOM the conceptual idea of creating a higher education infrastructure to support inter-regional collaboration was initiated around 2007.
As far as I can recall, when we first initiated this conceptual idea the first word we coined was an ‘integration’ of the higher education systems. The word ‘integration’ was probably borrowed from the political science discipline, which uses the term ‘regional integration’ to refer to efforts to strengthen regional collaboration. We therefore simply applied the phrase ‘higher education integration’ without a full awareness of its meaning.
We first organised a meeting of the director generals/secretary generals responsible for higher education in Southeast Asia, or HOM for higher education, to meet and discuss the possibility of an integration of higher education in the region. The outcome was quite positive, and we therefore planned to submit our proposal on higher education integration in Southeast Asia for the consideration of the education ministers of the SEA countries. Before submitting the proposal, however, we had the opportunity to receive feedback from our SEAMEO chair, Professor Bambang Sudibyo, Indonesian Minister of Education at that time, when he paid a visit to our centre and listened to our presentation. Professor Sudibyo was a former chair of the Master of Economics programme at Gadja Mada University before joining the Indonesian political arena, and he was a true champion of fostering academic networking while he was at Gaja Mada University.
Professor Sudibyo was pleased with the proposed concept, but he commented that the word ‘integration’ might carry a negative connotation. Integration implies that those who enter the process must lose at least part of their own identity and must accept a new proposed identity. In the ASEAN region where each country has its own history, culture, traditions, national administrative and political system, as well as educational system, it might be ‘too much’ for a country to accept this process, and therefore ‘integration’ might not be the best word in this context. Professor Sudibyo asked us to consider other words that carried a more positive meaning. After this meeting we recognised that choosing the right word was critical to gain acceptance, especially from our political leaders. Without the leaders’ endorsement, it would be an uphill battle to start this new concept.
SEAMEO RIHED later submitted our proposal, ‘The structured framework for regional integration in higher education in SEA: The road towards a common space’, to the respective bodies and to the SEAMEO Council in 2007. The main objectives outlined in the proposal were to raise awareness among policymakers and high-ranking officials in the SEAMEO Member Countries of the the significance of an inter-governmental process leading to a regional framework for higher education integration and harmonisation, and to help facilitate the possible development and future establishment of a common space for higher education in Southeast Asia by 2015. We had started this journey by borrowing the word ‘integration’ from the political science discipline, but after advice from Professor Sudibyo we came up with the word ‘harmonisation’ and used the two words together in our proposal. We later dropped the word ‘integration’ and used only the word ‘harmonisation’.
From 2007 until I left SEAMEO RIHED in 2010, our efforts were focused on creating essential infrastructure including a quality assurance network, a credit transfer system, research collaboration and others. All these we learned about and adapted mainly from the experience of the European higher education common space. While pushing these initiatives we always echoed, again as in Europe, that the creation of a common space or higher education arena did not mean the creation of a uniform or standard higher education system; rather, the intention was to create general guidelines in areas such as quality assurance, credit transfer and so on. These general guidelines would help to enable student and staff mobility and facilitate a better flow of employability movement around the region, which would strengthen the regional economy in the long run.
As we proceeded we discovered that the national education systems in the region were quite diverse, and higher education was diverse as well. For example, while universities were under the ministry of education in most countries, in Thailand universities came under the ministry of university affairs, and in Myanmar some universities were under the ministry of education while others were under other ministries. In addition, in Vietnam most universities were under the ministry of education but the two premier universities; the Vietnam National University at Hanoi and the Vietnam National University at Ho Chi Minh city, were quite independent of the ministry of education. A clear understanding of the university system in each country was a prerequisite for understanding the landscape of higher education, as well as for moving the common space agenda forward. Also in terms of another important mechanism for the common space, the quality assurance system, when we started to create a platform for sharing information on quality assurance we noticed that while Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand had a national government body responsible for quality assurance, the Philippines’ QA system was modified from the US system with no respective body, while other countries were still in the process of creating their national body.
As time went by, persons responsible for higher education in the region came to know each other through a series of meetings and conferences. Sharing and learning gradually took place. The M-I-T student exchange project was a kind of sandbox project created not only to promote student exchanges but also to identify obstacles and find ways to facilitate the student mobility project. Obstacles and hindrances emerged through the after-action review activities, and there were some issues beyond the purview of the ministry responsible for higher education that needed the attention of national leaders.
After I left SEAMEO RIHED the story has continued up to the present day, and we are still discussing how to make this process more successful. In the early years of the harmonisation process, I was warned by our European colleagues that harmonisation would be a long complex process requiring the involvement of different key players at both the international and domestic levels, ranging from national governments, HEIs, and stakeholders such as the employment sector, students, regional organisations or industrial companies. However, the most important factor contributing to the success of the process of harmonisation in higher education has been participation and consensus-building at the level of national agencies, the public and key stakeholders.
At the time of writing in 2022 the process is still moving forward. However, I serve as a member of the university board of a few universities in Thailand, and I have noticed that the harmonisation process does not always receive significant attention on university agendas. SEAMEO RIHED and others concerned may have to be more aggressive in moving forward with this important agenda.
One final word: one must not commit the folly of Type II error which is to equate ‘integration’ with ‘harmonisation’, since to harmonise is not to integrate.
SUPACHAI YAVAPRABHAS, PHD, is Emeritus Professor at Chulalongkorn University, and a former Director of SEAMEO RIHED.