The EHEA and ASEM: Creating Regions of Higher Education

Editor’s note: Que Anh Dang is a Marie Curie Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, UK. This guest entry is based on her direct observations at Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Education Process and European Higher Education Area (EHEA) ministerial meetings in April and May 2015. Her current research project ‘Shaping an ASEM Education Area: Regionalism and Higher Education Policy Travel between Europe and Asia’ is a part of the European joint project Universities in the Knowledge Economy – UNIKE. Contact: qa.dang@bristol.ac.uk

Note: this entry is also available at Inside Higher Ed in a format more amenable for sharing & printing.

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The EHEA and ASEM: Creating Regions of Higher Education

Que Anh Dang

The capital cities of Riga (Latvia) and Yerevan (Armenia) have marked milestones in the history of the Asia-Europe Meeting Education Process (ASEM Education Process) and the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) respectively by hosting two significant regional ministerial meetings in April and May this year. Each meeting gathered around 50 national delegations and many regional organisations to develop and renew a vision for the future development of higher education. The most important policy documents publicised at these two events are the ASEM Chair’s Conclusions and the Yerevan Communiqué. The EHEA’s vision by 2020 is ‘to enhance the quality and relevance of learning and teaching; to foster the employability of graduates, to make the systems more inclusive; and to implement agreed structured reforms in all member countries’, whereas the ASEM’s vision is to create a ‘single higher education area linking Europe and Asia’ where ‘mobility of students, teachers, researchers, ideas and knowledge would be the core common goal’. Despite the differences in geographical boundaries, purposes and stages of cooperation, the two groupings share a common feature: creating regions of higher education. Over the years, these regional spaces have not only influenced policy making at the national level, but also reshaped the landscape of global higher education. This educational regionalism has changed the ways people organise places, spaces and institutions when thinking about higher education.

Economic Integration Heralds Educational Regionalisation

Regionalism has the capacity to shape patterns of human activities, such as trading and movement of people, including students and scholars. The process of economic regionalisation has become a trend in different parts of the world after the Second World War, noticeably in Europe, South East Asia, North and South America, and the Asia-Pacific Rim. Observations show that economic regionalisation often heralds educational regionalisation and the two processes become inextricably intertwined. These arguments are supported by the fact that most higher education regions which have recently been created around the world (e.g. ASEAN Community, UNILA – MERCOSUR´s Educational Sector (SEM), the Gulf Cooperation Council, Caribbean Community, etc.) are driven by the knowledge economy agenda. The Bologna Process, which gave way to the EHEA in 2010, is an excellent example of a region where higher education is seen as vital intellectual resource for economic recovery and expanding knowledge economy in Europe. Not only did the EU’s Lisbon Strategy spell out the concern for European competitiveness, which increased the concern for the competitiveness of its higher education systems. The Bologna Declaration, signed by the EU members and the then EU candidate countries in 1999, inter alia, referred to economic competition while setting out a vision for a ‘Europe of Knowledge’ by stating that we must in particular look at the objective of increasing the international competitiveness of the European system of higher education. Also at the national level, although joining the Bologna Process is voluntary, the motivation of countries is very diverse. In many cases it was highly political and rested on an assumption that joining one of the European ‘clubs’ was a step closer to gaining full membership in the European Union. In other cases, becoming a part of the EHEA is a branding exercise for publicity or for gaining access to a larger market for international students.

Higher Education and Region-Making Projects

The EHEA did not exist as a region by itself, it has been constructed by people’s ideas and it has been talked about for more than a decade. Since it has been talked about, it starts existing. The EHEA has been transformed from an abstract concept into an entity which has the capacity and power to act as a competent player in higher education. This is reflected in the common utterances, such as ‘the EHEA mobilises a change in teaching methods’, ‘the EHEA promotes improvement in the quality’, ‘the EHEA enabled many education professionals to adopt new teaching methodologies’. Furthermore, in the Yerevan Communiqué, we can see similar expressions, ‘the EHEA has a key role’, ‘the EHEA faces serious challenges’, ‘the EHEA has opened a dialogue with other regions’. Of course a region is a concept and it cannot actually say or do anything. Only people can speak and act, therefore a region does not exist without people. And certain people can act on behalf of the nation state and collectively they influence policy development for the entire region. For instance, an official document from Yerevan ‘The Bologna Process revisited: the future of the European higher education area’ describes the mission of the EHEA, such as the EHEA is expected to facilitate a student-centred learning approach, ensure higher education be a public good, respond to demographic changes, contribute to scientific research, make the best use of technological developments, even react to conflicts between countries and to political extremisms, and to turn the current economic crisis into new opportunities. The list of active verbs goes on further, but as it stands it already makes the job of the European education ministers more challenging than ever before. The Budapest-Vienna Communique 2010 assigned an extended responsibility to the ministers from being ‘responsible for higher education in the countries participating in the Bologna Process’ (§1) to become ‘the Ministers responsible for the European Higher Education Area’ (§12).

Thus, creating a region in the EHEA case is not only an aspiration, but a conscious act with concrete goals. However, whether or not such goals materialise is a complex process depending not only on the ability to achieve goals, but also on the existence of other regions that are willing to recognise a region as a region. Both the initiators of a region and those who acknowledge the region as such can be regarded as ‘region builders’. Therefore at the Berlin Ministerial Conference in 2003, the European Commissioner, Viviane Reding, supported the idea to “develop an active dialogue with other continents” because “the fact that the whole world is watching us increases our joint responsibility to make the Bologna reforms a success”. Later, this idea was developed into the Bologna Policy Forums and other projects that help construct other regions. At the recent meeting in Yerevan, a member of the Board of the Bologna Follow-up Group, Sjur Bergan, re-emphasised “the EHEA has so far rarely been ignored, and one of our tasks is to make sure it does not suffer this indignity in the future” and “if we want other regions to be inspired by the EHEA, we need to show that we take our own commitments seriously”. Keeping the commitments to implementing the agreed structural reforms puts financial pressure on many member countries, thus also creates business opportunities for the World Bank, whose representatives were invited to the Yerevan forum to offer policy solutions to their ‘customers’ and ‘partners’ on how to make regional cooperation permanent and ongoing.

ASEM – an Extension of the EHEA or a New Education Area?

Inspired by the success of the Bologna Process in creating convergence across (now 48) higher education systems, European and Asian ministers of education attempted to strengthen the connections between the two continents by forging high-level strategic partnerships and launching the ASEM education process in 2008. Although the ASEM education process is nine years younger than the Bologna Process, it has created a larger group involving 51 European and Asian countries, two international entities (the European Union and the ASEAN Secretariat). It also exemplifies an extensive region-making project in the higher education sector with its borders stretching eastward from the Atlantic coast of Europe to Oceania. ASEM represents half of the world’s GDP, more than 60% of the world’s population and around 60% of global trade, according to Eurostat figures in 2014.

Region in the ASEM case goes beyond the conventional concept of region that is based on geographical proximity. Rather it is an imagined community constructed in a political process in which different higher education discourses compete to construct social meanings and to make what is not natural appear natural. In other words, higher education is seen as a noble means to strengthen the ties that bind Asia and Europe together. The agenda of the ASEM education process, consisting of four priorities: quality assurance, balanced mobility, engaging business and industry in education, and lifelong learning including TVET, seems to resemble some of the action lines of the Bologna Process. This resemblance manifests the European soft power which Joseph Nye defines as “the ability to get others to want the outcomes that you want” and “the ability to shape the preferences of others through attraction and co-operation rather than coercion”. When other countries and regions look to the Bologna Process for good practices, values and ideas, soft power is taking root. Academic exchanges and student mobility are central to the soft power theory. The stories about the sons and daughters of Asian leaders as examples of foreign elites studying in Europe are not new, but creating a whole new education area for increasing two-way mobility among the ASEM countries is indeed a novel idea.

Nonetheless, this idea together with the overlapping membership of 33 EHEA members seems to make the ASEM education area an extension or replication of the Bologna Process. At the recent ASEM ministerial meeting in Riga, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Tibor Navracsics, explicitly suggested “despite a wide variety of languages, cultures and specific structures in the different countries, Europe’s higher education systems are comparable and compatible. Why shouldn’t we be able to replicate a similar system across Europe and Asia, in particular with the support of Erasmus+ and our expertise?”. Ironically, in the first half of his keynote he emphasised the current situation in Europe, where “more than six million young people are unemployed in the EU with peaks of more than 50% in some member states. Even more alarmingly, 7.5 million young Europeans between 15 and 24 are neither in employment, nor in education or training”. This fact made the audience at the meeting, especially those from Asia, wonder why other regions are to replicate the Bologna model of higher education.

Three weeks later, at the Yerevan meeting, Sjur Bergan, said “the EHEA has largely been in the ideal situation [to be loved], at least if we believe that emulation is the most sincere form of flattery. Perhaps Mr Bergan did not mean the kind of ‘funded emulation’ in the name of capacity building projects which are heavily sponsored by the European Commission, such as EU SHARE for the ASEAN region and ‘Intra-ACP Academic Mobility Scheme’ for Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific regions. These projects, in essence, are a deliberate act to build and/or strengthen other higher education regions, and synchronize them with the EHEA.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

The Bologna Process has been perceived by many in both academic and policy communities as an internationalisation process of higher education. This article, however, sees the Bologna Process as a region-making project with the EHEA as a work-in-progress and an outcome. This pan-European project has impacted on other regional initiatives around the world, especially in Asia, through a very powerful discourse on the construction of a higher education space. Such abstract ‘space’ increasingly affects the ways in which other regions come to conceive, understand, plan and organise their higher education systems. Despite a strong influence from the European partners, the ASEM education area – though still in the making – manifests a hybrid form of regionalism combining Asian and European expertise and agendas. Many higher education regions are being constructed around the world. Let’s hope they are about advancing scholarship, connecting cultures and individuals, and about building a different future instead of reshuffling old ideas, pandering to economic concerns, or playing to the hegemon’s tune.

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