Implementing the new people-focused 2025 roadmap will require even stronger intra-ASEAN synergy and coordination. Significantly, it also opens up new avenues of cooperation with foreign partners, including the European Union, which – given its own economic and political integration efforts – is often held up as an inspiration for ASEAN.
EU-ASEAN cooperation has already moved up several gears. EU foreign ministers agreed in 2015 to lift the current partnership to a “strategic level”. The EU’s first-ever ambassador accredited to ASEAN has started working closely with the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. And according to EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, in addition to EU negotiations on free trade agreements with individual ASEAN members, talks on a region-to-region EU-ASEAN free trade agreement could also restart soon.
The new initiatives add to an already full EU-ASEAN cooperation agenda. The 2012 Brunei Action Plan commits ASEAN and the EU to increased political, security, economic and socio-cultural cooperation. Today, ASEAN and the EU are connected through an array of initiatives and projects which cover questions such as climate change, food security, disaster management and customs cooperation.
The focus of the ASEAN 2025 agenda on people, further regional integration and building competitiveness also puts education high on the list of priorities. Interestingly, the new blueprint therefore sets out additional ways in which ASEAN and the EU can work together to promote the development of ASEAN’s higher education sector.
In fact, this has already begun. Building on the EU’s Erasmus student exchange programme, “Erasmus+” offers mobility opportunities for Asian students and teachers, notably in higher education. And in addition to "Erasmus+", under a €10 million project called “EU Support to Higher Education in ASEAN Region (SHARE[i])”, the EU is working with ASEAN to increase student mobility by helping to harmonise the recognition systems between higher education institutions in ASEAN.
Viewed as an important part of EU’s socio-cultural support for ASEAN, the project seeks to help build ASEAN higher education frameworks by sharing Europe’s experience in constructing its own Higher Education Area.
The aim is to improve the comparability of university qualifications and make it easier for students to transfer credits obtained at one university to another through the development of what are called Qualifications Frameworks, Quality Assurance systems and Credit Transfer systems. The EU and ASEAN have tasked Europe’s four major academic exchange agencies to implement SHARE: the British Council, Campus France, Germany's DAAD and EP-Nuffic from the Netherlands. Further support is provided by two specialised Brussels-based organisations, the European University Association (EUA) and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA).
Around half of the project funds will be devoted to student mobility within ASEAN, thus contributing directly to ASEAN people-to-people connectivity and increased regional cooperation. In addition, the quality, competitiveness and internationalisation of ASEAN higher education institutions will also be enhanced.
Compare and contrast
ASEAN’s work on constructing a harmonised higher education sector through comparable academic degrees, measures to ensure more transparency of content in degree programmes and increased mobility for students to better prepare them for the labour market, is very similar to the EU’s own efforts to build a European Higher Education Area. ASEAN is therefore looking at the successes and weaknesses of Europe’s experience in the sector.
The focus is on Europe’s well-known Bologna Process, a collective and voluntary effort undertaken by European public authorities, universities, teachers and students, together with stakeholder associations, employers, quality assurance agencies, international organisations and institutions including the European Commission to improve the harmonisation of national education and training systems in the EU.
Based on the premise that widely-differing education and training systems in Europe have traditionally made it hard for Europeans to use qualifications from one country to apply for a job or a course in another, the Bologna initiative aims to increase compatibility between national education systems in order to make it easier for students and job seekers to move within Europe.
The emphasis is also on reforms to help make European universities and colleges more competitive and attractive to the rest of the world. The Bologna Process therefore supports the modernisation of education and training systems to make sure these meet the needs of a changing labour market. This is important as the proportion of jobs requiring high skills grows, and the demand for innovation and entrepreneurship increases. The main political goal is to build a “Europe of Knowledge”. Greater compatibility and comparability of higher education systems and enhanced international competitiveness remain key challenges. At the moment, under the exercise, 47 systems with different political, cultural, and academic traditions cooperate on the basis of common commitments.
Does the Bologna Process have any lessons for ASEAN? In talks held in Brussels, Ghent and Bonn last October, a team of ASEAN higher education specialists, including representatives of universities and students, accreditation agencies, education ministries as well as the ASEAN Secretariat and senior officials, discussed many details of the Bologna Process in a bid to see just how applicable the European instruments and tools were to ASEAN’s efforts at deeper integration. The discussion focused on how respective structures, mechanisms, and tools were developed, modified and established over time.
In fact, while some of the terms under discussion may seem very technical, universities in Europe – and in ASEAN – are undergoing an important transformation. The talk of “qualifications frameworks” is a case in point. Prior to the Bologna reform, course content was primarily determined by what universities expected students to know by the time they graduated. With the reform now in place, there is a stronger focus on learning outcomes – knowledge, skills and competence – that students should acquire during their degree programme, i.e. reading comprehension, ability to analyse and solve problems and think creatively. These outcomes are linked with qualifications frameworks. For universities, this can be equivalent to a cultural revolution.
In the area of quality assurance, the SHARE project aims to provide support to ASEAN partners as they develop regional standards and guidelines, and anchor these at the national level through dialogue and training measures. By involving various organisations and interest groups, the goal is to promote a general understanding of the quality of instruction and strengthen the corresponding quality assurance structures.
Defining an Asian approach
European efforts to standardise procedures in higher education were financially demanding and required extensive time and resources. All participants of the Bologna Process were forced to make compromises. And getting the student bodies involved in the process was vitally important. Today, the main concerns of European universities are demographic change, the impact of economic crisis, increasing student numbers, more diverse participation, internationalisation, and information and communication technologies.
Still, it’s not about replication of systems. Although both ASEAN and the EU are confronted by similar challenges in enhancing regional mobility and facing up to a more competitive global environment, they have different histories and governance structures. Development gaps within ASEAN are a specific challenge. Also, ASEAN harmonisation developments include technical and vocational training (TVET). Both regions are confronted with a diversity of education systems and gaps in capacity building.
In addition, ASEAN faces the challenge of enhancing stakeholders’ public awareness and involvement, especially of students, and it needs to add an international dimension to its work (comparability of ASEAN standards with international standards). Standards must be common and applied consistently, while at the same time, they have to reflect and respect cultural diversity and diversity of education systems. Student participation is crucial.
Such policy exchanges and dialogues will be continued throughout the SHARE project, which ends in early 2019. The next policy dialogue will deal specifically with degree structures and will take place in Bangkok in February 2016.
Europe’s experience is that building stronger connections between universities, students and academics is part of the complex task of bringing people together. As ASEAN seeks to enhance its own people-to-people connectivity, cooperation in the higher education sector looks set to become an ever-more important element of EU-ASEAN cooperation in the coming years.
Who are the partners and what are they going to deliver?
A consortium led by British Council, comprising the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), EP-Nuffic, Campus France, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and the European University Association (EUA) will be working between 2015 and 2019 with ASEAN counterparts in the areas of policy dialogue, quality assurance, qualifications frameworks, credit transfer and student mobility, thereby covering the entire scope of regional higher education cooperation.
[i] SHARE is an EU Grant funded project with an overarching objective to strengthen regional cooperation, enhance the quality, competitiveness and internationalisation of ASEAN higher education institutions and students, contributing to an ASEAN Community beyond 2015. SHARE will further enhance cooperation between the EU and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and create lasting benefits from the harmonisation of higher education across ASEAN.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Prachatai