As early as the next academic year (2013-14), a common credit transfer scheme could be adopted by all higher education institutions in the Greater Mekong Subregion – which includes Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and China – plus neighbouring countries Japan and Korea.
The higher education platform, similar to the European Union’s Erasmus programme, will increase student mobility within the region.
Last month, Sauwakon Ratanawijitrasin, director of the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation – Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO–RIHED), announced that the student mobility programme will be piloted with selected universities and courses from the beginning of the 2013 academic year. The pilot programme will take place for 18 months before an agreed credit transfer system can be rolled out to the whole region and beyond.
As Ratanawijitrasin explained to University World News:
“Our goal is to build a practical and feasible credit transfer system for the region, which may help to stimulate and promote student mobility in order to improve the quality and quantity of human resources in the economy as well as in the Greater Mekong Subregion education sector.”
Benefits of credit mobility in the South East Asian market
Student mobility itself is not a problem in this corner of the world; after all, the subregion is the single greatest source of international students on the planet, and is expected to become the leader in higher education enrolments by 2035.
Clearly, there are numerous benefits of the credit transfer system such as…
- accelerates student and faculty mobility;
- boosts cooperation among higher education institutions;
- cultivates a multicultural mindset for students and future leaders in the region;
- widens access and choices;
- helps students save time and money by avoiding repetition of coursework;
- facilitates academic and research collaborations;
- strengthens higher education and the economy in the region;
- promotes Southeast Asia within the fast changing global higher education landscape.
Challenges to overcome
Motivated by the perceived accomplishments of the Bologna Process, South East Asia’s policymakers have discussed the possibility of emulating the European success story for several years. Hence, revealing this time frame for implementing the first stage of a region-wide credit transfer scheme is a big step forward.
And while the implementation of the transfer scheme heralds a major advancement for the region in educational collaboration, there are several challenges to overcome.
In a 2008 editorial, Global Higher Ed emphasised the need for greater collaboration between regional governments and organisations if increased mobility within the region was to be accomplished:
“Harmonisation is about comparability; not standardisation or uniformity of programmes, degrees and the nature of higher education institutions…. 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… but rather, becomes a reference or one that can be fitted into without jeopardising cultural diversity and national identity.”
Finding that balance will be key as the scheme moves forward.
An additional constraint is the difference in national regulations, curricula and quality. For example, some countries award bachelor degrees in three years, others take four.
Yet countries in the wider region have certainly demonstrated increasing willingness to adapt themselves for the sake of educational cooperation: earlier this year, Hong Kong announced that they will expand their three-year bachelor degree to four years to fit international standards. And Japan, on the other hand, will soon be joining the community of countries that begin the university school year in September.
Curricula compatibility is also a challenge in the form of grading systems, which vary widely by institution and country.
Taiji Hotta, vice-president of international affairs at Hiroshima University, Japan, proposed a dual grading system which would issue two marks to students – one adhering to the traditional practices of the host university, while the other conforms to the standards specified by the credit mobility programme.
Other challenges include overcoming language and communication barriers, as well as adjustment problems, particularly with respect to instructional practices and cultural diversity.
But perhaps the biggest concern is that the direct impact of the programme may be limited because many students from this region prefer to study abroad for full programmes of study, not for semesters and credits.
Nguyen Duc Chinh, deputy director of academic affairs at Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City, suggested that a ‘one-way’ mobility programme may be more feasible in the Asian context as “students [in Asia] seem to prefer to stay in the host country until the end of the programme rather than coming back after one or two semesters abroad.”
This preference for degree mobility over credit mobility may be caused by the lack of transparent quality assurance. The readiness with which institutions recognise credits issued by other institutions in the region varies widely, both between countries and even institutions within the same country.
Thai and Malaysian students, for example, experience very little difficulty receiving recognition for credits obtained in domestic and partner institutions. Myanmar students, on the other hand, can only gain approval for credits completed at other institutions within the country. And in Vietnam, it’s easier for students to transfer credits between international partner universities than between domestic institutions.
Having reviewed credit transfer systems currently in place, SEAMEO-RIHED has concluded that these programmes are either too general to meet quality standards, or too restrictive and elitist.
Credit mobility standards: the path to higher quality?
Besides putting in place policies and procedures that may prove useful to other forms of educational collaboration, the credit mobility process in South East Asia may also improve the quality of the region’s higher education sector and in turn may become an important motive for students to stay in the region.
After all, the implementation of a credit mobility programme across countries invariably requires the introduction of shared standards – which in turn highlight discrepancies in educational quality across countries, prompting countries to raise the quality of their higher education systems more energetically.
The pilot programme will certainly be an interesting one to watch as the South East Asian education market takes steps towards increasing mobility and improving quality within the region.