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Less bureaucracy, more ‘Trans-Asean’ education needed

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A stronger cross-border education system, with more links between institutes in different countries, could be key towards realising Asean’s aspirations to be a regional powerhouse.

Bureaucratic barriers should be reduced to push for more higher education programs that will help students living in the region understand Asean better, according to panellists at a forum organised SEA Junction and the Heinrich Boell Foundation Southeast Asia last November.

The panellists were discussing the challenges in creating a “Common Space for Higher Education” in Asean, which will entail the harmonising of an estimated 12 million students and 6,500 education institutes throughout the region.

What “multi-country degree programs” can do is help students “understand the region better, learn about regional processes and their intersection with global and local realities”, wrote Jaruwat KiatiwongseBangkok University’s Director of International Network Development Office and Rosalia Sciortino, Mahidol University’s Associate Professor on Population and Social Research, Mahidol University in The Conversation.

“These are just some of the key questions to be addressed in order to “Aseanise” higher education and stimulate the true spirit of Asen in 2018 and beyond,” they wrote.

Higher education in the region is currently dominated by Singapore and Malaysia, which receive the bulk of international students.

Asean students also choose to study abroad in the US, UK or Australia – the traditional favourites – instead of at institutions in their region. Data from the latest Thai government’s International Education Expo 2017show only two Asean countries in the top 20 study destinations among the expo visitors (mostly Thai): Singapore and Malaysia.

This is a missed opportunity for governments in the region to enact proper reforms in their education systems. Panellists argued that this practice “undermine educational systems in resource-poor countries that serve the majority of students who cannot afford to leave”.

Closing the educational gap between countries will be important, so that regionalisation of higher education does not result in brain drain. For example, with only Singapore having the top universities, attractive fellowships and post-study employment opportunities, it is attracting the brightest minds from Vietnam, Myanmar and other neighbouring countries.

There are some positive trends observed, however, such as Thailand positioning itself as a regional resource especially for neighbouring countries with lesser educational opportunities.

“In the last decade, there have been a growing number of international bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees in English that cater to both international students and Thai students who wish to access an international education locally,” the authors wrote.

Statistics from Thailand’s Commission on Higher Education 2013 showed that despite reports of the drop of quality in the country’s educational quality and lack of English-medium teaching, the country’s been doing well in increasing its share of students from neighbouring countries. Proximity to their home countries and lower tuition fees were among the informal reasons quoted by international students on why they chose Thailand.

China has the highest number of students in Thailand (7,405), followed by Myanmar (2,252) and Cambodia (1,317) – they are increasingly self-financed rather than on fellowships as before.

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