Universities Need to Learn ASEAN-mindedness Too

Thanh Le, lecturer of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication, Vietnam National University and a #reportingasean fellow, spoke to Associate Prof. Dr. Nantana Gajaseni, executive director of the Bangkok-based ASEAN University Network (AUN), about the progress in pushing student exchange programs across universities in ASEAN. Student exchanges nurture ASEAN-mindedness among young people as future ASEAN citizens, she said.

Q: Would you please describe AUN’s work in improving the workforce in ASEAN?
Dr Nantana:  The AUN is the network of the leading universities of ASEAN countries. This network was initiated by the ASEAN leaders. The ASEAN University Network Quality Assessment (AUN-QA) was developed among member universities with other partners to ensure the quality of higher education, and also to strengthen human resource development. The main purpose is to serve ASEAN integration.
We started at the program level and now, more than 100 programs have been assessed by the AUN-QA team. These programs assessed by the AUN-QA system are recognized, and the students who graduate from them can be assured of quality when they graduate to work in the international (context). That is the way to maintain the link between education and AEC, because AEC needs a quality workforce in the region.
The ASEAN Credit Transfer System (ACTS) is another project which was initiated by the AUN for the recognition of exchange programs. In the past, students in exchange programs had difficulties in points and credits. ACTS changed the way academic (systems) think about (students’) mobility. We try to convince them to look at mobility programs as enrichment ones, and not just in terms of academic excellence. Mobility can accelerate the process of students getting know about each other, understanding foreign countries and that, in the end, brings ASEAN awareness. It is going to be one factor that supports ASEAN integration.
The main purpose of ACTS is enrichment. We mention the 3Es, which are the enrichment of experience, international exploration, and engagement in regional networking. Students will get benefits in terms of soft skills. Don’t just compare two programs and see how similar or different they are. Just let the students explore the outside world for one semester. They will be with their home universities for seven semesters. One semester abroad won’t erode the quality (of their education).
It’s a new way of thinking about mobility. Two (academic) programs must be similar by at least 70% to do an exchange (at present), but this will bring some difficulties to the (participating) students. Why don’t we think differently? Students do not need to learn the things that are already in their universities. Instead, they learn something new (through exchange programs). The new generation is expected to have broad perspectives, to learn to be open-minded persons who. . . learn to be in diverse cultures, and respect differences among people.
That is the way AUN-QA and ACTS are linked, and in the end support AEC-building. Through the ACTS, program quality is the key factor. If quality is not assured, it is hard to convince regional universities to collaborate or accept (students’) credits (from exchange programs). Therefore, quality assessment is important.

Q: Can you tell me the achievements of AUN-QA?
Dr Nantana: Now, we have the second version of the AUN-QA. The first manual is more European because we learned from the European experts’ experiences. Since 2011, we have had an updated version of quality assessment with 15 criteria. They are clearer. This year, we are moving to institutional assessment with support from European partners.
And we have the team of assessors from ASEAN countries. Besides 30 members, now we have the associated member universities which also send people here to be trained by us and go back to help their universities in the assessment.

Q: And now there are more than 100 programs assessed by AUN-QA?
Dr Nantana: Yes, in eight (ASEAN) countries, except Singapore and Brunei. Singaporean universities have their assessments in the international system. For Brunei, the team is not ready. But hopefully in the coming years, the universities will be more engaged in the system. But they send their team here and the team has passed the training.

Q: What is the most popular weakness of the assessed programs?
Dr Nantana: The quality of teaching and learning strategy is good. The weakness is in the support staff quality, and another thing is the staff development. Also, the stakeholders’ feedback needs to be improved. The methodology for student assessment is also a problem. Schools need more methodology to evaluate, not only with paper-based exams. Now it is a more student-centered learning strategy, so there are a lot of pedagogy to improve in the evaluation.

Q: How about the ACTS and students’ feedback?
Dr Nantana: ACTS has been implemented for three years already. In the academic year 2014, the number of subjects ready for exchange programs was 14,128. The number of registered students in this system has increased by up to 20 percent, and the number of students who got accepted by university exchanges has gone up to 30 percent. Their feedback is good.

Is there anything that needs to be improved so AUN-QA and ACTS work better?
Dr Nantana: For the AUN-QA, we need more human resources, more experts. We need the ministries to endorse the system as a regional system. In fact, the authorities have acknowledged, but not endorsed (it). Acknowledgement is good. But if you endorse, you put policy support. If the Ministry of Education pushes all the universities to get AUN-QA, the results will be much better.
The same happens with ACTS. Now everything is at the university itself. Why don’t the MOEs support it? They know about the system. They say it’s good, and acknowledge (it). But they need to have policy support. Everything will be easier. Now we are moving little by little among each university, so they believe in the system. If we have policy support, everything will go up, meaning other universities will join (in) or engage, and we will have more resources to accelerate the process. That is the important thing.
Every year I have to report to the MOE Summit, but the period for reporting is too short. They give us just 20 minutes. No discussion, just acknowledgement. We need the media to bring the ministries’ more support to the AUN-QA and ACTS.

Q: What do you think of the quality of the programs of Vietnam’s universities that have been assessed by AUN recently?
Dr Nantana: I see the fast and clear progress. If universities in Vietnam have the adequate conditions, some of those can be among the top (universities) in the region in the next 10 years.

Thanh Lê
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