The Bangkok gathering of heads of Asian and European governments earlier this month was unusual.
It took one regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN), to bring another, the European Union, to a meeting that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Yet when it happened, there were no great expressions of surprise. It was almost as if it was just another one of those conferences allowing a select number of the rich and the not so rich to talk about how to make even more money.
But it was more than a by-product of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, or a preview of the World Trade Organisation meeting planned for Singapore. It was a truly historic occasion for some of the countries represented, one cluster of former colonial nations meeting with some of the metropolitan powers that had ruled them for centuries.
There were references to cultural and educational exchanges, which were to be expected. There is nothing new here. Technology transfers through tertiary education have been the most important and fruitful relationship between former colonies and their former masters.
What is less appreciated by the countries in each of the two regions is that there have been efforts at cooperation among universities within each region for decades. Is there something here that regions can learn from each other?
About 40 years ago, six universities in the southeast Asian region came together to form the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning (ASAIHL). They represented Thailand, Indonesia, The Philippines, Malaysia-Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong.
Today, ASAIHL has a membership of more than 150 institutions, and has associate members from countries outside the region, like Australia, Japan, United States, Canada and New Zealand. The core members are still those within southeast Asia. They meet every two years and organise academic lectures and seminars on a large variety of themes relevant to current research and teaching problems. Staff exchanges are regularly arranged, and support for graduate students is provided through scholarships and travel grants from time to time.
But, despite the best intentions, there has been little success in enabling undergraduates to move freely around the region. It has been much easier for students to go to universities in North America, Western Europe and Australasia. The major difficulties within the region, it is said, have come from two sources: the incompatibility of admission criteria and curricular structures, and linguistic differences under nation-building conditions.
One other might be added: governments, parents and the students themselves have preferred, with a few exceptions, the older established universities of the west to the struggling new ones in the neighbourhood.
Members of ASAIHL were very enthusiastic to try to resolve these difficulties during the first two decades. They were defeated, especially by some larger factors: political tensions accompanying decolonisation, communist rebellions in several countries, and a regional war like that in Vietnam.
It became clear that students who wish to study abroad found it easier and more worthwhile to do so outside the region altogether. It is now the universities from the west who come to the region to try to loosen up the structures, criteria and even the language requirements. And each year this is happening on a larger scale.
Does the Asia-Europe summit in Bangkok have anything to offer tertiary education that would ease the situation within the region? The European countries have a long tradition of wandering scholars and some countries have positively encouraged peripatetic students.
Since the end of the second world war, there have been systematic efforts to ensure that bright young students have the opportunity to study and obtain degrees outside their countries but within the region. Is their experience relevant in southeast Asia?
There are several difficulties the two regions have in common. There are numerous admission criteria and curricular structures; there are even more linguistic barriers. But Europe has proved that when universities and the governments that support them are really keen, no obstacles can stand in the way of progress for long.
They have, however, at least two clear advantages over the Asian region. European governments on the whole regard the universities within their own region as comparable.
While exchanges are not encouraged simply for their own sake, reciprocity has not been difficult to arrange when wanted, despite linguistic and cultural differences. In addition, they have been willing to set aside funds to build European institutions for both undergraduate and graduate students in preparation for ever closer relations among themselves.
One might also say that there is no perception that universities outside the region have academic and technological superiority over their own, nor is there any great social pressure for governments, parents and students to look elsewhere for tertiary training.
There is no reason to believe that what the Europeans have achieved in intra-regional tertiary education is applicable to ASAIHL or the ASEAN region. But it seems important, now that the heads of governments of both regions have discussed educational exchanges, that attention be given to what can be done to revive some enthusiasm for intra-regional exchanges among Asian countries themselves.
Unlike 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago, there is peace and growing prosperity in the region. Most Asian governments can now afford to push for such exchanges, and there are good reasons to believe that the products of these exchanges would enhance the quality of graduates available to serve the community. If it is done within the region with confidence, it would make future inter-regional exchanges even more meaningful.
Wang Gungwu is chairman of the Institute of East Asian Political Economy at the National University of Singapore.