• 2014
  • Higher education as agent for change

Higher education as agent for change

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - 7-12-2014

THE Ministry of National Education of Romania hosted the recent seminar, The Future of Higher Education, framed as the Bologna Process Researchers’ Conference where researchers from many parts of the world gathered to share their findings.

This is the second time the conference was held, coinciding with the 15th anniversary of the Bologna Process initiated in 1999.

In the same year, education ministers and university leaders of 29 countries met to develop an European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010.

The gathering has become a force to be reckoned with over 15 years, with the involvement of more than 45 countries, including non-European Union ones.

It remains an exemplary effort of a broad-based partnership where each country and its higher education community take a voluntary decision to endorse the principles underlined in the EHEA. This not only allows for diversity of national systems and universities to be maintained but also improves transparency between higher education systems in facilitating recognition of degrees and academic qualifications, mobility and exchanges between institutions and nations. While the Bologna Process does not aim to harmonise national educational systems, it provides tools to connect them based on 10 simple objectives which governments and institutions are implementing.

As such, all participating countries are able to agree on a comparable three-cycle degree system for undergraduates as well as postgraduates.

That said, the Asean Community that is expected to be formed by the end of 2015 with Malaysia as chair comes to mind. In the context of the Bologna Process, will there also be an Asean Higher Education Area (AHEA) in the offing? If so, what form will it take? How much of the experience from the Bologna Process is relevant to Asean?

These are pertinent questions for the Asean higher education sector, indeed the education sector per se. Given that there will be about 600 million people in the Asean Community with a good majority still young, education needs a thorough (re)thinking about its future beyond the economic logic that seems to preoccupy Asean leaders currently.

For a start, Asean is more diverse than the European Union, and the levels of development among the members are also very much so, let alone the cultural experiences, which have significant bearing on the development of education in the Community.

Despite its 15 years’ head start, the Bologna Process is still facing glaring uncertainties as it continues to be challenged by the rapidly changing environment that has great influence on the quality and relevance of higher education.

This is further evident from the impressive two-volume publication that documented the papers presented at the Bologna Process Researchers’ Conference in 2011. Aptly, it is titled European Higher Education at the Crossroads: Between the Bologna Process and National Reforms.

It, no doubt, provides inspiration for decision and policy makers in search of AHEA.

One immediate pressure that Asean has to contend with is the declaration of the recent Unesco World Conference to mark the end of the United Nations Decade (2005-2014) of Education for Sustainable Development in Aichi-Nagoya, Japan.

Calling on all nations to implement the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development, the Aichi-Nagoya Declaration is not captured by the Bologna Process to date.

Asean will not be able to ignore this call which could serve as a new and common foundation to build up higher education in the Community. Asean has to ensure that the Community is well-positioned for the 21st century in “shaping the future that we want”.

Incidentally, in a Unesco World Conference report, director general Irina Bokova said: “Education is the most powerful path to sustainability. Economic and technological solutions, political regulations or financial incentives are not enough. We need a fundamental change in the way we think and act.”

Asean must take this into consideration in proposing ideas to develop the higher education sector as the agent for that fundamental change to take place throughout the Community.