This article discusses the impact of regional education cooperation in enhancing the quality, accessibility, internationalisation and harmonisation of higher education system and institutions. It consists of five segments: 1) education quality, accessibility, internationalisation and harmonisation as regional goals; 2) the views of regional bodies and their member states; 3) current efforts; 4) challenges; and 5) future directions.
Quality, accessibility, internationalisation and harmonisation as regional goals
Quality, accessibility, internationalisation and harmonisation are the focuses of regional education cooperation. The ASEAN Work Plan on Education 2021–2025, the Roadmap on the ASEAN Higher Education Space 2025, the SEAMEO 7 Priority Areas and UN SDG4 clearly emphasise the significance of education quality, accessibility, internationalisation and harmonisation at every level.
The goals are to equip learners with necessary competencies, promote lifelong learning by addressing barriers to inclusion, and support regional connectivity through more comparable and compatible education systems. Not only are these goals regional education aspirations, they are also the foundation of the ASEAN Community and regional development, particularly in enhancing economic competitiveness and reducing the development gap within the region.
What are we talking about when we talk about quality, accessibility, internationalisation and harmonisation?
This relates to how ASEAN, SEAMEO and each individual country in the region perceive quality, accessibility, internationalisation and harmonisation. The discourse surrounding higher education quality has gradually shifted from exceptionalism, elitism and excellence to how the higher education sector develops and enhances learners’ competencies, as well as serves specific purposes. This changing discourse reflects critical issues including stakeholders’ expectations, skills gaps and the diversity of higher education institutions. The aims are to ensure learner employability and workforce productivity, and workers’ ability to keep pace with future jobs, changing labour markets and the advancement of technology.
Lifelong learning has emerged as the focal point of the discourse around accessibility. This expands the meaning of accessibility in two aspects: 1) groups of learners; and 2) access, retention and completion. First, the higher education sector is expected to provide education and training to both traditional-age and non-traditional age learners. Second, the higher education sector needs to tailor education and training provision to ensure that learners are retained and are able to complete their studies and training at their own pace. Hence, flexible education and training systems and supporting mechanisms are priorities in the region.
Unlike quality and accessibility, the discourse surrounding internationalisation and harmonisation remains intact. These are the processes aiming to recognise higher education diversity, ensure comparability and compatibility among different higher education systems, and promote common guidelines and practices for cooperation. The mechanisms are cross-border student and faculty mobility, mutual credit and degree recognition, and lifelong learning
What are we doing to achieve the goals?
The countries in South East Asia, ASEAN and SEAMEO and their dialogue partners, including the Plus Tree countries and the European Union, have been working diligently and collaboratively to achieve the aforementioned goals. The efforts include dialogue, leadership enhancement, and system and programme development.
First, dialogue refers to discussion platforms and networks that operate at bilateral and multilateral levels. The aim is to create mutual understanding on policy issues, enable a cooperation framework and implementation process, share information and practices, and review the implementation and outputs of agreed initiatives. Hence, dialogues serve as a regional think tank, a monitoring mechanism and a community of practice. In addition, they provide opportunities for policy makers, experts and scholars in the region to meet and build an amicable atmosphere for regional cooperation.
The notable multilateral dialogues in the region are the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) and the SEAMEO High Officials Meeting (HOM). Although higher education is discussed in ASEAN SOM and SEAMEO HOM, where the focuses are likely to be on basic and vocational and technical education. To complement the ASEAN SOM and SEAMEO HOM and highlight the significance of higher education, the SEAMEO Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (RIHED) created a Southeast Asian Higher Education Senior Officials Meeting (SEA-HiEd SOM) to serve as a regional higher education dialogue. In addition, ASEAN and the European Union include a Policy Dialogue under the SHARE Program.
Apart from the dialogue at the government level there are a number of networks that serve as dialogues for specific purposes, for instance the ASEAN University Network, the ASEAN Citation Index (ACI), the ASEAN Cyber University, the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network (AQAN) and ASEAN Qualification Reference Framework (AQRF).
Second, cooperation in leadership enhancement is a key part of enhancing quality, accessibility, internationalisation and harmonisation. Leadership is crucial for the higher education sector in general and institutions in particular, particularly in ensuring good governance, addressing challenges and uncertainty, and supporting regional, national and institutional policy initiatives. SEAMEO RIHED has promoted and implemented leadership enhancement programmes for decades through a number of projects, including the Greater Mekong Sub-region University Consortium (GMS-UC) and Horizon Southeast Asia.
Finally, system and programme development efforts involve regional cooperation in quality assurance and qualification recognition, credit transfer schemes, and student and faculty mobility. Higher education systems in Southeast Asia are diverse in terms of their level of development, degree structure and management. To ensure comparability and compatibility, ASEAN, SEAMEO and member states have initiated and implemented the AQAN and the AQRF, credit transfer schemes and student mobility programmes.
The AQAN and AQRF aim to create reference points, connecting and promoting comparability and compatibility among different quality assurance systems and qualifications frameworks. In addition, both networks provide assistance and support to countries without existing quality assurance and qualifications framework in place. Credit transfer schemes facilitate student mobility and regional connectivity; existing systems include the AUN-ASEAN Credit Transfer System (ACTS), the ASEAN-EU Credit Transfer System (AECTS) and the UMAP Credit Transfer Scheme, as well as credit transfer systems under bilateral institutional agreements.
Student mobility programmes serve three important purposes. First and foremost, they help to cultivate learners’ competencies, particularly foreign language proficiency, intercultural awareness, self-reliance skills and so on. Second, they offer a testing platform for the AQAN, AQRF and regional credit transfer schemes. Finally, they are an opportunity for participating institutions to boost their visibility and reputation at regional and global levels. The most notable programmes are the Asian International Mobility for Students (AIMS) programme and the SHARE Scholarships Program. In addition there are national government scholarship programmes, for instance Singapore’s ASEAN Scholarship Programme and the Thailand Scholarships Programme.
Does all we have done really help?
We cannot deny that ASEAN, SEAMEO and the countries in Southeast Asia are working tirelessly to enhance the quality, accessibility, internationalisation and harmonisation of higher education in the region. However, the results and impacts of different programmes vary. The dialogues and student mobility programmes are among the most successful if we consider their tangible results. The dialogues under the SEAMEO framework resulted in the creation of the AIMS programme, AQAN and ACI. The ASEAN SOM and ASEAN and dialogue partner platforms have initiated regional education work plans and the SHARE programme.
Thousands of students and approximately a hundred institutions have participated in the AIMS programme and the SHARE scholarship programme. Apart from developing participating students, these provide opportunities for local students and staff to interact with foreign students, and encourage participating institutions to upgrade their facilities, teaching and learning approaches and credit and qualifications systems. The programmes also result in intra- and inter-regional credit transfer and qualifications recognition.
The AQAN and AQRF have been successful in launching regional guidelines. However, ASEAN member states still have reservations about connecting their systems to regional ones. Likewise, regional credit transfer schemes have not exactly been embraced by higher education institutions; most intra-regional credit transfers happen under bilateral agreements between higher education institutions.
Challenges and future directions
The challenges of regional higher education cooperation lie not in a lack of effort or willingness on the part of ASEAN, SEAMEO and countries in the region. The critical issue is how the region addresses the pre-existing context and builds on current successes. The implementation of regional initiatives is slowed down by the pre-existing context, including diversity in higher education systems, ASEAN and SEAMEO structures and limited budget. There is no easy fix for this, but we can start by promoting closer collaboration between ASEAN and SEAMEO, focusing on reducing redundancy in their roles, scopes of work and projects.
Although student mobility programmes have yield fruitful and tangible results, the numbers of participating students and institutions are very limited. The expansion of these programmes requires policy and financial commitments from both governments and higher education institutions. Hence, ASEAN, SEAMEO and participating countries may wish to explore alternative approaches to promote inclusivity in mobility programmes, for instance by facilitating online and hybrid mobility and shorter-term mobility.
Somkiat Kamolpun is Minister Counsellor (Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation), Office of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation, Royal Thai Embassy, Brussels.