How Open is Finnish Higher Education?

Editor’s note: While the globalization of higher education and research is a process associated with the enhanced mobility of faculty, staff, and students, the frictions shaping the process are many. They include not just regulations related to skilled migration, but also a myriad of less tangible frictions, including the unwritten taken-for-granted assumptions about how job search processes operate.  I remember applying for two jobs in Sweden in the late 1990s and was surprised to learn that the jobs would be offered with no expectation of a visit to give a talk, meet colleagues, or check out the local housing market. In the end, the entire Swedish faculty search process was conducted via courier and email; not even a telephone call was in the books. Everyone knew everyone else, so it seemed, with the search procedure built upon assumptions of a very small national labour market and dense local networks to draw upon. In contrast, the US & UK academic labour markets, at least in the discipline of Geography, were and are remarkably open, with the expectation (in the US) of a 48 hour visit, complete with a talk, meetings with faculty, meetings with staff, meetings with graduate students, and offers of a tour of the host city. And we do this for all short-listed candidates, regardless of nationality. As a department chair here in Madison, I have to coordinate these and while they are exhausting for all parties involved, they help us assess each other, and are built on an assumption we need to court candidates and do our best to communicate what we have on offer. Coordinating searches this way also signifies that a faculty search is indeed a search, an open event where, yes, only one person will be hired, but also that everyone who applies will be fairly considered.

It is in such a context that we’re pleased to post this guest entry by Dr. Gareth Rice. Dr. Rice is a freelance journalist at various magazines and newspapers, including National Geographic Traveler, Monocle, Times Higher Education, Runway, Wonderland, The Skinny, Counterpunch, Global Politics, Helsingin Sanomat, and Helsinki Times. He is also a lecturer in Geography at Helsinki University and Open University, Finland/Avoinyliopisto. His Twitter feed is located at @belfastnomad. Our thanks to Dr. Rice for his insights and interest in engendering discussion and debate on this important topic.

Kris Olds

ps: Please link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of this entry.



How Open is Finnish Higher Education?

By Dr. Gareth Rice

I had been sufficiently impressed by the work of some Finnish geographers, though I knew little about the Nordic country’s higher education system before I accepted the position of postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki in December 2007.

I had been bent on visiting Finland for as long as I can remember. The country, its people and their culture intrigued me. Before 2008 the closest I had been to Finland was reading a school geography atlas. I spent hours studying the figures and photographs thinking that if I stared at them for long enough and longingly enough I would, by some means of teleportation, be transported into their beauty and silence.

I eventually relocated from the UK to Helsinki in April 2008. I appreciated the space I was given in the Department of Geosciences and Geography: a big corner desk in a shared office with three other Finnish researchers. I had time to work on my publications and I also received helpful tips on where to apply for more funding – my postdoc was fixed term for two years. I was also asked to offer some teaching in English to mainly Erasmus students. This was a great experience. It enabled me to engage in fruitful discussions with Finnish and other students from a number of different countries. The feedback on my teaching was generally very positive. My line manager was pleased with my work, told me that I was good for the university’s ambition to “become more international.” I also got positive vibes from my colleagues. I felt valued.

For the first six months I made a concerted effort to learn about Finland’s history and to appreciate its culture and etiquette. I became fascinated by the folklore and mythology in The Kalevala, the epic Finnish poem. I quickly saw that the Finns were good at many things (I have never needed to whip out my Finnish dictionary out of my pocket and embarrass myself with villainous Finnish: most Finns, at least those who live in Helsinki, speak very good English) but not at getting back to me. It’s that silence again, so notorious that even the Finns themselves make jokes about it. The silence can be trying for those who, say, want to get feedback on their unsuccessful job applications.

As a guest in Finland I promised myself that I would try not to complain about how the Finns run their country, but complaining is instinctive, and almost every foreigner living in Finland has, I am sure, done it at least once. How unreactive I once was; how frustrated now! My patience has since been worn down over the years and is now threadbare.

At the start of 2009, I began making plans to become a permanent fixture in the Finnish higher education system. I started by asking about contracts in my own department – more on this later – and approaching other departments within the faculty. There was nothing available at the time. Thankfully in December of 2009 I was informed that I would receive one year’s research funding from the Kone Foundation in Helsinki. This was slightly less money than my previous faculty postdoc position, but funding is funding and besides, I didn’t think it wise to have a gap on my CV.

Before my Kone funding ran out in April 2011, I had already applied for more funding to various Finnish funding bodies so that I could continue with the same research. None were successful. This was my first taste of how life in Finnish academia was going to pan out over the next few years. I also continued to look for permanent academic contracts in universities throughout Finland. I was prepared to move north to Oulu or Rovaniemi to the University of Lapland. How lovely it would have been to have lived so close to the Santa Claus Village! Instead I was only offered part-time teaching in southern Finland. Departments ‘bought in’ my courses for the eight weeks which they each lasted. I delivered high quality lectures – again the student feedback is testament to this – in my own department, the University of Helsinki Summer School and night classes at the Finnish Open University. I had no holiday pay or health insurance like the full time and permanent staff.

When one applies for academic posts in UK universities they can expect to be informed about the outcome of their applications, even if they are unsuccessful. Finnish universities do not work in this way. Finns do everything in silence. Applicants have no idea what happens to their paperwork after they submit it. When you ask the decision makers for feedback you feel like you are unnecessarily hassling them. You are met with silence. I suggested to a Finnish colleague that this silence might be viewed as discourteous to the applicants. My colleague informed me that Finns would rather not be seen to be rejecting people, “we would rather not be ones to say no.” I remember thinking at the time that keeping people in the dark about an issue as important as employment was furtive and thus a more frustrating type of rejection.

There has been some progress in opening up the Finnish Higher education system to more foreign academic talent, but progress has been slow. To get a sense of this, I emailed all universities in Finland and asked them for statistics on numbers of foreign staff. The University of Turku reflects the national picture. Out of its 500 academic staff currently holding permanent contracts, only 21 are not Finnish citizens and only 8 have a mother tongue other than Finnish, Swedish or Sámi. I have lost count of the number of brilliant foreign academics who have upped and left this supposedly fair and open Nordic country because they are made to feel belittled and marginalised by a system apparently designed to guarantee that Finns progress the fastest.

I have wondered about these statistics and similar ones before them. After doing some digging and speaking to academic colleagues based at different Finnish universities, I was left with four different explanations. The first is the Finnish language; without speaking, or at least being able to read it so much of the country’s higher education system and wider culture is closed off to the foreigner. Secondly, Finns feel more comfortable to appoint their ‘their own’ over foreigners, irrespective of talent. Thirdly, there are some Finns who believe that they are more entitled to permanent academic contracts in Finland simply because it is ‘their’ country and that knowledge should be reproduced in certain ways. Finally, and this was most surprising to me, Finnish academics feel insecure and don’t wish to be challenged by foreign scholars, who may eventually come to undermine them.

In December 2013, I was excited to see an advert for a permanent lectureship in my own department. I remember the words “open” and “international” being used in the advert for the post. It had been a long time coming and due to the absence of a proper contract I had thought about leaving Finland earlier that year. I was encouraged to apply by my line manager, who also acted as a referee, namely because my contribution to the department was valued and, I was told, “important.” The advert also said that, teaching and publications were to be in English and that whoever was appointed should have learned Finnish to the required level within five years from their start date. Excellent! Although I was struggling with the Finnish language, this sounded fair enough and doable to me. I submitted a strong application before heading up north to Oulu to celebrate Christmas with my Finnish partner and her father.

I knew three of the nineteen candidates who had also applied for the permanent lectureship: a Greek, an Italian and my Finnish colleague, who had just completed their PhD. I hadn’t heard anything for over two months so at the end of February 2014 I stopped by the Head of Department’s office – I was still working on a part-time teaching contract at the time – to ask when the outcome might be known. It was impossible to tell from his deadpan face that my Finnish colleague had already been interviewed at the end of January 2014 and was, I think, already lined up for the lectureship.

I thought it unusual that I first received the official correspondence about the lectureship from one of the other candidates. The letter stated that my Finnish colleague was to be appointed. Congratulations! But I remember thinking how odd that the letter had only been prepared in Finnish for a post which the Head of Department had told me was “totally open” and that the search had been international in scope. Also, most scholars would agree that it is near impossible to walk straight out of a PhD into a permanent lectureship, especially when one is up against international competition with more experience. I emailed the Head of Department and asked to see how the nineteen candidates had been ranked, at least in terms of teaching contact hours, years of research experience and publications in international journals. According to his email, sent to me on 3rd March 2014, there was no ranking: “Unfortunately, the statement you received is all what you can get. This was a strategic recruitment, where we hired a qualified person with strong existing ties to the research group…”

It would be unfair of me not to mention that there has been some progress in opening up the Finnish Higher education system to more foreign academic talent. Highlights include a snatch of Professorial appointments: Sarah Green in the Department of Social Research at the University of Helsinki, John Moore at the University of Lapland and Craig Primmer at the University of Turku are cases in point. The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers is doing its best to ensure fair play in the Finnish academic community. The systemic changes are, however, happening much too slowly. I have lost count of the number of brilliant foreign academics who have up and left Finland (a measure which you will not find in Finnish statistics) because, they are made to feel belittled and marginalised by the Finnish oligarchy who ultimately decide who gets appointed. “If you create an elite you are saying that not everyone can achieve their ultimate goals” as the Scottish writer Irvine Welsh put in his recent piece for Prospect. Who could blame those foreign academics for thinking that the Finnish higher education system is designed to guarantee that Finns “progress” the fastest, and end up in the most senior positions? This, of course, also impacts upon Finnish academics, especially females, who are more likely to not be favoured by the decision makers when compared with their male colleagues.

This doesn’t feel like the Finland I read about in that geography atlas all those years ago. It was more like a country which has allowed a myth of being open and fair to congeal and coagulate around its borders; a country where reverence is at its most unshakeable between Finns, who seem generally indifferent to the talents and academic credentials of foreigners; hierarchal higher education which turns on hereditary principles that ensure that elites continue to be grandfathered into the system. But still I am grateful to the Finnish higher education system for the many things it has revealed to me. The most important of these was succinctly put by Michael Ignatieff in his insightful memoir Fire and Ashes: “When you live in other people’s countries, you eventually bang up against glass doors and cordoned-off areas reserved for insiders. You realize you understand only what the insiders say, not what they really mean.”


Towards Harmonization of Higher Education in Southeast Asia: Malaysia’s perspective

Link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of this article, which enables better sharing and printing.

Editors’ note: today’s guest entry, by Morshidi Sirat (Universiti Sains Malaysia), Norzaini Azman (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) & Aishah Abu Bakar (University of Malaya), is designed to provide you with an up-to-date and insightful summary of the state of the Southeast Asian higher education region-building project. Regionalism — a state-led agenda to build up ‘regional coherence’ via the trading of goods and services, and the facilitation of human and non-human mobility (e.g. technologies, information, capital, the factors of production) – is a centuries old phenomenon. However, it was not until the Bologna Process (formally launched in 1999), which helped construct the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), that we witnessed the first substantial incorporation of higher education into regionalism agendas. For good and for bad it is also the Bologna Process that has helped stir up a series of subsequent ‘echoes’ (to use Pavel Zgaga’s term) in other parts of the world regions’ higher ed landscape.

For those of you interested in the theme of universities in a world of regions, please refer to this week’s content in our MOOC Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy.’ We’re up to Week 4 of 7 as of Monday 14 April (see the syllabus here), though the course can be engaged with in a pick-and-choose method for the ‘too busy’ but curious of our readers. Apart from the text and visuals we provided this week, you’re very fortunate (we think!) to be able to listen to and read what a number of key players in higher education regionalisms think about the process. We have a podcast Q&A with one of the architects of the Bologna Process (Pavel Zgaga, former Minister of Education and Sport, Slovenia), as well as with a key player in the African Higher Education and Research Space development initiative (Goolam Mohamedbhai, Former Secretary-General, Association of African Universities). Taken together, all of this content should provide you with an up-to-date and insightful (we hope!) summaries of what is going on with respect to this fascinating, albeit complex, development process.

Our thanks to Morshidi Sirat, Norzaini Azman & Aishah Abu Bakar for their many insights below.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson


 Towards Harmonization of Higher Education in Southeast Asia: Malaysia’s Perspective

by Morshidi Sirat (Universiti Sains Malaysia), Norzaini Azman (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) & Aishah Abu Bakar (University of Malaya)


Harmonisation of higher education is essentially a process that recognises the significance of regional education cooperation and the importance of establishing an ‘area of knowledge’ in which activities and interactions in higher education, mobility, and employment opportunities can be easily facilitated and increased. It is the process that acknowledges diversity of higher education systems and cultures within the region, while simultaneously seeking to create a ‘common educational space’ (Wallace, 2000; Enders, 2004). A region in a supra-national context, with different cultures, religions, languages and educational systems, must develop a harmonised system of education so that it can foster a higher level of understanding, a sense of shared purpose and common destiny in a highly globalised world. This system could be developed or constructed on the basis of a common, but not identical, practices and guidelines for cooperation in education.

A common space or higher education area does not intend to create a uniform or standardised system of higher education. The primary goal is to create general guidelines in areas such as degree comparability through similar degree cycle and qualifications framework, quality assurance, lifelong learning, or credit transfer system and so on (Armstrong, 2009; Clark, 2007). These general guidelines will facilitate and smoothen international student mobility, lifelong learning, and hassle-free movement of talented workers within the region, which will strengthen regional economy in the long run. The regional higher education area is the space in which students, faculty members and HEIs are the key players promoting similar standards of higher education activities. In other words, in a region with a harmonised system of higher education there will be continuous interactions and mobility for students, faculty members and talents.

The most important factor that contributes to the success of the process of harmonisation in higher education is the participation and consensus building at the level of national agencies, the public and also other stakeholders. The key element of the harmonisation in higher education will be the establishment of a mutually accepted roadmap that will consist of a vision of future goal (such as the establishment of a higher education space/area), areas to develop common frameworks (identified by key stakeholders such as credit transfer system, quality assurance guidelines, regional qualifications framework or comparable degree cycle and so on), methods and the key players who will be responsible for framework development and information dissemination to the public. According to Hettne (2004), harmonization is cyclical, and a policy process (functional cooperation) and policy tools (lesson-drawing, policy externalization, and policy transfer) anchors it.

Harmonization in Southeast Asia

The idea of harmonizing 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.

Southeast Asia has been integrating rapidly mainly through trade and investment. The region is also witnessing increasing mobility of people in the region and between regions. This new context places higher education in a pivotal role in developing human resources capable of creating and sustaining globalized and knowledge-based societies. Harmonizing the highly diverse systems of higher education in the region is seen as an important step towards the regional integration objective. The most common measure is the step towards a greater degree of integration in higher education policies and practices through concerted regional efforts.

Regionalization of higher education has political, economic, social and cultural dimensions, similar to globalization (Terada, 2003; Hawkins, 2012). As a political lever, regional cooperation provides opportunities for regions and individual nations to contribute to international quality assurance policy discussions. As an economic lever, regional integration provides smaller higher education systems entrance to possibilities of competition and cooperation on an international or regional scale. As a social or cultural lever, regional activities build solidarity among nations with similar cultural and historical roots (Yepes, 2006). Therefore, higher education regionalization looks differently, depending on the dimensions, actors, and values involved in the process.

In recent years Southeast Asian countries have shown commitment towards deepening connections and interactions by looking at the rich regional diversity as important basis for regional cooperation and collaboration rather than as stumbling block. It is envisioned that the ASEAN Community 2015 would be the outcome of cooperation and collaboration in ASEAN in areas relating to regional understanding and economic integration. ASEAN, as a regional block comprising of 10 nations, namely, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, is steadily moving towards achieving “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” aspiration by 2015.

ASEAN leaders set a vision to build an ASEAN Community with three building pillars: the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC), and the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC). The primary goal of ASCC is create an ASEAN Community that is people-centred and socially responsible based on shared values.Education, particularly higher education has been treated as the core action line in promoting the ASEAN-Socio Cultural Community and in supporting the continued economic integration of ASEAN by 2015. Higher education in the region has been mentioned in many official declarations as one of the important steps to enhance human resource development in the region. An ambitious plan was set up in 2009, aimed at creating a systematic mechanism to support the integration of universities across Southeast Asia. Student mobility, credit transfers, quality assurance and research clusters were identified as the four main priorities to harmonize the ASEAN higher education system, encompassing 6,500 higher education institutions and 12 million students in 10 nations.

The ultimate goal of the plan is to set up a Common Space of Higher Education in Southeast Asia. The strategic plan calls for the creation of the ASEAN area of higher education with a broader strategic objective of ensuring the integration of education priorities into ASEAN’s development. The education objectives aim to:

  • advance and prioritize education and focus on: creating a knowledge-based society;
  • achieving universal access to primary education;
  • promoting early child care and development; and
  • enhancing awareness of ASEAN to youths through education and activities to build an ASEAN identity based on friendship and cooperation as a key way to promote citizens’ mobility and employability and the continent’s overall development.

The declaration advocates specific reforms focusing on a harmonization in the higher education system with the objective of increasing the international competitiveness of ASEAN higher education.

Since then, individual ASEAN governments have increased public investment in universities to support the ASEAN Higher Education Area, and the region’s burgeoning knowledge economy. Measures have been set up to strengthen the performance of Southeast Asian universities across a wide range of indicators such as teaching, learning, research, enterprise and innovation. These initiatives also pave the way for further collaboration and integration between universities in the region, enhancing the overall reputation of ASIAN universities compared to their competitors in the West and elsewhere in the world. It is not surprising to see the improved performance of many ASEAN universities in this year’s QS University Rankings: Asia.

As one of the five founding members of ASEAN, Malaysia has played a very active role in the organisation with ideas and initiatives that has contributed to shaping ASEAN into what it is today and what it is going to be in the future. Malaysia also initiated in the of ASEAN Plus Three summit, namely ASEAN and China, Japan and South Korea, which was the other name in replacement of the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) for the East Asia Summit (EAS). Malaysia has also taken a leadership role in the harmonisation of the higher education systems through many initiatives. For example, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) played a crucial role of promoting harmonisation by encouraging active movement towards the development of quality assurance collaboration and sharing. The MQA spearheaded the establishment of the network of quality assurance agencies among Southeast Asian Countries, known as ASEAN Quality Assurance Network (AQAN). It was introduced to develop and recognize strength and commonalities in academic practices without losing individual country identity apart from ensuring compatibility of qualifications and learning outcomes within the ASEAN countries.


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 harmonization in higher education system is presented as easier exchange and mobility for students and academics between nations within Southeast Asia apart from member countries availability to access systems, tools and best practices for quality improvement in higher education. For some countries, harmonization serves as a jump start for keeping up with globalization

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 jeopardizing cultural diversity and national identity is considered most feasible and desired. This consensus is very much in line with the successful approach used by the early Muslim scholars where their methodology involved taking all ideas which were non-contradictory to their religious value and faith. The scholars only borrowed ideas from others but they went on further to expand and introduce innovative ideas (Abbas, 2011). This approach has led to development of unique learning culture, which is the basis of a stronger community. As a result of harmonization, differing national standards come closer together. However, it has been very difficult for nations to agree on common standards mainly because issues of sovereignty usually become points of contention and also because it is not, in itself, an easy process. In the recent discussion with other ASEAN country members at the ASEAN + 3 meeting, Malaysia has recommended the idea of finding commonalities in practices when developing standards and not imposing uniformity and that such initiative should be undertaken in stages taking into consideration the various level of higher education development in ASEAN.

Forms of Harmonization

The likely scenarios of higher education landscape in Southeast Asia as a result of such a harmonization 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
  9. Close collaboration between International Relations Offices who are the key player behind mobility program.

Plan of Actions

The following actions are deemed necessary in achieving the desired goal in harmonizing higher education among ASEAN community:

1. Regional Accreditation

Accreditation is very important in higher education. It is viewed as both a process and a result. It is a process by which a university/college or technical and vocational training institution evaluates its educational activities, and seeks an independent judgment to confirm that it substantially achieves its objectives, and is generally equal in quality to comparable institutions. As a result, it is a form of certification, or grant of formal status by a recognized and authorized accrediting agency to an educational institution as possessing certain standards of quality which are over and above those prescribed as minimum requirements by the government.

2. Unified Education Framework

Intergovernmental Organizations establish ASEAN standards for HEI’s including curriculum. Consequently, revising curriculum and delivery modes in all programs are still on the process to meet labour market needs. Thus, a unified curriculum in the ASEAN region is highly recommended to achieve the desired goal of one community. The focus should be on learning outcomes.

3. Improve Quality of Education

ASEAN countries need to improve the quality of their education systems as many graduates lack the skills needed in today’s rapidly changing workplace. The shortage of skilled workforce in the Asia-Pacific Region, male and even more so female, has been a major bottleneck in economic and social development. There is a need for greater emphasis on technical and vocational education and training (Liang, 2008; Kehm 2010).

4. Scholarship for students/Faculty Exchange

More programs on scholarships grant on students from all the regions are now being practiced in most ASEAN countries. The Scholarships aim to provide opportunities to the young people of ASEAN to develop their potential and equip them with skills that will enable them to confidently step into the enlarged community. Another medium of attaining the quality of education is by educating the teachers, academics and other educational personnel and upgrade their professional competency. Programs can be introduced that focus on talent management, leadership selection and review of teachers’ and lecturers’ workload. Various initiatives, from faster promotion prospects to awards can be introduced, to acknowledge the role teachers and academics play, and raise the image and morale of the teaching and academic profession.

5. Regional Skills Competition

Encourage the participation of higher education institutions and TVET institutions in skills competitions such as the ASEAN Skills Competition to support workforce development and to achieve regional standards competency. It will contribute towards the advancement of quality and skills of workers in all ASEAN Member Countries.

6. Increase Usage of English Language

Language is a key towards the development of a global community. Workers should realize the importance of being able to communicate in English as an important tool for the realization of ASEAN Community 2015 so that they will not face a handicap to benefit from the fruits of the ASEAN community.

Key Actors, Activities, and Progress

Over the past years, regional bodies have emerged as new and key actors in higher education policy making, offering the possibility of higher education regionalization (Wesley, 2003, Hawkins, 2012). Regional bodies introduce a new level to the local, national, and global spectrum of higher education policymaking and practice. Regional bodies can provide a smaller venue for national organizations to collaborate on norm-setting and policy harmonization that relate specifically to regional needs, values, and identity (a national-to-regional trend). Regional bodies can also give voice to smaller developing countries that do not have the economic status or ability to participate in international policy making discussions (a national-to-regional-to-international trend). Likewise, regional bodies have the potential for grassroots initiatives to gain a broader audience (local-to-regional-to-international trends) (Wesley, 2003, Hawkins, 2012). It is against this background that this paper turns to initiatives taken by regional bodies in their roles and activities in harmonizing the higher education sector in Southeast Asia.

In Southeast Asia,the status of integration of higher education in ASEAN are being studied and promoted by three main bodies namely SEAMEO RIHED, ASEAN Plus Three and the ASEAN Universities Network (AUN). Their aim is to promote education networking in various levels of educational institutions and continue university networking and enhance and support student and staff exchanges and professional interactions including creating research clusters among ASEAN institutions of higher learning. Further actions are envisaged to strengthen collaboration with other regional and international educational organizations to enhance the quality of education in the region. Higher education systems in Southeast Asia are very diverse, and even within each nation incompatibility is to be expected.  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 programs, degrees and the nature of higher education institutions.

ASEAN Plus Three

Beginning in 1997, the ASEAN community began creating organizations within its framework with the intention of achieving their goals. ASEAN Plus Three was the first of these organizations and the network was designed to improve existing ties with the People’s Republic of ChinaJapan, and South Korea. ASEAN Plus Three developed a Plan of Action on Education: 2010-2017 which emphasizes the need to develop and implement strategies related to quality assurance and the promotion of mobility. Subsequently, the ASEAN Plus Three Working Group on Mobility of Higher Education and Ensuring Quality Assurance of Higher Education among ASEAN Plus Three Countries was created. The working group main objectives are to analyze credit transfer systems within the ASEAN Plus Three region, and explore ways to improve student mobility programs in the ASEAN Plus Three region.


The Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) is an international organization established in 1965 among governments of Southeast Asian countries to promote regional cooperation in education, science and culture in Southeast Asia. Members of SEAMEO included Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Socialist Republic of Vietnam. SEAMEO-RIHED (Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization – Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development) was later developed under the umbrella of SEAMEO working for 10 Member Countries in Southeast Asia. Specifically, its mission is to foster efficiency, effectiveness and harmonization of higher education in Southeast Asia through system research, empowerment, development of mechanisms to facilitate sharing and collaborations in higher education (Yepes, 2006; Nguyen, 2009). Programs under SEAMEO-RIHED mainly serving 5 objectives

  1. Empowering higher education institutions: includes Study Visit Programmes to the US, the UK, Australia and China, training courses for International Relation Offices (IRP) in Southeast Asian HEIs and workshops on governance and management for HEIs.
  2. Developing harmonization mechanism: includes internationalisation Award (iAward), workshops on Academic Credit Transfer framework from Asia and Southeast Asian Quality Assurance Framework.
  3. Cultivating Globalized human resources : includes the ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) Programme.
  4. Advancing knowledge frontiers in higher education system management: includes Policy Action Research: Building Academic Credit Transfer Framework for Asia.
  5. Promoting university social responsibility and sustainable development : include seminar on University Social Interprise.

Out of the five objectives, the main focus being cultivating globalized human resources through AIMS students’ mobility program in which the Malaysian Education Ministry under the Department of Higher Education is directly and actively involved. It also includes the iAward program where Malaysia has participated under AIMS previously known as Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand (M-I-T) Student Mobility Project.

AIMS Program

Student mobility has always been one of the key strategic elements of cooperation leading to the development of a harmonized higher education environment among countries in Southeast Asia. The ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) program commonly known asAIMS was started in 2009 to aid the drive towards European higher education harmonization. This program was designed to encourage student mobility through the multilateral collaborations among four countries: Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Three objectives formed the reasons behind the promotion of student mobility and greater university cooperation:

  • enables students to hone their academic skills and intercultural understanding,
  • provides the critical knowledge needed to succeed in today’s globalised economy,
  • promotes regional cooperation between higher education institutions and helps to produce the international graduates that are attractive and necessary for an intergrated ASEAN Community to contribute to the development of qualified, open-minded and globalized human resources.

According to a report prepared in 2013, on the first three years of AIMS, the number of students participating in AIMS grew from a total of 260 students in 2011 to more than 500 students in 2013. The five disciplines involved were Hospitality and Tourism, Agriculture, Language and Culture, International Business and Food Science and Technology. Two additional disciplines were included in 2013 which are Engineering and Economics.

The implementing partners are:

  • Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), Malaysia;
  • Directorate General of Higher education, Ministry of Education and Culture (DGHE, MOEC), Indonesia;
  • Office of the Higher Education Commission, Ministry of Education (OHEC, MOE), Thailand; and
  • Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Education and Training, Vietnam, recently joined in 2012.

The AIMS Program targets an expansion (set in 2009) as below.

By 2011 By 2013 By 2015
150 students 300 students 500 students
5 study fields 7 study fields 10 study fields
3 countries 5 countries 10 countries

The program aims to make temporary student mobility as a regular feature of higher education in Southeast Asia, as dedicated academic and administrative measures for internationalization of students’ experiences are generally viewed as essential for dynamic institution of higher education. As of December 2013, the progress of AIMS program is as shown in the diagram below.



(Source : Student Mobility: focusing on the globally competent human resources, Li Zhe (2013) presented at the First Working group on Mobility of Higher education and Ensuring Quality Assurance of Higher education Among ASEAN plus Three Countries, 30 September 2013, Tokyo Japan )

From the above projection, AIMS welcomes new members and the decision to join AIMS must come from the ministry responsible for higher education. The process for joining AIMS involved contacting RIHED, observing AIMS Review Meeting, reviewing AIMS handbook, assigning AIMS contact person, identifying participating HEIs, organizing In-country initiation meeting, allocating budget, organizing and attending policy meeting, attending further AIMS review meeting and consulting on student visa procedure (ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) Program – Operational Handbook page 9-10).

So far, AIMS program has only involved undergraduates at degree level of any year in the program from fields of study (disciplines) that were determined collectively by participating countries. The duration of the mobility program awarded by Ministry is a minimum of one semester, but not more than six months. The undergraduate students that participate in AIMS are funded by each respective government. The HEIs involved in the AIMS program are nominated by the respective education ministries. Only flagship and leading universities are selected to aid credit transfer, matching of course syllabi, accreditation and attracting students to join the programs. The number of students involved in the exchange programs and the administrative arrangements of the AIMS is made through the HEIs bi-lateral agreements. However, while the AIMS Program marks the emergence of student mobility in ASEAN higher education institutions, it is the issue of recognition of periods of study and the recognition of academic qualifications obtained in another country that became highlighted and needed further review.

In ensuring the effectiveness and sustainability of the AIMS program, semi-annual review meetings involving the government agencies and HEIs representatives from member countries are carried out each year. The review meeting updates member countries on the development of the program, shares experiences and good practices, exchanges policy making and verifies student mobility data, foresight, plan and arrangement for future mobility activities.

The Internationalization Award (iAward)

The Internationalization Award was established in the year 2012 to recognize the contribution and significance of the international Relation Office as a focal point for students exchange in mobility programs. It recognizes universities that are making significant, well-planned, well-executed, and well-documented progress toward student mobility activities especially those using innovative and creative approaches. In addition, the iAward was aimed to serve as an assessment tool for the AIMS Program as well as a mechanism for quality assurance of internationalization. The specific objectives are:

  • To promote good practices in internationalization by International Relations Offices (IROs); and
  • To provide a collaborative atmosphere for experience sharing.

The process of iAward involves each ministry to nominate at least 2 IROs from their country. The nominated IROs are required to submit a self-assessment report before a site visit assessment is carried out by the iAward Assessment Committee. The award is granted to IROs that has demonstrated a commitment to the internationalization of student experience through one or more of the criteria listed below:

  • The establishement of a system assessment (planning, controlling & follow-up)
  • The establishment of facilities & infrastructure
  • Excellence in services and feedback
  • Excellence in governance, organization, staff

iAward assessment measured three dimensions of inputs (the resources available to support IRO efforts); outputs (the work and activities undertaken in support of mobility) and outcomes (the impact and end results).

The three recipients of the 2012 were the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia; BINUS University, Indonesia; and Mae Fah Luang University, Thailand. The recipients were invited to present their good practices and experiences to participants from 7 countries at the 5th Review Meeting of the ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) Program. They highlighted initiatives that remove institutional barriers and broaden the base of participation in international mobility programs.

There are a number of challenges that the AIMs need to look into. The program is rapidly expanding from three countries in 2010 to seven countries in 2013 and this presents logistical challenges to the management of the next phase of iAward assessment. This scenario is expected to get worst in the future if all the 36 universities participate actively in the program. This would mean that the applicability of the concept of one award per country will have to be reviewed.

As the number of students increases, the AIMs needs to move their focus on numbers and percentages of students involved in each country to the content and quality of the regional experience. After all, student mobility and internationalization of higher education as such is not a goal in itself but a means to enhance the quality of the educational experience and the international learning outcome of the students.

The ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework

In order to facilitate student mobility, the region’s diverse higher education systems need more harmonized standards and mechanisms for permeable and transparent quality assurance and credit transfer among institutions. Encouraging and supporting students to study abroad is a major strategy to develop a well-trained regional workforce, which can improve the quality and quantity of human resources in the ASEAN economy as well as the national education sector.

The ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework (QRF), a common reference framework, functions as a device to enable comparisons of qualifications across participating ASEAN countries while at the same time, support and enhance each country’s national qualifications framework or qualifications systems that are currently at varying levels of development, scope and implementation. The ASEAN QRF addresses education and training sectors and the wider objective of promoting lifelong learning. The framework is based on agreed understandings between member countries and invites voluntary engagement from countries. Therefore it is not regulatory and binding on countries.

The ASEAN QRF aims to be a neutral influence on national qualifications frameworks of participating ASEAN countries. The process for endorsing the ASEAN QRF is by mutual agreement by the participating countries. Countries will be able to determine when they will undertake the processes of referencing their qualification framework, system or qualification types and quality assurance systems against the framework. The purpose of the ASEAN QRF is to enable comparisons of qualifications across countries that will:

  • Support recognition of qualifications
  • Facilitate lifelong learning
  • Promote and encourage credit transfer and learner mobility
  • Promote worker mobility
  • Lead to better understood and higher quality qualifications systems. (AQRF, 2013)

Currently chaired by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA), the ASEAN QRF will also provide a mechanism to facilitate comparison and transparency of and harmonise regulatory agreements. It will link the participating ASEAN NQFs or qualification systems and become the ASEAN’s mechanism for recognition of its qualifications against other regional and international qualifications systems.

To promote quality assurance of education and training across the region, the ASEAN QRF is underpinned by a set of agreed quality assurance principles and broad standards related to:

  • The functions of the registering and accrediting agencies
  • Systems for the assessment of learning and the issuing of qualifications
  • Regulation of the issuance of certificates.

The ASEAN QRF utilises the East Asia Summit Vocational Education and Training Quality Assurance Framework quality principles, agency quality standards and quality indicators as the basis for the agreed quality assurance standards. The East Asia TVET Quality Assurance Framework is to be used as the benchmark for evaluating the quality assurance processes (for all education and training sectors). The referencing process will include member countries referencing their education and training quality assurance systems against the East Asia Summit Vocational Education and Training Quality Assurance Framework (AQRF, 2013).

A board or managing committee was established by the ASEAN Secretariat for the maintenance, use, evaluation and review of the ASEAN QRF, including a mechanism for assessing whether the Framework is providing the enabling function for member countries. The board or managing committee responsible for the on-going management of the ASEAN QRF is to be made up of national representatives (from a NQF or responsible body) in each country and an independent expert. The board or managing committee shall also be tasked with providing a central repository for member country referencing documents, and with providing access to information and guidance to other countries external to the ASEAN region on the ASEAN QRF.

Based on the current status, the development of a comprehensive ASEAN QRF still has a long way to go. To move forward, there is a need to identify major obstacles including reaching a mutual understanding between the “sending” and the “receiving” countries and identifying key players to be in the taskforce. It requires strong and long-lasting commitment by the participating countries and entails strong collaborations within and across Ministries, and other stakeholders in the participating countries. Nevertheless, there have been significant steps towards an ASEAN QRF that will facilitate student and labour mobility in the region.

Credit Transfer System (CTS)

To date, there are two attempts at developing a credit transfer system in Southeast Asia. The first is by University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP), a network of voluntary association of government and non-government representatives of the higher education (university) sector in the region. UMAP’s major contributions to the formation of a harmonized regional approach to HE in the Asia region was the development of the University Credit Transfer System (UCTS), a mechanism to satisfy one of the key concerns of most proponents of a regional approach to higher education (mobility for students seeking transfer of credits within the region). Founded in 1994 with 35 countries and over 359 HEIs members, UMAP hasdeveloped a trial programme to promote student mobility in Asia Pacific. Similar to other endeavours in many parts of the world, the UCTS aims at creating a more sustainable mobility programme that enables students to earn credits during their studies in other universities. According to the UMAP, host and home universities are required to complete a credit transfer agreement in advance of the enrolments, both at graduate and post-graduate levels. Participating universities are now voluntarily taking part in the trial process of implementing the UMAP Credit Transfer Scheme (UCTS). According to Nyugen, 2009, very few institutions have utilized UCTS and know what the system is all about (in Japan, a major proponent of receiving students from Asia, had only 6 percent of their HEIs utilizing UCTS as a tool). She notes that the program has a lack of identity in the region as well as financial support.

Somewhat more successful in terms of usage is the ASEAN University Network’s (AUN) credit transfer system known as ASEAN Credit Transfer System (ACTS). AUN was established by ASEAN in 1995 to embark on a program of strengthening relations and activities among higher education institutions. As of 2011, it had about 26 members. According to ACTS, credit transfer is the award of credit for a subject in a given program for learning that had taken place in another program completed by a learner prior to the program he/she is undertaking or about to undertake. When the institution recognizes that a subject or a group of subjects that have been completed at a different institutions equivalent to the subject or a group of subjects in the program that the student is about to undertake, the credit from the subject or group of subjects is transferred to the program the student is about to undertake. The equivalence between the subjects completed prior to the subject to be taken by the student is assessed based on the credit value, the learning level and the learning outcomes of the two subjects in question (Asia Corporation Dialogue, 2011).

While the ACTS is opened to all HEIs in the region, the fact is it has become primarily an elite program, as “elites prefer to cooperate with elites” (Nguyen, 2009, p. 80). Therefore, it is somewhat self-limiting (Hawkins, 2012). More interesting was the AUN sub-regional networking on QA practices, which seeks to establish some common standards for the region. In particular, the AUN Quality Assurance program has the goals of enhancing education, research and service among its members. AUN-QA complemented with a set of guidelines and manual for implementation reaches out to all institutions in the region that wish to get the AUN-QA label. In the last decade, AUN-QA has been promoting, developing, and implementing quality assurance practices based on an empirical approach where quality assurance practices are shared, tested, evaluated, and improved.The AUN-QA activities have been driven through increasing collaboration among its member universities but also with ASEAN Quality Assurance Network (AQAN), SEAMEO-RIHED, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA). The collaborations efforts are expected to further hasten the harmonization of AUN-QA framework within and outside ASEAN.


The implementation of the harmonization 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.

Generally, the stakeholders have favorable views regarding the credit transfer system for ASEAN. Nevertheless, there is the issue of quality as the role of AQA (ASEAN Qualifications Agency) as a reliable monitoring body is being questioned. The AQA needs to exist and links need to be built between the different national quality assurance systems. The number of significant issue associated with quality assurance would require resolution facilitated by the AQA so that the local, regional and national autonomy is not compromised by external credit system. However, ASEAN needs a system that guarantee the quality of credits associated with education gained under any national system. Most importantly, mutual trust and confidence between different systems have to be developed. Without more transparency and knowledge about the quality of each other’s system, the development of credit transfer system within ASEAN will be very slow.

In the context of the cooperation in QA, the region still possesses a few structural impediments, the most important one being the problem about disparity of QA development. One could not argue differently that the level of disparity of HEIs and QA development in this region is extremely high. It could be said that the current stage of QA development in Southeast Asia is more or less similar to those in other developing countries in a sense that most of the QA systems have been originated by or operated as national formal mechanism. Half of the countries in the region, including Cambodia (ACC), Indonesia (BAN-PT), Malaysia (MQA), Philippines (AACCUP, PAASCU, etc.), Thailand (ONESQA) and Vietnam (Department of Education Testing and Accreditation) have national QA systems operated either under the umbrella of the MOEs or partly funded by the government. Although the majority of Southeast Asian countries in this region have already established and developed their national QA mechanism such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, the rest is still in the stage of developing quality assurance infrastructure such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Lao PDR. Such disparity has fundamentally contributed to the inefficiency in developing a formal or common QA cooperation within the region. However, this does not mean that Southeast Asia could not do anything to promote mutual development of QA systems within the sub-region.In fact, it has developed the ASEAN Quality Reference Framework as a guideline for effective quality assurance mechanism.

ASEAN countries are rich in culture, diverse in language and religion but have one common goal, to be united as one. Mostly, the language barrier has always been a constant problem among the people of the member countries. This is a great challenge to the ASEAN Community to further create programs on how to address this issue. The increase of usage of English language is one of the focal areas to be considered.

Regardless all those differences, Southeast Asia countries share a similar emphasis on human resource development as a key in developing the whole nation to enter the knowledge-based economy and global environment. It is realized that they are moving fast forward the situation in which all nations operate in a global market environment. In so far as Malaysia is concerned, it has to be recognized 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.


The drive toward harmonization of ASEAN higher education seems to be on track, and member signatories of the ASEAN community are determined to move forward. The increased cooperation in education evidenced by all of the combined actions detailed provides an important background for the next chapter in the process of ASEAN higher education integration. The ASEAN community recognizes the need to create a common but not an identical or standardized ASEAN Higher Education Area (AHEA) that would facilitate the comparability of degrees and the mobility of students and faculty within Asia. While recognizing the fact that national and institutional variations in curriculum, instruction, programs, and degrees, resulting from historical, political, and socio-cultural influences, are bound to exist, it has managed to create a common ASEAN credit transfer system (ACTS), degree structure, credit, and quality control structures.

In conclusion, familiarization with the idea and concept of harmonization, as opposed to standardization, of higher education system in Southeast Asia is indeed an initial but a critical step towards the implementation of a meaningful and effective harmonization of higher education system in the region. While managers of higher education institutions and academics are not ignorant of the idea of harmonization, 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 realized in the context of Southeast Asia, which is culturally and politically diverse. Generally, students failed to appreciate the positive aspects of harmonization 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 harmonize the internal structure of the higher education systems in the first instance before attempting a region-wide initiative. More importantly, the determination to realize this idea of harmonizing 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 Organization (SEAMEO) is very critical to a successful implementation of this idea of harmonization of the higher education systems. Although other regional bodies such as AUN and UMAP play important roles, at the end of the day, it is the nations and the individual HEIs who are the deciding actors who will determine the progress of the idea of harmonization in the region. Equally important, national prejudices and suspicions need to be put aside if we are to realize regional aspirations and goals.

Morshidi Sirat, Norzaini Azman & Aishah Abu Bakar


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Making Sense of Euro MOOCs

Note: please link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of this article should you with to print it or share it more broadly.


Our European MOOCs in Global Context Workshop (19-20 June 2013 @ UW-Madison) went very well, in my biased opinion.  The event was kicked off by a provocative and well-crafted keynote lecture by George Siemens of Athabasca University. As I noted in the workshop webpage:

Siemens developed and taught (with Stephen Downes) the first ever ‘MOOC’ in 2008, and is one of the world’s leading experts on MOOCs. Siemens is an educator and researcher on learning, networks, analytics and visualization, openness, and organizational effectiveness in digital environments. He is the author of Knowing Knowledge, an exploration of how the context and characteristics of knowledge have changed and what it means to organizations today, and the Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning. Knowing Knowledge has been translated into Mandarin, Spanish, Persian, and Hungarian. Siemens is the Associate Director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, leading the learning analytics research team. Previously, he was the Associate Director, Research and Development, with the Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba. Siemens is also the co-founder of the newly established MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) which is being funded by the Gates Foundation.

An integrated slide/video (with captions) of Siemens’ keynote is available here for your viewing pleasure:


See below for those of you interested in Siemens’ slides, minus the audio/video element:


Siemens is a very informed analyst/practitioner/interlocutor regarding MOOCs, and it is a pleasure to engage with a person who clearly sees the pros and cons of the fast evolving MOOCs phenomenon, and especially the importance of viewing them from multiple perspectives (from the pedagogical through to the political-economic). I also recommend that you take a look at his reflections on his talk (‘Neoliberalism and MOOCs: Amplifying nonsense’) via the elearnspace blog, which includes this statement:

In recent presentations, I’ve been positioning MOOCs in terms of the complexification of higher education…. The argument is simple: Much of today’s economy is knowledge-based. In a knowledge economy, we need to be learning constantly. Universities have failed to recognize the pent-up demand for learning as the economy has diversified and society has become more complex and interconnected. As a consequence, the internet has contributed by creating a shadow education system where learners learn on their own and through social networks. MOOCs reflect society’s transition to a knowledge economy and reveal the inadequacy of existing university models to meet learner’s needs.

Following a perfectly timed (weather-wise) reception on the rooftop of our Education Building, we spent a full day engaging with the MOOCs phenomenon from a range of perspectives.  Michael Gaebel of the European University Association (EUA) and I laid some context for the day’s discussions. Michael’s slides are available here:


It’s worth noting that Gaebel is in charge of the EUA’s task force on MOOCs.

We then heard from representatives of EdX (Howard Lurie) and Coursera (Pang Wei Koh) about the ‘Place of Europe’ in their emerging global strategies. While there was a lot of information conveyed in these two informative talks and Q&A sessions, it is clear that Europe plays a very important part in the global strategies of EdX and Coursera. European universities are increasingly interested in engaging with these two platforms, and in so engaging with the platforms European universities are simultaneously altering the DNA of said platforms.  European universities bring with them particular understandings and approaches to online education, lifelong learning, credit transfer, inter-institutional cooperation, outreach/public service, governance, and capacity building. The linguistic dimensions of the MOOCs on offer have helped these two platforms grapple with multiple language matters both in Europe, but also in the vast post-colonial worlds Europe has footprints in. Indeed there is a structural logic for engaging with European universities in the early phase of truly global platform development as US universities are unilingual.

DillenbourgJune2013We then dug deep into the Euro MOOCs theme via a fascinating talk by Pierre Dillenbourg who spoke about the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Experience with MOOCs (Situated in the European Context). While we never recorded his talk, see below for his informative slides, as well as another of his presentations from an early June Euro MOOCs summit:



Linda Jorn (UW-Madison) and Pang Wei Koh (Coursera) ably responded to Dillenbourg’s informative presentation. Dillenbourg and others at EPFL are active and critically engaged practitioners regarding MOOCs. Their work with MOOCs seems to be situated in historic perspective, and taken very seriously regarding course vetting and development and learning analytics. It is no surprise, then, that EPFL is an emerging centre of dialogue and debate regarding European MOOCs. As noted in the photo of Dillenbourg above, their philosophy regarding MOOCs is it is “Better be an actor than a spectator.

A large panel discussions was then held regarding Emerging European Institutional Perspectives on MOOCs. Minister Antonio de Lecea (European Union), Michael Gaebel (European University Association), and Fernando Galán Palomares (European Students’ Union) spoke about the MOOCs phenomenon from their particular standpoints, and then Roger Dale (University of Bristol), Susan Robertson (University of Bristol), and Barbara McFadden Allen (Committee on Institutional Cooperation) responded with insight from equally diverse perspectives.

The final session involved Revisiting ‘Disruptor, Saviour, or Distractor: MOOCs and their role in higher education.’ Some time to digest Siemens’ keynote talk the night before, to get to know each other a little more, and to learn along the way, generated a variety of fascinating (I’m biased, I know, but they were!) reflections on the theme of European MOOCs in Global Context.  Amongst the many important points raised, three stand out in my mind a few weeks later while writing this summary up.

The first is that there is genuine interest in the MOOCs phenomenon in Europe. MOOCs have captured the imaginations, for good and for bad, of key European higher education stakeholders. This interest is partly driven by the US-led MOOCs juggernaut which is generating some angst and concerns in Europe. So yes, there is some concern about an initial U.S. domination of the MOOCs landscape, and the discourse about MOOCs. This said, there are many other reasons the MOOCs juggernaut is generating interest in European quarters. There is, for example, a long history of online/distance education in Europe and the MOOCs phenomenon both supports and destabilizes this movement and these historic players. European institutions of higher education also have advanced digitalization (for lack of a better word) and open education resource agendas underway on a number of levels and the MOOCs agenda has potential to sync in well with these. And European HEIs are being asked to do more and more to enhance opportunities for lifelong learning, and to build ties with alumni, and MOOCs have some potential uses on these two fronts.

Second, the global dimensions of the MOOCs phenomenon articulates in fascinating ways with the both the intra- and extra-dimensions of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). MOOCs have some potential to encourage virtual mobility across European space, to build understandings of how different European universities approach teaching and learning, and to share research expertise and strengths via open online courses. MOOCs, be they offered via European or non-European platforms, also enable European universities to reach into other world regions, often in languages other than English. In other words, MOOCs have some untested potential to enhance the building of interregionalisms – an agenda that has been underway since the global dimensions of the formalization of an external dimension to the Bologna Process was spurred on, in May 2005, when the Bergen Communiqué was issued. The Communiqué included the following statement:

The European Higher Education Area must be open and should be attractive to other parts of the world. Our contribution to achieving education for all should be based on the principle of sustainable development and be in accordance with the ongoing international work on developing guidelines for quality provision of crossborder higher education. We reiterate that in international academic cooperation, academic values should prevail.

We see the European Higher Education Area as a partner of higher education systems in other regions of the world, stimulating balanced student and staff exchange and cooperation between higher education institutions. We underline the importance of intercultural understanding and respect. We look forward to enhancing the understanding of the Bologna Process in other continents by sharing our experiences of reform processes with neighbouring regions. We stress the need for dialogue on issues of mutual interest. We see the need to identify partner regions and intensify the exchange of ideas and experiences with those regions.

The Bergen Communiqué then led to the development of a more formal 2007 strategy document titled Looking Out: The Bologna Process in Global Setting: On the External Dimension of the Bologna Process, from which the above quote is taken. And while this statement was issued before George Siemens and Stephen Downes taught the first MOOC in 2008, a read of the Bergen Communiqué and Looking Out will help you see how and why MOOCs might matter to select European higher ed stakeholders. Indeed, just last week the European Commission released a Communication titled ‘European higher education in the world.‘ [For the non-European readers of this entry, a Communication is a paper produced by the European Commission (EC), most often to the key institutions (e.g., Council of the European Union or the European Parliament). It is generally the outcome of a series of initiatives that might follow this sequence: the production of (i) a staff working paper, (ii) the development of a consultation paper that asks for wider inputs and views, and then, if it keeps proceeding it is in the form of (iii) a Communication. The decision to move to this stage is generally if the EC thinks it can get some traction on an issue to be discussed by these other agencies. This is not the only pattern or route, but it does register that issue has wider internal EC backing (that is in the nerve centres of power), and a sense that it might get traction with the Member States.]

As the EUA put it in their summary of ‘European higher education in the world‘, the new Communication:

places emphasis on the broad range of issues that are important for the internationalisation of European higher education. The document, which references the EC’s recent Communications “Modernising Europe’s Higher Education Systems” and “Rethinking Education”, places specific emphasis on how member states and higher education institutions can develop strategic international partnerships to tackle global challenges more effectively.

Among the key priorities outlined is the development of comprehensive internationalisation strategies at national and institutional level. The Commission states that such strategies should cover the following areas:

  • The promotion of international mobility of students and staff (for example through enhanced services for mobility, tools for recognition of studies, better visa procedures for foreign students and emphasis on two-way mobility – into and out of Europe).
  • The promotion of “internationalisation at home” and digital learning (including language learning, using ICT to internationalise curricula).
  • The strengthening of strategic cooperation, partnerships and capacity building (with emphasis on joint and double degrees, partnerships with business and also international development cooperation partnerships).

The EC aims to contribute to the realisation of this strategy through stronger policy support and financial incentives for internationalisation strategies in particular through the future EU programme for education that will be called Erasmus+ (formerly called Erasmus for All). It said the programme, which still needs to be formally approved at the EU level, would integrate external funding instruments and put an end to the fragmentation of the various existing external higher education programmes. It would also link these closer to intra-European cooperation, as the EC said it would provide increased support for mobility to and from non-EU countries through Erasmus+ and the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (under Horizon 2020). The Commission also outlines measures in the areas of quality/transparency, cooperation and policy dialogue.

It is worth taking note of what is stated on page 7 of ‘European higher education in the world:

While online courses and degrees are not a new phenomenon, the exponential increase in the supply of online education and digital material, as well as the increase in the provision of assessment, validation and academic credit by selected MOOCs (an emerging trend particularly with many HEIs in countries such as the US and Australia) has the potential of transforming higher education radically. New trends in digital education and the emergence of MOOCs should be an incentive for HEIs to rethink their cost structures and possibly also their missions, and engage in worldwide partnerships to increase the quality of content and of the learning experience through blended learning.

Europe must take the lead in the global efforts to exploit the potential of digital education – including the availability of ICT, the use of OER and the provision of MOOCs – and to overcome the systemic obstacles that still exist in quality assurance, student assessment and recognition, as well as funding. This potential and obstacles will be addressed in a future Commission initiative. [emphasis in original]

Third, it is clear that while in some ways MOOCs are a post-national phenomenon given their multiple identities and citizenships of their visionaries, albeit propelled by well resourced U.S. MOOC platforms, the institutionalization and governance dimensions of MOOCs in Europe are only just unfolding in a complex and different (in comparison to the U.S.) state-society-economy context.

For example, we were pleased that Antonio de Lecea, Minister and Principal Advisor for Economic and Financial Affairs Delegation of the European Union to the United States, was able to join us for the entire workshop. Minister de Lecea provided some fascinating insights on the EU’s emerging views regarding MOOCs and broader contextual factors regarding politics, regulatory systems, and debates about important issues like data privacy (a rather topical issue right now!). As de Lecea, Michael Gaebel, Mark Johnson, Fernando Galán Palomares, Roger Dale, and Susan Robertson all pointed out, Europe is inevitably going to take a broader and more strategic approach to MOOCs than what we see unfolding in the U.S. Given this it is important to critically deliberate about the nature of the MOOCs phenomenon so wise decisions can be made by key European institutions.

Indeed it is clear that the message that MOOCs are no silver bullet for revolutionizing higher education, and resolving all sorts of crises and tensions, is being recognized. In short, proselytizing and the hype factor is evident in Europe, as it is here in the U.S., but given what I witnessed with respect those representing the EU, the EUA, and the ESU, not to mention specific European universities (Bristol and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), the MOOCs phenomenon is being grappled with in a relatively informed and critically engaged manner. And in doing so, we here in North America, and at UW-Madison, are learning much about MOOCs, as well as Europe, at the same time.

My thanks to all of the participants for their many inputs, and to the many UW-Madison units (the European Union Center of Excellence with additional support via Education Innovation, Division of Continuing Studies, Division of Information Technology, L&S Learning Support Services, Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, Department of Geography) that made this Euro MOOCs event possible.

Kris Olds

European MOOCs in Global Context Workshop (19-20 June 2013 @ UW-Madison)


Schedule Summary


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were ‘invented’ in Canada in 2008, and then became transformed, institutionalized and scaled up via the efforts of people, universities, and firms, in the Boston and San Francisco Bay Area city-regions. In the process debates about MOOCs have blossomed, entangled as they are in discussions about online pedagogy through to longer-standing debates about lifelong learning, internationalization, austerity, ‘disruptive innovation,’ public service, deterritorialization, education reform, and many (many) other issues.

EUBldgThe European MOOCs in Global Context Workshop, a free and open access (i.e. no RSVP) event will be held in the Wisconsin Idea Room, Education Building, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 19-20 June 2013, This workshop is designed to engender discussion and debate about the MOOCs phenomenon from a European perspective, as well as about the implications of the MOOCs juggernaut for European universities and students. We seek to learn about MOOCs by contextualizing them, speaking about their histories and geographies, their technologies and aspirational futures, as well as their uneven geographies and power geometries. In doing so we hope that participants will become more astute thinkers about potentials and limits of MOOCs, not to mention how to situate the fast changing MOOCs phenomenon. Given this workshop attendees need not be Europeanists; you simply need to be interested in MOOCs, online learning, and the transformation of higher education more generally.

gsiemens_unesco-1The workshop kicks off with a 5:00 pm keynote talk on Wednesday 19 June by George Siemens (Athabasca University, Canada). George Siemens developed and taught (with Stephen Downes) the first ever ‘MOOC’ in 2008, and is one of the world’s leading experts on MOOCs. Siemens is an educator and researcher on learning, networks, analytics and visualization, openness, and organizational effectiveness in digital environments. He is the author of Knowing Knowledge, an exploration of how the context and characteristics of knowledge have changed and what it means to organizations today, and the Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning. Knowing Knowledge has been translated into Mandarin, Spanish, Persian, and Hungarian. Siemens is the Associate Director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, leading the learning analytics research team. Previously, he was the Associate Director, Research and Development, with the Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba. Siemens is also the co-founder of the newly established MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) which is being funded by the Gates Foundation.

The title of Siemens’ keynote talk at UW-Madison is ‘Disruptor, Saviour, or Distractor: MOOCs and their role in higher education.’ An open reception on the Education Building’s rooftop terrace will follow.

The remainder of the workshop will be held on 20 June from approximately 9:00 am to ~2:00 pm. A detailed schedule is under development and will be posted here in early June. Additional visiting speakers and panelists include:

  • Roger Dale (University of Bristol, UK). Roger Dale is Professor of Education. Until 2002, he was Professor of Education at the University of Auckland. Prior to moving to Auckland, he had been involved in producing courses in sociology of education and education policy at the UK’s Open University for almost 20 years. He conducts research on the EU and education policy, complementing and extending qualitatively his earlier work on the state and education policy. He was Scientific Coordinator of the EU’s Network of Experts on Social Science and Education (NESSE), and Academic Coordinator of the EU Erasmus Thematic Network, GENIE (Globalisation and Europeanisation in Education) which was based in the University of Bristol’s Centre for Research on Globalisation, Education and Societies.
  • Pierre Dillenbourg (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL, Switzerland). Pierre Dillenbourg is academic director of EPFL’s Center for Digital Education and head of the Computer-Human Interaction for Learning & Instruction Lab. He is lead organizer of EPFL’s European MOOC Summit (6-7 June 2013; see slides below), and one of the world’s leading thinkers about the nature of MOOCs and learning analytics. He started his research on learning technologies in 1984, and conducts research on MOOCs, computer-supported collaborative learning & work, learning technologies, and human-computer interaction.
  • Michael Gaebel (European University Association, EUA, Belgium). Michael Gaebel is the Head of the Higher Education Policy Unit, which focuses on the Bologna Process, lifelong learning, internationalisation and global dialogue. When he first joined the EUA in 2006, he was in charge of developing EUA’s international strategy and global exchange and cooperation. Mr. Gaebel is in charge of the EUA’s task force on MOOCs. The EUA represents and supports over 860 higher education institutions in 47 countries, providing them with a unique forum to cooperate and keep abreast of the latest trends in higher education and research policies.
  • Fernando M Galán Palomares (European Students’ Union, ESU, Belgium). Mr. Galán Palomares is incoming Vice-Chair of the ESU Executive Committee with responsibilities including quality assurance. The European Students’ Union (ESU) is the umbrella organisation of 47 National Unions of Students (NUS) from 39 countries. The aim of ESU is to represent and promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level towards all relevant bodies and in particular the European Union, Bologna Follow Up Group, Council of Europe and UNESCO. Through its members, ESU represents over 15 million students in Europe. It is also worth noting that the ESU adopted a new policy about MOOCs in their last General Assembly.
  • Mark Johnson (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA). Mark S. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was previously associate professor of history and education at Colorado College. His research and teaching interests focus on education in Russia and Central Eurasia, especially post-Soviet higher education; and comparative studies of soft power and public diplomacy programs. He has worked as a consultant and evaluator for organizations including the U.S. Department of State, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Bureau of Asian Research, the Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Civilian Research and Development Foundation, the World Bank, the National Research University HigherSchool of Economics in Russia, and Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan.
  • Linda Jorn (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA). Linda Jorn serves as Associate Vice Provost of Learning Technologies and Division of Information Technology (DoIT) Director of Academic Technology (AT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently leads a team of 80 academic technology professionals that provide a suite of 22 services to campus; several AT team members co-lead, with other campus partners, the campus-wide MOOC pilot. She is passionate about designing academic technology services and developing key partnerships that take a scholarly approach to advancing learning and research through the innovative and thoughtful use of technology. In her day-to-day work, she draws on her academic and work background in curriculum and instruction, rhetoric, communication, nursing, qualitative research, and leadership. Linda regularly serves on review committees for national learning technology grants and advisory boards for national and regional organizations.
  • Pang Wei Koh (Coursera, USA). Pang Wei Koh is Head of Course Operations at Coursera, where he oversees the design, implementation, and support of all online classes on the Coursera platform, and works with faculty and staff from nearly 80 partner institutions to push the envelope in digital pedagogy. Before joining Coursera, Pang Wei worked on computational biology and machine learning in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab with Professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, Coursera’s co-founders; his work on computational cancer morphology was recently recognized by several awards, including the Ernest Walton Medal for Computer Science, awarded by the President of Ireland.
  • Antonio de Lecea (Delegation of the European Union to the United States). Antonio de Lecea is Minister and Principal Advisor for Economic and Financial Affairs Delegation of the European Union to the United States. Prior to joining the Delegation, Dr. de Lecea served as the Director for International Affairs in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, steering analytical and policy support for the Commission’s economic relations with non-EU countries and multilateral and regional economic institutions including the IMF, the World Bank, the G-20, the G7/G8, and the OECD. From 1999 to 2004, Dr. de Lecea was the economic advisor to then-European Commission President Romano Prodi. Before joining the European Commission, Dr. de Lecea served in the private office of the Spanish Secretary of State for Finance in Madrid and in academia (at Basque Country University (UPV), in Bilbao, Spain).
  • Barbara McFadden Allen (Committee on Institutional Cooperation, USA). Barbara McFadden Allen is Executive Director of the CIC (a consortium made up of members of the Big Ten Athletic Conference and the University of Chicago). She is responsible for the overall conduct of the CIC headquarters’ staff and programs, and works with the Members (chief academic officers) to define and implement the consortium’s mission and agenda. CIC universities co-own and operate a multi-million dollar fiber optic network; have partnered with Google to digitize our university libraries; and develop and coordinate innovative academic & research collaborations.
  • Howard Lurie (EdX, USA). Howard Lurie is Vice President of External Affairs, EdX. He has taught and designed online courses and managed digital content collections for internationally known educational non-profits, including Facing History and Ourselves. These experiences leveraged a 15-year teaching career, during which Howard taught history and digital humanities. Prior to joining edX, Howard served as the Managing Director for PBS LearningMedia, a nationally recognized digital learning platform produced by the Public Broadcasting System, and also served as the Associate Director for Education at the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, Mass. Mr. Lurie will be speaking via Skype on Thursday morning.
  • Kris Olds (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA). Kris Olds is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Geography, UW-Madison. Olds’ research focuses on the globalization of the services industries (including higher education, architecture, property) and their relationship to urban and regional change. He has played a variety of strategic service roles for UW-Madison, as well as for organizations including the OECD, NAFSA, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the International Association of Universities, and the Association of Commonwealth Universities. He is currently developing a MOOC (Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’) with Susan Robertson (University of Bristol).
  • Susan L. Robertson (University of Bristol, UK). Susan Robertson is Professor, Sociology of Education, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. She is also Director of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies, and co-editor of the journal Globalisation, Societies and Education. Robertson’s research focuses on the political economy of the education sector, and how education is the object and outcome of converging and diverging policies and practices around the globe. These include creating education as a services sector, the commercialisation of education, and the increased role of for-profit actors in the sector. An important aspect of this transformation has been the growth of international agencies and transnational firms in shaping these processes. She is currently developing a MOOC (Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’) with Kris Olds of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

UW-Madison Sponsors: European Union Center of Excellence with additional support via Education Innovation, Division of Continuing Studies, Division of Information Technology, Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, Department of Geography.

Further Information: Please note that this is an open and free event – all are welcome, regardless of your affiliation, and there is no need to sign up as an attendee.  All sessions, apart from the 19 June reception, will happen in the Wisconsin Idea Room, Education Building, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Contact: Kris Olds, Professor and Department Chair, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Email:

Note: The slides below were presented at EPFL’s European MOOC Summit (6-7 June 2013) and are worth perusing before our workshop.



Also see these entries on related themes in Inside Higher Ed:


Madison, WI June 7th, 2013 (pic taken by Katie Hermsen)

On the Expanding Global Landscape of MOOC Platforms

In Brussels, yesterday, Androulla Vassiliou (European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth) announced that the “first pan-European” MOOC platform will be launched on 25 April 2013. As Commissioner Vassiliou put it:

This is an exciting development and I hope it will open up education to tens of thousands of students and trigger our schools and universities to adopt more innovative and flexible teaching methods. The MOOCs movement has already proved popular, especially in the US, but this pan-European launch takes the scheme to a new level. It reflects European values such as equity, quality and diversity and the partners involved are a guarantee for high-quality learning. We see this as a key part of the Opening up Education strategy which the Commission will launch this summer.

This multi-institutional European MOOC platform (available via is to be formally launched at the Open Universiteit in the Netherlands on Thursday 25 April (11:00-12:00 CET).

The global dimensions of the MOOC juggernaut is coming into view, and evolving, very quickly. As noted in these GlobalHigherEd entries:

as well as in numerous other media releases and media stories, select countries and regions are reacting to the fast paced growth of MOOC platforms like edX, and especially Coursera, with initiatives of their own. MOOCs (as currently envisioned) first emerged in Canada, and then were propelled by higher education institutions and firms located in the Bay Area and Boston city-regions of the United States in 2012. Additional MOOC platforms emerged in Milton Keynes in the UK (Futurelearn) in December 2012, Berlin (iversity) in Germany in March 2013Sydney in Australia (Open2Study) in March 2013, and now Europe’s OpenupEd as of this coming Thursday.

In the next week or so I’ll post a proper analysis of the various platforms and their associated developmental logics.  I’ll also update you about the European MOOCs in Global Context workshop (June 19-20) I am organizing here at UW-Madison. It’s also worth noting that Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is holding a European MOOC Summit in early June.
The global landscape of MOOC platforms is churning very fast, reinforcing the need to engage in some reflective dialogue about this phenomenon.
Kris Olds

Are MOOCs becoming mechanisms for international competition in global higher ed?

Link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of this article if you need a better format for printing or sharing (e.g., via Twitter).


Are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) becoming mechanisms for international competition in global higher education? Where are Europe’s MOOCs in the context of the dearth of lifelong learning opportunities in the region, or both the internal and external/global dimensions of the European Higher Education Area? Who will establish the first MOOCs platform that spans the Arabic-speaking world? Are the MOOCs born in the United States (circa 2012) poised to become post-national platforms of higher ed given their cosmopolitan multilingual architects? And will my birth country of Canada ever sort out a strategy regarding MOOCs (a point also made by George Siemens), or will Canada depend on US platforms like it does in many sectors and spheres of life, for good and bad.

I couldn’t help but think about some of these questions when England’s Open University (est. 1969) announced last Thursday that it was going to establish a MOOCs platform that will be known as Futurelearn. Link here for the press release and here for some media coverage of Futurelearn. In total 12 UK-based universities will initially be associated with the Futurelearn platform:

  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
  • Cardiff University
  • University of East Anglia
  • University of Exeter
  • King’s College London
  • Lancaster University
  • University of Leeds
  • Open University
  • University of Southampton
  • University of St. Andrews
  • University of Warwick

The Open University’s history is a fascinating one, and I’ve often wondered how it might react to ripple effects of the MOOCs being established by US-based people, universities and organizations. The OU clearly has the legitimacy to push forward their agenda, and will do so with some excellent partner universities (disclosure: my PhD is from Bristol), but the Futurelearn announcement also generates more opportunities for reflection on the territorial dimensions of MOOCs.

While Futurelearn won’t be up and running until 2013, it struck me how quickly it is conveying a UK-centric identity. From the line-up of universities, to the identity of the Launch CEO Simon Nelson (he is, as he puts it on his Linked in page, a “key architect of the BBC’s digital transformation to become one of the most successful and innovative multimedia operations in the world”), Futurelearn arguably comes across as a state- and university-backed vehicle to launch the UK into a transatlantic race to establish globally dominant MOOCs.

As the headline of this 14 December Times Higher Education article put it, “Open University launches British Mooc platform to rival US providers.’ The Times Higher Education article quotes from the official press here release, where the Minister for Universities and Science responsible for higher education in England, David Willetts, said:

The UK must be at the forefront of developments in education technology. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) present an opportunity for us to widen access to, and meet the global demand for, higher education. This is growing rapidly in emerging economies like Brazil, India and China.

Futurelearn has the potential to put the UK at the heart of the technology for learning agenda by revolutionising conventional models of formal education. New online delivery tools will also create incredible opportunities for UK entrepreneurs to reach world markets by harnessing technology and innovation in the field of education. [my emphasis]

Similarly, in the same press release, Leighton Andrews AM,  Minister for Education and Skills in the Welsh Government, said:

The area of Open Educational Resources is a fast-moving field in which the power of the internet and information technology can transform access to learning globally. I have encouraged the higher education sector in Wales as a whole to engage with this in a serious way and I am delighted that this new initiative from the OU – an organisation which already has a pan-UK and global reach – takes a lead in charting an exciting path into the future from which learners in Wales will be beneficiaries. It is especially pleasing to see that the OU will be working with Cardiff University to explore new ways of providing learning opportunities that can take some of the best of HE in Wales to the world, and bring the world to learners and HE in Wales. [my emphasis]

In some ways, at least superficially, the rhetoric and coverage associated with the launch of Futurelearn is correct and the US does dominate the MOOCs landscape, to date.  This is a point I also made in last week’s entry (‘On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs‘). The three most prominent MOOCs (Coursera, edX, Udacity), to date, were born in US universities (Coursera at Stanford; edX at MIT & Harvard; Udacity at Stanford) and provide the majority of their offerings as sanctioned by US universities, and as taught by US-based university professors. As of today, here are some national dimensions to the three key MOOCs:

Udacity (est. February 2012)

  • Udacity currently offers or is advertising 19 courses, the majority taught by US-based professors. This said, not all of them are American citizens, and there are German, Dutch and Taiwanese nationals involved in several of the courses. Note that Udacity does not badge the courses with the names of the universities or organizations the instructors are associated with.

Coursera (est. April 2012)

edX (est. May 2012)

So is Futurelearn a UK (and European) riposte to the US MOOCs that are dominating the global MOOCs landscape? In some ways yes, in other ways no.

First, these US-based MOOCs are clearly considering non-US partners and indeed some, especially Coursera, already support them (including one from Australia, one from Israel, two from Canada, one from Scotland, one from England, one from the Hong Kong SAR, and one from Switzerland). École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne from Switzerland, for example, enables Coursera to reach the French-speaking learning community in Europe, Africa, Canada, and elsewhere (assuming internet access).

Second, are the US MOOCs American through and through? No. Some of the key thinkers and backers of ‘US’ MOOCs — Daphne Koller of Coursera who was born in Israel before studying and working in the US; Andrew Ng of Coursera who was born in England but educated in Hong Kong and Singapore before studying and working in the US; Sebastian Thrun of Udacity who was born in Germany before working in the US; L. Rafael Reif of MIT who was born in Venezuela before studying and working in the US — are the types of global citizens one frequently finds in universities like Stanford and MIT. Thus, while these innovators are structurally supported by the epistemic, technological and venture capital networks associated with some of the US’ most vibrant city-regions, these so-called US MOOCs have considerable post-national developmental potential depending on how their future paths are navigated.

Third, the UK is part of the European Higher Education Area and yet the Futurelearn announcement comes across as a UK-only developmental agenda. Will it eventually open up to continental European learners and partner universities? If it does not, and MOOC platforms like edX and Coursera form relationships with leading European universities like ETH Zurich, Oxford, Cambridge, LMU Munich, Sciences Po, et al, what does it mean for Futurelearn? How the Open University and Futurelearn negotiate the complicated landscape of European higher education will surely be worth watching.

Interesting times, indeed.

Kris Olds

The European Higher Education Area: Retrospect and Prospect

We’re moving into the start of ‘prime-time season’ for watchers of development and change related to the Bologna Process (which is fueling the establishment of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA)), and its cousin, the European Research Area (ERA)).  This is because the 2012 Bucharest Ministerial Conference, which will be held in Bucharest, Romania, on 12-13 April, is the setting for two key gatherings that stir up analyses.

First, the 2012 Bologna Ministerial Conference:

is expected to bring together 47 European Higher Education Area ministerial delegations, the European Commission, as well as the Bologna Process consultative members and Bologna Follow-Up Group partners.  The meeting will be an opportunity to take stock of progress of the Bologna Process and set out the key policy issues for the future. The EHEA ministers will jointly adopt the Bucharest Ministerial Communiqué, committing to further the Bologna goals until 2020.

Second, The 2012 Bologna Policy Forum:

organised in conjunction with the Ministerial Conference is aimed to intensify policy dialogue and cooperation with partners across the world. The theme of the third Bologna Policy forum is “Beyond the Bologna process: Creating and connecting national, regional and global higher education spaces”. The Policy forum has four sub-themes, which will be addressed during the parallel sessions, namely: “Global academic mobility: Incentives and barriers, balances and imbalances”; “Global and regional approaches to quality enhancement of Higher Education”; “Public responsibility for and of HE within national and regional context”; “The contribution of Higher Education reforms to enhancing graduate employability”. This year’s edition of the Bologna Policy Forum will be finalised with the adoption of the 2012 Bologna Policy Forum Statement.

In other words, two key events, which occur every two years, will spur on deliberation, debate, and a lot of hard thinking about what has happened, what is happening, and what should happen.

It is too early, at this stage, to analyse how the development process has been unfolding with respect to the EHEA and the ERA. Rather, this entry is the beginning of an attempt to compile the first of numerous reports that will be released over the next 3-4 weeks.  These reports are being prepared by a variety of institutions, and are excellent resources for deepening understandings of some critically important phenomenon related to the globalization of higher education and research.

What I will do, then, is incrementally flag each of these reports, as they emerge. I’ll be updating this entry over time, versus issuing new entries. I will also ‘Tweet‘ when new reports are added to this particular entry.

Happy reading, and if you have any suggested additions, please let me know!

Kris Olds


22 March 2012