The ASEAN University Network: Demonstrating the ASEAN Spirit in Higher Education

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Even before ASEAN leaders during the Summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 1997 formulated the ASEAN Vision 2020,1 higher education institutions across the region had unified their efforts to make the ASEAN Community a reality.

The AUN

logo_aunThe ASEAN University Network is an association of universities established in November 1995 with the signing of its Charter by the higher education officials of six member countries. The AUN is led by a Board of Trustees, and its Secretariat is based in Chulalongkorn University, headed by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nantana Gajaseni as executive director. It currently has 30 universities in 10 countries, including three from the Philippines—the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), and De La Salle University.2

The idea for such a network stems from the 4th ASEAN Summit of 1992. In that Summit, it was agreed that ASEAN member countries must work to promote cooperation by enhancing awareness of ASEAN among the people in the region through the expansion of ASEAN studies as part of Southeast Asian Studies in university curricula and the introduction of ASEAN student exchange programs; to help develop a regional identity and solidarity; and to promote human resource development in the region.3 The original intent was to establish an ASEAN university, but it was ultimately decided that a network of existing universities would be more feasible.

According to its website, the AUN’s focus was built on the ASEAN strategies in facilitating cooperation, which led to the establishment of four key areas—student and faculty exchanges, ASEAN studies, information networking and collaborative research.

Under the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint, the AUN is a key implementing agency in promoting the establishment of an ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).4

Unity in Diversity

With 30 different universities from 10 countries of varying stages of economic development, managing diversity can be a challenge to the AUN.

“From highly developed Singapore, which has two universities that often place well in international university rankings, to countries like Laos, which only established its national university in 1996, the region is home to an eclectic collection of institutions…[C]ommentators say that the great diversity in education systems and economic development across Asia presents different challenges,” noted Liz Gooch in an article for The New York Times in 2011.5

However, while AUN Executive Director Gajaseni acknowledged the diversity among ASEAN institutions, she also cited a cultural commonality. “Among the AUN universities we have the core values of working together for the benefit of the whole region,” she said in the same article.

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UP Assistant Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Office of International Linkages Director Rhodora Azanza

For Dr. Rhodora Azanza, assistant vice-president for Academic Affairs and director of the Office of International Linkages of UP, unity in diversity is one of the AUN’s strengths.

“The aim is really to have the different academics interact in this network…we want to have more of this diversity  considered.” The understanding and appreciation of the cultural diversity among AUN members is precisely what is being emphasized in the student exchange program, “so that students feel that we have this ASEAN community.”

As for the differences among the AUN member universities’ stages of development, Dr. Gajaseni in the same New York Times article said the more established universities were helping the younger ones raise the overall quality of education.

As an example, Azanza cited the example of Vietnam’s universities, which, through the support of the government, are working to boost their competitiveness. “The academe [in Vietnam] is very outward-looking,” she said, adding that recently Vietnam National University officials underwent training from university officials in UP “because they want to learn from the other universities.”

UP, on the other hand, is also learning from the National University of Singapore. “That’s why we have a cooperation (agreement) with the NUS to train educators and administrators in UP. We’re learning from each other. That’s the NUS approach—not only are we teaching you something, we will learn from you in return.”

Membership

The original guidelines for AUN membership were based on the following criteria: recognition of the university’s status as a center of excellence in priority disciplines; faculty strength; experience in regional or international programmes; and existence of adequate laboratories, libraries and other facilities.

Under the Operational Guidelines for the Membership Enlargement of the AUN updated in 2005, new member universities must fulfill the following criteria: they must reflect a geographical balance of members in the region; they must be among the leading universities in the country/region; they must promote research and scholarship; and they must support a global outlook.6

However, there is a limit to the number of universities that become AUN members (although membership to the AUN’s thematic networks is open to non-AUN members). As stated in the Operational Guidelines: “As a regional network, the number of members per country should reflect a good balance of members from each member country. There should not be a particular member country with too many member institutions, resulting in an imbalance for effective cooperation and exchange.”

Given the criteria, AUN membership has become a way of gauging the quality of a country’s higher education system. A Rappler article dated November 25, 2013 cites expanding the Philippines’ membership to the AUN as one of eight ways Philippine higher education can prepare for the ASEAN economic integration of 2015.7

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CHED International Affairs Staff Director Lily Freida T. Macabangun-Milla

“Of course, we want more [Philippine universities in the AUN], because the perception is that the best universities in ASEAN [are members], and we think that there are other universities that can measure up,” said Atty. Lily Freida T. Macabangun-Milla, director of the International Affairs Staff of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED).

For now, Milla asks that the three Philippine AUN member-universities “help bring the other universities up to the [standard]. It’s like a big brother-little brother thing.”

Quality Assurance

“I think it’s very important that we improve our higher education quality in order to ensure the quality of our graduates,” Gajaseni said in the same New York Times article. The AUN initiated the Quality Assurance (QA) system in 2007 as a mechanism to uplift and enhance higher education standards among its members.

Several Philippine universities that are not AUN members, including Cebu Normal University and the Philippine Normal University, have arranged to undertake the AUN-QA mechanism, encouraged and supported by the CHED.

“As director of International Affairs, I also want to find accreditation that is international so that we are not limited by the PAASCU (Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities) and PACUCOA (Philippine Association of Colleges and Universities Commission on Accreditation),” said Milla.

“We have a long history of excellence in UP; what we need is to further enhance this,” said Azanza. “The bar of excellence must be raised, which is why we have to benchmark ourselves to the other ASEAN universities.”

The process of accreditation is not without its challenges. In UP, only a handful of programs have undergone accreditation by the AUN-QA because the process can be expensive. According to Azanza, accrediting one program can cost up to half a million pesos. Besides, the programs have to undergo internal asessment by UP first.

Internationalization

However, steps have been taken toward establishing international standards in quality assessment and accreditation.

“You have internationalization as an input to quality. Internationalization is not the goal. We have to raise the level of quality of education so that we can produce quality graduates who are also competitive,” said Milla, who stressed that all the reforms the CHED is currently undertaking are also intended to prepare Philippine HEIs for ASEAN integration and globalization.

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Former UP Asian Center Dean Carolyn Sobritchea

Are the three Philippine AUN members ready for an integrated ASEAN? Former dean of the UP Asian Center Dr. Carolyn Sobritchea says we are, pointing out that UP and ADMU at least have been beneficiaries of curriculum development programs for years.

Still, much needs to be done aside from boosting research productivity in UP.

“We need to undertake curricular review and reimagine our curricular programs in order to prepare for the ASEAN economic integration,” Sobritchea said, citing that most of our programs—including Philippine Studies—are based on research done in the US and Canada. There is a need to review the available literature and prepare Filipinos to focus on ASEAN scholars and expertise instead of looking to the West.

For Milla, the challenges of internationalizing the Philippine higher education landscape in preparation for ASEAN integration involves not just the Philippine HEIs, but the entire system, including the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Tourism, and all other agencies. It is also important that questionable higher education providers be dealt with, as they can bring down the country’s international reputation.

As for the AUN, “the Network should really take an active role in democratizing its membership, and encourage more universities to engage in discussions of the opportunities and challenges brought about by economic integration,” said Sobritchea. She added that the AUN can encourage its members to actively participate in taking on economic integration from an academic perspective and to analyze common issues such as disaster risk mitigation and response, protection of migrant workers’ rights, and drug and sex trafficking; and to learn from the experiences of similar regional unions in Africa and Europe.
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NOTES:
1 ASEAN economic community blueprint.(2008, January).Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Retrieved from http://www.asean.org/archive/5187-10.pdf
2 AUN member universities.(n.d.).ASEAN University Network. Retrieved from http://www.aunsec.org/aunmemberuniversities.php
3 Singapore Declaration of 1992. (1992, January 28). Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Retrieved from http://www.asean.org/news/item/singapore-declaration-of-1992-singapore-28-january-1992
4 ASEAN socio-cultural community blueprint.(2009). Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Retrieved from http://www.asean.org/archive/5187-19.pdf
5 Gooch, Liz. (2011, October 30). ASEAN nations put education front and center. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/31/world/asia/31iht-EDUCLEDE31.html?pagewanted=all#h[]
6 Operational guidelines for the membership enlargement of the ASEAN University Network. (2005, September 1). ASEAN University Network. Retrieved from http://www.aun.chula.ac.th/Miscellanous/Operational%20Guidelines.pdf
7 Geronimo, Jee Y. (2013, November 25). 8 ways PH higher education can prepare for ASEAN 2015. Rappler. Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/move-ph/issues/education/44519-higher-education-sector-asean-2015-preparation

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For more articles on the ASEAN Integration from the UP Forum, please click here.

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