Southeast Asia to steer HE harmonisation process

Higher education in Southeast Asia has entered a new phase in its long journey towards regional harmonisation and the building of a common higher education space as regional bodies prepare to take over the steering of the project from 2023.

Until now the harmonisation process has been supported by the European Union through a special €15 million (US$15.8 million) programme known as EU Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN region (EU-SHARE). The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The EU-SHARE programme began in 2015 and acted as technical advisor to groups in the region to help build capacity, strengthen regional cooperation and improve internationalisation, drawing on its considerable experience in creating and sustaining a higher education area with the Bologna Process.

Harmonisation has been a long-term goal to promote internationalisation of universities in the region and increase both student and academic mobility within Asia, while also attracting international students from other regions through higher quality courses, credit transfer and other region-wide mechanisms.

Igor Driesmans, EU ambassador to ASEAN, said this week the EU-SHARE programme “made significant contributions to a harmonised higher education … and has contributed to the roadmap on the higher education space and various frameworks in the ASEAN higher education sector”.

“Harmonisation has been a long-term goal to promote internationalisation of universities in the region and increase both student and academic mobility within Asia, while also attracting international students from other regions through higher quality courses, credit transfer and other region-wide mechanisms.”

But with the EU-SHARE programme coming to an end at the end of this year, Southeast Asian ministries of education and the higher education sector in the region will steer the ambitious process alone, led by regional intergovernmental organisations – the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, and Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization’s Regional Centre specialising in Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO RIHED) in Bangkok.

Delegates acknowledge that after seven years of the EU-SHARE programme, there is more cohesion between major higher education organisations in the region and greater consensus on the way forward compared to even a few years ago.

“The major challenge was bringing all the stakeholders together because there were so many initiatives that had been carried out by many different partners. And it was quite difficult to bring them together,” said Rodora Barbaran, director of human development at the ASEAN Secretariat, representing the ASEAN Working Group on Higher Education Mobility.

Collective achievements

Barbaran told delegates at the 6 December EU-SHARE closing ceremony in Jakarta that when the programme started “we were just expressing our ambitions, looking after the model that the EU has developed for so many years, so many decades – one is the Erasmus programme. And now, here we are, celebrating what we have collectively accomplished.”

“We’re not at that level [of the EU] yet,” she acknowledged. “But we’re quite confident that many of our challenges back then have been addressed. And we have created building blocks of our shared ambition, and we have built bridges.”

She noted there were social and economic implications of not having a common higher education space. “There’s an opportunity cost if we don’t do this,” she said.

According to Roger Chao Jr, assistant director and head of the education, youth and sports division at the ASEAN Secretariat, the SHARE programme has “not only strengthened but established the foundations of higher education in the region”.

Speaking during the ceremony in Jakarta on 6 December, he said: “There are regional initiatives or intra-regional initiatives and rationales why we need a common higher education space in Southeast Asia. However, we also have to consider that there are challenges in moving forward.”

Chao told University World News there is still a long way to go in building a regional higher education space. “There is a certain extent of expertise already in the [ASEAN] sub-region,” but it was not enough. “We’re still not there in terms of quality assurance. Or a qualifications reference framework. [The process] is still far from over.”

Future funding

“For SEAMEO RIHED we have our strategies to integrate what SHARE has built. Hence, for us we see collaboration and support of SHARE on RIHED SHARE as an initial start to deepen the partnerships in the region,” said Romyen Kosaikanont, director of the SEAMEO RIHED Centre.

“With the approach of collective learning, a sense of joint ownership for collective intelligence is powerful for all stakeholders to work towards the same sustainable furture of the region,” she told University World News.

SEAMEO RIHED will take over the policy dialogues that have brought higher education experts and organisations together in the past few years to lay the groundwork for a knowledge base and common action.

But many have questioned how the programme will be funded in the future.

Chao said some cooperation with the EU will continue through other programmes, while some organisations that were part of the EU-SHARE programme, such as the British Council, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Netherlands higher education agency Nuffic, have said that “they will be there to support us as individual organisations”.

Irrespective of extra funding, however, he said one of the key tasks already being implemented by organisations within the region is the first phase of what is termed an Asian Erasmus mobility programme scholarship scheme, which involves “mapping the different scholarship schemes in the region, from entry level to regional level, and then developing the college funding options of what should be the scholarship scheme for us”.

“We’d like to attract students from other regions as well, which strengthens the need for a common higher education space,” Chao told the conference, adding: “If we manage to strengthen a common education space in Southeast Asia, that strengthens our competitiveness as well.”

Khairul Salleh Mohamed Sahari, representing the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network, said the “flavour of ASEAN is that we want our education space to be something that we can leverage to promote mobility within the region. But we also want to attract international students to come to the region. And instead of working in silos, if we work together as a region, we can actually maybe attract more and more students.”

“the ‘flavour of ASEAN’ is that we want our education space to be something that we can leverage to promote mobility within the region.”


Nonetheless, there is uncertainty for some of the harmonisation programmes. One of the key tasks for the ASEAN Secretariat and SEAMEO RIHED will be to keep progress on track on the common higher education area for the region.

Wesley Teter, senior consultant at UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, told University World News after the ceremony that under EU-SHARE, the partners “did that mapping towards a higher education space”. He said the changeover “would see commitment to action within those priority areas”.

“Partners in the region are ready to take this agenda forward,” Teter said, but cautioned that there was still a way to go “between where we are now and creating a common higher education space”.

“Institutional alignment is particularly difficult in Southeast Asia, said Teter, referring to the diversity in the region, which has a wide spectrum of countries, from wealthy to least developed. “We’re dealing with very different starting points for internationalisation in particular,” he said.

ASEAN countries’ priorities were different, but in effect we are “all working towards the same vision … the same common space”, said Philip Masterson, senior programme officer at SEAMEO RIHED.

If you build a region capable of “really maximising the knowledge that it has, it means that you don’t have to import knowledge from outside … you can get the knowledge from within the region, and share it”, said Masterson.

No ‘loss of momentum’

Chao said he was confident that momentum would not be lost as the region prepared for a key joint declaration by ASEAN education ministers on a higher education space for the region. He pointed to the roadmap to 2025 launched in August in Hanoi, Vietnam, aimed at establishing a common higher education space together with a plan for implementation over the next two years.

A central plank of the roadmap is promoting the mobility of students, faculty, researchers and interns within the region, the development of common quality assurance benchmarks and mutual recognition of higher education credentials within Southeast Asia.

But it also proposes new approaches in response to higher education changes since the COVID-9 pandemic. These include cross-border digital learning collaboration and new initiatives such as an ASEAN-branded scholarship and a Southeast Asian version of Europe’s diploma supplement – a document that details qualifications content to allow easier cross-border comparability and credential recognition.

EU-SHARE team leader Darren McDermott told University World News the discussion on creating a common higher education space in the region had been energised in the last couple of years, largely because of the development or the creation of the ASEAN Working Group on Higher Education Mobility, which SHARE was instrumental in setting up.

He noted that organisations such as ASEAN and SEAMEO RIHED would now be working together “not necessarily requiring significant outside support”.

Adding impetus, he said, was an expectation that a joint ASEAN-SEAMEO declaration on the common higher education space in Southeast Asia would emerge in the first half of next year.

Barbaran said the joint declaration would recognise a common higher education space as “one of the catalysts in accelerating the education, economic, political and socio-cultural agenda in the region … I think through this joint declaration, we will be more outward looking and forward looking at the same time.”

It would also strengthen ASEAN globally, through stronger partnerships and shared leadership, she said.

The SHARE programme worked with various regional and international partners in the sector, in particular, the ASEAN University Network, the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network, the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework Committee, and 33 SHARE partner universities.

Other partners include the British Council (United Kingdom), Campus France (France), the DAAD (Germany), Nuffic (the Netherlands), the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education or ENQA (Belgium), and the European University Association.

This article is part of an initiative from the EU-SHARE Programme. This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content, and this does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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