Education ministers seek greater regional HE connectivity


Education ministers from Asia and Europe have agreed to increase and enhance balanced mobility of students, researchers and staff between the two regions, with the global pandemic providing the impetus for new forms of mobility including virtual and ‘hybrid’ exchanges based on newer themes such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The need to continue inter-regional higher education connectivity despite two years of travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic was part of the push by ministers at the eighth ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) Education Ministers’ Meeting – ASEMME8 – hosted online by Thailand’s Minister of Education, Treenuch Thienthong, on 15 December to inject new momentum into higher education cooperation between the two regions.

Around 120 ministers and senior officials from 50 countries took part including the 27-member European Union and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as university groups, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders.

ASEMME has been held every two years since 2008 to monitor the progress of cooperation in higher education between Asia and Europe, but for the first time ministers also endorsed longer-term goals outlined in the ASEM Education Strategy and Action Plan 2030, which Treenuch described as “a new dawn for our cooperation”.

“During the past two years, global challenges and the COVID-19 crisis have put education and training systems under increased pressure. This calls for a joint effort to pool resources, identify areas of possible cooperation and strengthen ties with education partners and stakeholders to enable us to respond to the needs of education for the next decade,” Treenuch said.

Thai officials described the Education Strategy to 2030 as “a compass” for inter-regional cooperation, focusing on four main goals: balanced mobility and exchanges between Asia and Europe; quality assurance and accreditation of educational qualifications; promoting education links with business and industry; and lifelong learning, including in technical and vocational education.

Student, academic and researcher mobility as well as qualification recognition have always been key goals of the ASEM higher education process, with the need for qualification recognition to build trust in different national systems, “to promote attractiveness, transparency, comparability and permeability of each system”, according to ASEMME8 documents.

“The ministers want to maintain the momentum of what they created many years ago which has been badly hit by the pandemic in the past two years,” Choltis Dhirathiti, executive director of the ASEAN Universities Network (AUN), under the ASEAN Secretariat in Bangkok, told University World News after the meeting.

While some have described the Strategy to 2030 as somewhat vague and a “shopping list” of higher education cooperation initiatives, many of them currently carried out on a national rather than regional or interregional level, Dhirathiti explained that it was the nature of the policy area “that they keep it vague; a wish list but with good intentions, because they realise that for change or education reform, it must be gradually done. It cannot jump too fast.”

Others said there was a need for multilateral cooperation in higher education to be boosted, at a time when it appeared to be faltering, in part due to the pandemic when governments had different, more immediate domestic priorities – a trend noted in other sectors, not just higher education.

For example, as Belgium ends its turn hosting the rotating ASEM Secretariat, no member state has come forward to take over, which many officials said could even jeopardise the implementation of ASEM initiatives and the Education Strategy to 2030.

According to the ASEMME8 chair conclusions, ministers stressed that “education is an important focus of multilateral cooperation”, and that cooperation was underpinned by “strengthening exchange and cooperation in education, especially higher education”.

Long-term strategy and action plan

“The development of the ASEM Education Strategy and Action Plan 2030 shall serve as a roadmap and ensure the continued commitment of all ASEM education stakeholders for the next decade – ministries of education and government institutions, higher education and training institutions, university and student associations,” Leonie Nagarajan, director of the education department at the Singapore-based Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), told University World News.

“It is worthy of note that many initiatives in the ASEM Action Plan 2030 are proposed by civil society institutions, which shows their increasing interest and influence in the ASEM Education Process,” Nagarajan indicated, saying she hoped ASEM would back stronger multilateral, cross-regional cooperation in higher education “with relevant policies and financial support”.

The long list of different initiatives lauded by ministers at the conference reflected ASEM as an informal yet umbrella process, according to Thérèse Zhang, deputy director for higher education policy at the European University Association (EUA) in Brussels. The EUA was part of the working group that drafted the ASEM Strategy to 2030.

“The overall awareness that these challenges are global has grown since the beginning of this [drafting] process,” she told University World News, noting that drafting work started before the pandemic.

“It [the pandemic] came at a critical moment. It allowed this strategy, thinking and drafting process to pause. We recognised the crisis is global and with so much in common in terms of global issues and important issues related to education, learning, teaching and research, we recognised even more how important it is to emphasise interconnectedness,” she said.

Balanced, inclusive mobility

The flagship ASEM-DUO Fellowship Programme promotes balanced mobility of students, researchers and academics between Asia and Europe through nine programmes. It has benefited around 200 participants a year since 2000 and is regarded as one of the most successful initiatives within the ASEM process.

During 2020-21, 332 students and professors were selected, while in 2021-22, 174 are to be supported. With India and Germany joining in the past two years, the programme “is expected to support about 250 pairs of awardees every year until 2025” and this will increase to 300 pairs by 2030, according to ASEMME8 documents.

With student exchanges and mobility still at the heart of the ASEM Education Process, new forms of ‘mobility’ are being put in place or are accelerating because of the pandemic.

European University Association (EUA) President Michael Murphy said during the 13-14 December ASEM senior officials’ meeting that preceded ASEMME8: “While the pandemic has upended traditional international exchanges, most notably mobility flows, it has also stimulated rethinking of internationalisation mobility – to be more sustainable, environmentally friendly and more egalitarian, building on the opportunities of digitalisation.”

He added: “Indeed, if predictions for growth in virtual mobility prove correct, pressure to accelerate inter-regional recognition of qualifications and prior learning will grow proportionately.”

Before COVID-19, Asia-Europe mobility and exchanges were regionally unbalanced. Asian students accounted for 54% of globally mobile students, but Asian countries only hosted 13% of globally mobile students. In contrast, Europe has been the destination of 46% of globally mobile students, according to ASEMME8 documents.

“The global pandemic has caused a drastic change of focus – away from an emphasis on mobility numbers to different methodologies and education content that could enhance international mobility and exchanges,” said ASEF Executive Director Toru Morikawa, addressing ministers.

Virtual or blended mobility means new types of exchanges “including new types and forms of delivery to include educators and learners in different locations, time zones and backgrounds”, Morikawa added.

He noted that inclusive and balanced mobility had many dimensions. “Next to issues such as geographical balance and the engagement of stakeholders of diverse backgrounds, inclusive and balanced mobility also touches on aspects such as learning outcomes and recognition, an in-depth intercultural exchange characterised by mutual understanding and respect,” he added.

With the pandemic accelerating the shift to online, ASEM is setting up a network of MOOCs (massive open online courses) – with India expected to join the network – and has made ministers more aware of the need for recognition and accreditation of these types of qualifications and micro-credentials.

The pause in exchanges has also provided breathing space to devise ways to make exchanges and mobility more inclusive and diverse. “ASEM aims for the next decade to include exchange opportunities for all”, and to “harness the full potential of digital and new communication tools to foster a more equitable access to mobility and exchange opportunities, as well as to policy and funding support,” ASEMME8 documents said.

“ASEM education partners and stakeholders acknowledge that physical mobility remains the main focus because it gives students a broad international learning experience,” according to the documents. “At the same time, virtual mobility and exchanges are complementary to physical mobility as they open up interesting and additional avenues for international collaboration.”

Documents pointed to the pilot Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) initiative run by Aschaffenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany and the University of Malaya in Malaysia.

Sustainable development exchanges

ASEM has also been developing new exchanges around sustainable development, including among others an initiative by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development with EU-SHARE – the EU’s support for higher education in ASEAN initiative – to launch the SEA-EU Mobility for Sustainable Development Programme and virtual exchanges in the form of online workshops.

The ASEM Strategy 2030 paper noted that ASEM will support education for sustainable development “as the foundation for the required transformation, providing everyone with the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to become change agents for sustainable development”, contributing to SDG target 4.7.

“The approaching deadline of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals provides a new momentum, with regional and interregional exchanges as an important additional strategic means to be explored”, according to a joint statement by the EUA, AUN and International Association of Universities in advance of the meeting.

The statement added that the long-term investment represented by the ASEM Education Process had the “potential to generate significant benefits for the education and research sectors, as well as for societies and economies”.

Thailand’s Education Minister Treenuch noted that the ASEMME8 meeting “has generated new ideas and explored ways to link the ASEM Education Process and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development so that education will be used for developing responsible citizenship, economic prosperity and the resilience of society”.

“COVID-19 has reversed decades of progress and the world is not on track to achieve many human-development related Sustainable Development Goals,” Suphat Champathong, permanent secretary of Thailand’s ministry of education, noted at the senior officials’ meeting that preceded ASEMME8.

“In the ASEAN region a lot of universities have been doing this on sustainability issues for many years but they don’t call it sustainability – it is ingrained in their culture that the university must serve and protect the community and the environment, also to protect the livelihood of the people that the university is dealing with,” explained AUN’s Dhirathiti pointing to a gap in understanding on sustainability between Europe on the one hand and Southeast Asia on the other.

“ASEAN’s youth volunteering programme within the region aims to do this – to go into the community to expose students to this kind of environmental protection. Now they are moving towards including some students from the EU attached to this kind of voluntary programme,” Dhirathiti said. “When we get over the [COVID-19] travel restrictions, I predict there will be more involvement by students from the EU.”

Ministers frequently talk about ‘balanced mobility’, with student exchanges heavily skewed towards Asian students going to Europe, he said. “It might be the case that they want balanced exchanges by relating it to sustainability issues.”

Another priority is work experience, with student mobility programmes being set up around this. “This is perhaps the number one priority for Southeast Asian governments – they are worried about how they can facilitate their graduates to learn continuously and adapt to the workplace with so-called 21st century skills, particularly when we are hit with the pandemic,” noted Dhirathiti.

ASEM ministers this week agreed on an intensified dialogue between education, business and industry within and between Asia and Europe and to remove obstacles to work placements across the two regions. They also pushed for experiences that combine professional competence development with intercultural learning.

This article is part of a series in collaboration with ASEF and EU-SHARE in the run-up to and including the ASEM Education Ministers’ Meeting in December 2021. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

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