Towards harmonisation of higher education in Southeast Asia: Malaysia’s perspective

The idea of harmonising higher education systems in Southeast Asia was inspired by the development of regionalism in higher education in Europe, specifically the establishment of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The idea of regionalism in higher education in Asia or Southeast Asia is a very exciting idea, indeed. Is this idea feasible?

Higher education systems in Southeast Asia are very diverse, and even within each nation incompatibility is to be expected.  In the case of Malaysia, the Malaysian Qualification Framework (MQF) was introduced to ensure compatibility of qualifications and learning outcomes within and outside of Malaysia. More importantly, harmonising the highly diverse systems of higher education in the region is seen as an important step towards the regional integration objective. But, it is important to appreciate that in the context of Southeast Asia, with its diverse systems, harmonization is about comparability; not standardization or uniformity of programmes, degrees and the nature of higher education institutions.

Admittedly, there are benefits in creating a common higher education space in Southeast Asia. The more obvious ones are greater mobility, widening access and choices, academic and research collaborations, enhanced collaboration on human capital investment, and the promotion of ASEAN and/or Southeast Asian within the fast changing global higher education landscape. The immediate advantage of such a harmonisation in higher education system is presented as easier exchange and mobility for students and academics between nations within Southeast Asia.

Arguably, the model that is most desired and considered most feasible is that which does not require all higher education systems to conform to a particular model.  The general consensus is that a system that become a reference or one that can be fitted into without jeopardising cultural diversity and national identity is considered most feasible and desired.

The likely scenarios of higher education landscape in Southeast Asia as a result of such a harmonisation of higher education systems are generally perceived as follows:

  1. Students from different countries spend at least a year studying in other countries
  2. Students in different locations are offered the same quality of education regardless of  higher education institutions
  3. Graduates from one country are recruited by the employment sector in other countries
  4. A multi-national workplace
  5. Close collaboration  between faculty in creating and developing new knowledge
  6. Close collaboration between students in creating and developing new knowledge
  7. Close collaboration between employment sectors in creating and developing new knowledge
  8. Larger volume of adult students in the higher education system

The implementation of the harmonisation idea is not without challenges. Steps should be taken in order to increase student readiness. Barriers to language and communication must be overcome and there should be serious efforts to reduce constraints that are very ‘territorial’ in nature. Admittedly, students involved in mobility program may be faced with adjustment problems particularly with respect to instructional practices, curriculum incomparability, and cultural diversity. Then there is the language problem: differences in languages post a great barrier for inward and outward mobility of students at the macro level. ‘Territorial’ constraint, whereby each country hopes to safeguard the uniqueness of their educational programs, which in turn, may ultimately constrain the implementation of regional harmonization efforts is a major consideration to be factored in.

In so far as Malaysia is concerned, it has to be recognised that harmonization is not about ‘choice’. It is a global movement that now necessitates the involvement of all Malaysian higher education institutions. There are benefits to the private players. Initially, we need a state of readiness at the macro level, whereby the aims and principles of harmonization have to be agreed upon by all stakeholders and players in the local higher education scene.

In conclusion, familiarisation with the idea and concept of harmonisation, as opposed to standardisation, of higher education system in Southeast Asia is indeed an initial but a critical step towards the implementation of a meaningful and effective harmonisation of higher education system in the region. While managers of higher education institutions and academics are not ignorant of  the idea of harmonisation, they tend to talk of it with reference to the Bologna process in Europe and the creation of the EHEA. Other stakeholders (particularly students) however are not very familiar as to how this concept could be realised in the context of Southeast Asia, which is culturally and politically diverse. Generally, students failed to appreciate the positive aspects of harmonisation to their careers, job prospects and, of equal importance, cross-fertilization of cultures.

The task of creating a common higher education space is insurmountable in view of the vast differences in the structure and performance of the various higher education systems and institutions in Southeast Asia. Admittedly, we need to harmonise the internal structure of the higher education systems in the first instance before attempting a region-wide initiative. More importantly, the determination to realise this idea of harmonising higher education in Southeast Asia should permeate and be readily accepted by the regional community. Typical of Southeast Asia, directives should come from the political masters. Thus the role of Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMEO) is very critical to a successful implementation of this idea of harmonisation of the higher education systems. Equally important, national prejudices and suspicions need to be put aside if we are to realise regional aspirations and goals.

Morshidi Sirat

2 thoughts on “Towards harmonisation of higher education in Southeast Asia: Malaysia’s perspective

  1. Pingback: Working together to become ‘world class’ universities « Jurusan Management Fakultas Ekonomi

  2. Pingback: A Southeast Asian perspective on university development cooperation as a means to enrich academic quality « GlobalHigherEd

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