The Bologna Process Goes East?from “Third Countries” to Prioritizing Inter-regional Cooperation B etween the ASEAN and EU

Que Anh Dang


Over the past 15 years, the Bologna Process (BP) has evolved from being a pan-European project to a significant regional reform of higher education which exerts its influence beyond the borders of Europe. Initially other regions, such as North America, observed this re-organization of Europe's higher education structure with some scepticism (Clark 2014), but more recently, the creation of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and a European Research Area (ERA) has increased the interest across the world, especially Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and the Republic of Korea) have been observing the development of the Bologna Process and viewing the Bologna Process, EHEA and ERA as a useful model for their regional higher education reforms. Japan and China have participated in all three Bologna Policy Forums since 2009. These countries also fear that the 'attractive' European higher education region will expand its links to ASEAN to the detriment of their position in ASEAN and in the international marketplace (Kamibeppu 2013).

The Bologna Process has inspired the ASEAN ministers to set an ambitious plan in 2008 with an aim to achieve greater regional harmonization involving 6500 higher education institutions and 12 million post-secondary students (ICEF 2014)— about the same size as the EHEA. The region began a process of building a 'Common Space for Higher Education' contributing to the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community. The European Union (EU) has been supporting the ASEAN regional integration process and education is one of the top priorities in the interregional EU-ASEAN dialogues. These developments raise important questions: Through which mechanisms do the Bologna ideas and policy instru-ments become a model for the regionalization of ASEAN higher education? Why does ASEAN regional higher education matter to the EHEA and vice versa? What are the differences of the 'ASEAN common space for higher education' and the EHEA?

Most regional studies on ASEAN and the EU favour the theory of policy diffusion, which describes the EU-style institutions as a putative paradigm for ASEAN regional integration (Allison 2013; Jetschke and Lenz 2013; Jetschke and Murray 2012). Some scholars in educational sociology also claim that regionalization of higher education in Asia aspires to replicate the Bologna Process (Chao 2014a; Vögtle and Martens 2014). These scholars tend to see Asian countries as passive recipients of ideas and norms, and somewhat downplay the role of the agency of local policy actors. This paper draws on both policy diffusion literature in political science and social constructivist work in critical policy studies to posit that policies are not merely transferred through diffusion over space or across policymaking sites, but their form and effect are also transformed through ongoing mutation processes (Peck 2011; Peck and Theodore 2010, 2012). The paper also highlights the role of contexts and of the policy actors—'localizers' who reconstruct external policy ideas and transform them into their local 'cognitive priors' (Acharya 2009). Tracing the evolution of the ASEAN regional cooperation in higher education over the last decade through an empirical study of ASEAN policy makers, this paper argues that ASEAN actively constructs a nascent 'ASEANess' higher education region and can potentially change the nature of engagement with the European counterpart. From being a collection of 'third countries' in Brussels' language, ASEAN becomes a strategic partner in inter-regional cooperation with the Bologna countries that are also members of the EU.

In line with the EU's external policies and with a growing emphasis on “internationalization” in many European national education policy contexts, the Bologna Process increasingly prioritizes its dialogues and negotiations with regions over individual countries, thus expands its outreach to a larger scale. Since the European Commission joined the Bologna Process, Bologna cooperation with other regions seems to create a political space for the Commission to act on behalf of its member states in higher education. The 40-year regional ties between ASEAN and the EU also serve as a foundation for higher education, science and technology to become a priority area of cooperation between the two regions. This point was explicitly mentioned in the plan of action to strengthen ASEAN-EU partnership for the period 2013–2017. [1] For all these reasons, this essay will focus only on the regional dialogues between the EU and the ASEAN+3, given the extensive memberships of the Bologna Process.

The paper is organized in five sections. Following the introduction, the second section lays out the regional architecture of ASEAN higher education landscape. The third section recaps the history of the Bologna external dimension and draws on the theoretical literature on policy diffusion, policy mobility, and constitutive localisation to analyze how, by whom and to what extent the Bologna Process has become a model of regionalization of the ASEAN higher education. The fourth section presents the empirical cases and qualitative data collected by the author at regional forums in order to depict the distinctive features, the emergence and developments of regional projects in ASEAN. The last section summarizes the main arguments and draws some concluding remarks on the possible changing nature of EU-ASEAN interregional cooperation in higher education.

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