The ASEAN nations have prioritised education since its establishment in 1967, exemplified by two of its seven founding objectives: promote South East Asian studies and to provide educational, training, and research facilities that support member states.


The bloc’s bias towards education and research continues, evident by its manifestation in recent policies. This includes the 2009 ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) Blueprint which highlighted 28 education-related action lines and the 2011 ASEAN 5-year Work Plan on Education which aimed to realise four priorities and implement 20 programs by 2015.


In an interview with The Jakarta Post, Vongthep Arthakaivalvatee, Deputy Secretary General of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, emphasised the role education can play in regional integration, “[The ASEAN community’s] integration is not only an economic and political security one but also a people-to-people form of integration and connectivity. So we have to enhance education.”


The ASEAN 5-year Work Plan on Education


After a meeting of ASEAN Education Ministers in 2011, the ASCC Blueprint and Scorecard guided the development of the ASEAN 5-year Work Plan on Education (2011-2015). The 2013 ASEAN State of Education Report outlined the following priorities and programs under the roadmap:


1.  Advancing ASEAN Awareness- which aims to promote understanding of ASEAN’s identity and its diverse cultures through member states collaborating in using the ASEAN Curriculum Sourcebook, celebrating ASEAN Day on August 8, creating ASEAN corners in school, and developing ASEAN studies courses.


2.  Increasing the Quality Of Education through performance standards, lifelong learning, and professional development- By focusing on accessibility and quality of education, ASEAN strives to raise the youth’s literacy rates, achievement of gender parity, the imposition of higher performance standards, investments on innovative teaching approaches, and the development of the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework (AQRF).


3. Achieving Cross-Border Mobility and Internationalisation of Education- ASEAN, by implementing the following programs: reinforcement of student exchanges and international scholarships, sharing of academic resources, and development of an action plan to achieve regional goals through a harmonised higher education system.


4.  The Support for Other Sectoral Bodies with an Interest in Education- believing that education can strengthen the three pillars of ASEAN. Member states, therefore, commit to designing a national skills framework; create a catalogue of educational programs offered by the countries; increase the mobility of skilled workers; impose a competency-based occupational standard; and maintenance of consistent vocational and secondary education.


Internationalisation and Harmonisation of ASEAN’s Higher Education Standards

Using the European Union (EU) as its model, ASEAN is pursuing harmonisation of member states’ educational systems through increased mobility, accessibility, and choices; academic research, and human capital investment collaborations; and maintained competitiveness amidst the globe’s higher education landscape.


Member states are taking steps to make ASEAN a regional education hub. For instance, the Philippines is taking advantage of its universities’ excellent utilisation of the English language and its educational system’s high ranking in the Global Competitiveness Index (29th during 2014-2015). The ambitions for global supremacy has trickled down to individual universities as they strive to improve standards and achieve ranking amongst the world’s best. University of Malaya eyes to be among the world’s top 100 by 2020 by attracting more international students, while Thailand’s King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi targets to be in the top 400 globally, as well as top 50 in Asia.


Caroline Chipperfield, a higher education adviser for the British Council, has watched the change in strategy closely. “The trend in the region has always been for many students to study overseas. Now governments are placing universities at the heart of innovation and research, not only to retain local students but also to attract foreign students and researchers, even the best of the best,” she observed in a 2015 interview.


The Economic Role of ASEAN’s Educated Youth Population

While ASEAN’s economic reforms envision significant increments in job opportunities, the efforts will be moot if the region lacks a trained labour force. Current trends foreshadow that by 2025, over half the jobs requiring high technical skills in Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, and Cambodia will not match the substandard qualifications . Considering that a nation’s literacy rate and quality of labour force plays a pivotal role in attracting foreign investors, the region urgently needs to develop a higher education scheme that guarantees employability.

Thus, member states’ governments often prioritise its education sector regarding fund allocation. Thailand, which allocated 29.5% of its total budget to education in 2011, Malaysia at 21.3% in 2010, and Indonesia at 20.2% in 2012, are among those with the highest government spending.


Bridging Academia and Industry to Strengthen Universities

Considering they are direct stakeholders of a nation’s quality of higher education, businesses can’t afford just to wait for the system to innovate itself. Economic challenges require industries to actively participate in the education process to ensure new talent is equipped with the needed competencies by the corporate sector.


In ASEAN, academia-industry collaboration takes the form of training laboratories, shared R&D facilities, university-made technology products tested by companies in a real-life environment, and commercialization of universities’ research and technology.


Opening our doors to an industry can be daunting at times, particularly when ideologies, philosophies, goals, and methods do not necessarily match, when there is little trust or even knowledge of each other,” says Fr. Jett Villarin, President of Philippine’s Ateneo de Manila University. “The challenge for us in the education sector is to find a nexus point where ideas and ideals are threshed out with our industry partners in mutual recognition and respect, as we work towards the shared goal of improving Philippine education and the quality of life of our people.”


The challenges ASEAN nations face in positioning the region as Asia’s new education frontier are steep. What matters now is how closely they can collaborate to foster strong ties and take steps that attract global attention.