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Bangkok Post

Unity in Diversity

The educational component in ASEM is taking quiet but significant strides to smooth relations between Europe and Asia


Education was well visible on the agenda of the recent ASEM 4 Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, but it has been nearly absent in the commentaries dedicated to this major diplomatic event.

Born in Bangkok in 1996, the Asia-Europe Meeting promotes and deepens the relationship between Asia and Europe in three main pillars: political dialogue; economics and social, cultural and educational issues.

It unifies more than two billion people from different cultures and contributes to turning a remarkable cultural variety into a great asset, specifically formulated as ``unity in diversity''.

ASEM documents underline that education is crucial in overcoming and preventing pre-conceived opinions and stereotypes. Human resource development, including educational exchange, fosters mutual understanding and the concept of lifelong learning.

Education is by its very nature a dynamic contributor in rejecting a so-called ``clash of civilisations'' and is a facilitator of an objective appreciation of cultural differences. Education is an imperative prerequisite for the triumph of universal values, solidarity being one of them. The common values of ASEM partners are a unifying factor with a long-term impact on their mutual relationships, giving tangibility to a sense of joint responsibility for a prosperous future.

Human resource development through education and equal access to information are some of the available measures in overcoming and preventing misconceptions. Education generates respect for the multitude of cultures, for the rich literary and artistic heritage of Asia and Europe.

ASEM's efforts are based on the conviction that the acquisition of educational skills will help establish a genuine culture of dialogue. Access to information on other cultures plays a decisive role in demystifying the unknown.

Ignorance is the enemy of cooperation. False myths are sources of animosity and undermine trust, in particular during crisis periods. There may be many reasons for not trusting, but self-administered suspicion can create self-fulfilling prophesies that can negatively influence events and detrimentally stop positive changes, be it in Asia or Europe.

Narrowing the digital divide is not a mere technological demand, but a highly moral must in the era of globalisation. Attention has to be focused on finding adequate avenues for broadening public commitments to the preservation of the cultural heritage of ASEM partners by celebrating its mutually enriching diversity.

At the 4th Summit, all participating leaders recognised not only the indisputable value of education, but also agreed that a key priority should be to enhance student and academic exchanges, inter-university cooperation and the facilitation of electronic networking between schools.

Long before ASEM 4, the participating countries undertook to explore the possibility of mutual recognition of academic degrees, licenses, etc between educational institutions. They also acknowledged the potential for the ASEM Education Hub and the Asia-Europe University and other related activities in expanding educational cooperation, promoting greater cross-cultural contacts and fostering mutual understanding between Asia and Europe.

The ASEM Education Hub is a network of universities and tertiary institutions in 10 Asian and 15 European countries. Despite the apparent diversity in the structure and organisation of universities, members of this network are committed to promoting greater student exchanges, cross-cultural learning and educational co-operation . By the end of 2001, 25 universities joined the network and over 70 scholarships in arts, business and science were offered. The Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) based in Singapore periodically reviews the implementation of the current programmes for enhancing their effectiveness.

In 2001 a secretariat was established in Seoul for the ASEM DUO Fellowship Programme, which intends to increase the number of exchange students and researchers between Asia and Europe to 5,000 over 5 years. It is an additional opportunity for people who wish to go to Asia or Europe for further study, research or joint lectures. Funded by the ASEM members, the programme is conceived on a balanced and permanent basis.

The Asia-Europe Classroom (AEC) was set up as an attractive project to provide an online forum for high school students and teachers in Asia and Europe. Its mission is to encourage the advancement of education through the use of information communication technology, to build bridges between students and teachers of the two continents through educational and intellectual exchanges, and to offer means of collaboration between high school, while paving the way for an interactive platform for innovative and beneficial online learning projects.

Young Asians and Europeans want to have more influence on the policies of their governments. This is a significant message voiced last month by 63 young Asians and Europeans during the very first ASEM Youth Meeting in Denmark, which adopted the ``ASEM Youth Declaration on Globalisation _ A World without Borders?''

While recognising education as an important factor for employability and alleviation of poverty, ASEM 4 endorsed the organisation of a Seminar on Educational Exchange aimed at collecting and disseminating information on exchange schemes. To ensure long-term social cohesion, it approved a Workshop on the Future of Employment and the Quality of Labour. Representatives of governments and academia as well as experts of the social partners will be invited to offer their proposals.

An initiative on Asia-Europe Cooperation in Promoting Awareness in the Young Generation of the Drug Problem was also adopted. Environmental matters will be considered in depth during ASEM Environment Ministers' Meeting next year.

The political will was reaffirmed to implement the commitments made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which endorsed the proposal of Japan to proclaim a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, starting in 2005.

Follow-up activities to promote greater inter-civilisational understanding are under active preparation. ASEF will include appropriate subjects on the agendas of its events like the Asia-Europe Young Parliamentarians Meeting, the ASEF Summer School, the Asia-Europe Youth Camp and the Asia-Europe Young Leaders' Symposium.

The 7th ASEF University will be held in Barcelona, Spain, on November 10-24, its main theme being Regionalism in Asia and Europe.


ASEM 4 also endorsed a follow-up ASEM Conference on Cultures and Civilisations to be held in China next year. Competent ministers were requested to collaborate in organising the first ever ``ASEM Youth Games'', an event meant to have a great educational value and to foster further people-to-people con-tacts.

Indeed, regular contacts between students, researchers, opinion leaders, representatives of civil society and of the business communities are essential to bringing the two continents closer.

Asia and Europe have achieved much by working together over the last six years. Its track record may not be too impressive, but it may positively stimulate the political imagination and the will of the leaders of 25 countries.

ASEM 5 Summit in Hanoi in 2004 is expected to be a real diplomatic landmark. Meanwhile, in the field of education ASEM may benefit from the valuable work done in Asia and Europe by UNESCO and some non-governmental organisations like the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP), the Association of Universities of Asia and the Pacific (AUAP), the European Universities Association (EUA) and the International Association of Universities (IAU).

Some meetings of these associations were hosted by Thailand. An instructive Eurasian Dialogue on topical educational issues took place in Bangkok last year. The internationalisation of higher education was considered last month in Heinan, China, under the auspices of AUAP, in parallel with ASEM 4. More international educational events are planned to be hosted by Thailand in 2002-2003. The outcomes of these events are in harmony with the aspiration for an ASEM spirit, invoked at Copenhagen. The crystallisation of such spirit would strongly consolidate ASEM's unique position on the diplomatic arena.

- Dr Ioan Voicu is Visiting Professor at Assumption University of Thailand in Bangkok.