According to Bambang Susantono, the ADB’s Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, over 80 percent of all migrants from Thailand and the Philippines find work outside of ASEAN. The figures are not much better for Vietnam and Indonesia. The consequence is severe shortages of skilled labour in many ASEAN countries. If not addressed now, by 2025 more than half of all high-skill employment in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam could be filled by workers with insufficient qualifications.


To prevent the outflow of highly skilled labour, ASEAN must take steps to provide the best available education within the region. Partnering with western institutions to open regional campuses will make it attractive for the youth to remain within the region than to fly and settle abroad. It will also expose ASEAN to students and researchers from the west who can visit the region for semester exchanges from their home campus. Cross-cultural interactions like these creates goodwill that will benefit the region in the long-run.


Many top-tier universities have already opened campuses in the Middle East and are constantly being pitched the idea of opening up in Asia. INSEAD has a campus in Singapore while many North American business schools have linkages with Chinese universities for semester exchange opportunities.


In view of their stable economies, social and physical infrastructure, and plans for harmonizing their higher education systems, ASEAN countries have a basis in exploring partnerships with institutions from the West that are keen to expand the frontiers of their influence and service. There are overwhelming factors that point to the feasibility of such partnerships as a win–win scenario for both parties.


In an interview with FDI Spotlight, Vice Chancellor of Universiti Putra Malaysia, Prof. Datin Paduka Dr Aini Ideris described how UPM is focusing on regional and western partnerships: “We already have collaborations with many universities in all the ASEAN countries, so we just need to strengthen our relationships with more activities among us. We don’t want to only look at the Southeast Asian countries but also form relationships with other Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China. We are also actively collaborating with universities in Asia Pacific region, Europe, United Kingdom and United States of America, among others.


Similar thoughts were echoed by Dr. Chow Yong Neng, CEO of Han Chiang College who envisioned foreign exchange students studying in ASEAN member states: “It will be worth our while to have some sort of economic integration. Higher education is a good place to start if we in Malaysia, like the rest of ASEAN, can remove the political baggage. It would be fun for European students to study here, splitting their time between Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore while earning degree credits and we can send our students to Europe in exchange – not just in the UK, but all of Europe.


Colonial past can forge new partnerships

Colonisation over the 19th to 20th century exposed scores and thousands of citizens of developing countries to western education. While some were fortunate to school abroad on scholarships, others made their way through higher education on the wheel of family funding. Globalisation can be easily reviewed in the sphere of education as it provides a basis for students from less developed countries in South America, Africa and Asia to access world class education in an environment that enhances learning and acquisition of life skills.  Developing countries are contributing a huge student population to many schools across  Europe, America and Canada.


The OECD already estimates that international student population in developed countries was about 5 million in 2014 with projections expected to hit 8 million by 2025 on a year by year basis .  This provides an added fillip for SEA institutions to grab a piece of the pie by upgrading standards through collaboration and partnerships.


Leveraging on Growing Reputation

Unlike the Middle East and Africa, ASEAN has been untouched by major political uncertainty and despite global terrorism fears has continued to remain a tourist hub. The economic growth indices of ASEAN countries portray a stable outlook for the region. Investment in physical infrastructure will be important to attract foreign students – when students from Africa, Asia and South America look forward to schooling in the West, they have pictures of stable environment and world-class infrastructure in mind.


Foreign student inflows is big business in today’s world. According to the US Department of Commerce, foreign students pumped more than $27 billion  to the U.S economy in 2013 – flows that were aptly documented and supported by Brookings and other U.S government agencies. This will be on the mind of SEA leaders as they create policies to attract foreign institutions to set up their campuses in their country.


The harmonization of higher standards across SEA’s educational institutions provides a basis for the region’s competitiveness on the global stage. This will make ASEAN attractive to western partners who can bring their wealth of international reputation in scholarship and research to the region. The promise of a bigger market, expanded sphere of influence, and a bustling youth population are some of the indices that western schools cannot continue to ignore.