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Universities: the golden thread that could bind Asean

Since its inception in 1967, Asean has been identified as the world's most diverse region. In terms of religion, for example, Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, while in Thailand the majority is Buddhist and in the Philippines Roman Catholic. In terms of government, Myanmar is still under quasi-military rule, Malaysia has a constitutional monarchy and Vietnam is a communist state.

Meanwhile, tiny Brunei spans 5,700 square kilometres and is occupied by over 300,000 people, while Indonesia sprawls over 2 million sqkm and has more than 250 million people. Other differences include languages - Malay, Lao, Thai, Chinese, Tagalog, etc.

These differences mean there is still potential for suspicion among the states. In addition, there are persistent economic, social and cultural gaps between and among countries within Asean.

Inequality also exists internally in each Asean member. In Indonesia for example, there is still a yawning development gap between the east and west of the country.

These are the circumstances that prevail as Asean heads towards integration as a single community of nations next year. In the long run, the region will transform into a single community with an integrated political-security, economic and socio-cultural landscape.

To arrive at those three destinations in a single community of nations looks very ambitious. It looks unlikely that Asean will be able to emulate a regional community like the European Union any time soon. Asean needs more time for consolidation prior to any transformation towards the European model.

However, integration can be accelerated if Asean learns some lessons from the EU. One of them is Europe's experiences in linking its universities, which has greatly supported by its integration as a social and economic community. The Bologna Process, which was adopted in 1999, organised higher education systems in Europe to make it much easier for students and academics to move from one European country to another. As a result, the European higher education area provides the continent with a broad, high-quality advanced knowledge base, and ensures the further development of Europe as a stable, peaceful and tolerant community benefiting from a cutting-edge European research area.

Such a process could be replicated within Asean, speeding up the integration of universities to support the region's transformation into a single political, economic and socio-cultural community from next year.

As well as the existing Asean initiatives, Southeast Asia has the option of the Laureate model to integrate its universities.

The Laureate network, which boasts former US president Bill Clinton as honorary chancellor, has adopted the Bologna Process and now has more than 75 campus-based and online universities offering undergraduate and graduate degree programmes to over 850,000 students around the world.

Laureate's students are part of an international, academic community that spans 29 countries throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

As a community of universities in a single system, Laureate institutions offer hundreds of career-focused undergraduate, master's and doctoral degree programmes in such fields as architecture, art, business, culinary arts, design, education, engineering, health sciences, hospitality management, information technology, law and medicine (www.laureate.net).

Every institution in Laureate's network operates as its own unique brand, guided by local leadership and actively involved in its community. Relationships among the institutions in the Laureate network are enriched with shared curricula, faculty, degree programmes and student exchange opportunities.

Then there is the Asean University Network (AUN) model, established in November 1995 to "hasten the solidarity and development of a regional identity through the promotion of human resource development so as to further strengthen the existing network of leading universities and institutions of higher learning in the region".

This model offers various programmes such as student and faculty exchange, scholarship, Asean studies, information networking and collaborative research.

The AUN Secretariat is located at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and liases closely with the Asean Secretariat in coordinating and implementing regional cooperation activities on higher education.

Another path to integration is the Regional Centre for Higher Education Development (RIHED), a ministerial-level initiative that aims to foster efficiency and harmonisation in Asean through system research, collaboration and sharing between universities.

Indonesia's new government can now take a leading role in pushing for the establishment of regional integration of universities towards a single community of Asean nations by 2015.

Hafid Abbas is a professor at Jakarta State University.


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