Education and ‘the pivot’

Curtis S. Chin and Jose B. Collazo, Bangkok | Opinion | Sat, December 15 2012, 9:16 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

When it comes to the United States in Asia, it seems to be all about the pivot these days.  Witness US President Barack Obama’s first trip overseas — to Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar — since winning reelection as further example of a US policy pivot eastward.

Just released data by the Institute of International Education (IIE), however, makes clear that there remains a need and an opportunity for further steps to increase critical business-to-business and people-to-people contacts between the United States and Southeast Asia in particular.

Such interactions are a valuable cornerstone of both commercial and “cultural diplomacy” and can enhance US bilateral relationships throughout the region. Yet, what’s gotten little attention is the stagnant to declining number of students from Southeast Asia studying at US universities.

That’s a trend that needs addressing and could well be part of a more robust pivot or “rebalancing” of US engagement in Asia that moves beyond reinvigorated diplomatic and defense cooperation between the United States and its Pacific allies.

Over the past decade, the United States has developed stronger and stronger ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as with individual member nations.  This can and should be built on.  One example of this strengthened engagement: US President George W. Bush named the first US ambassador to ASEAN — a post that was made resident in Jakarta under President Obama.

Education is another area to build on, with concrete steps needed to encourage more students from Southeast Asia to study in the United States and vice versa.

IIE data shows that for now, the overall numbers are stagnant, with 46,063 students from Southeast Asia, including Timor Leste, studying at US universities in 2012. This is for the most part unchanged from the prior academic year, when the IIE reported 46,020 students studying in the United States.  There is though tremendous variation by nation.

According to the IIE’s “Open Doors 2012” report on international education exchange, of the ASEAN nations, Vietnam leads the group with 15,572 students studying in US undergraduate and graduate programs. That’s up 5 percent from the year before.

In contrast, the number of students from Thailand has fallen 7 percent to 7,626 students in that same period. For Singapore, the number increased 4 percent to just over 4,500 students pursuing university level studies in the US.

Why the relatively unchanged overall number of Southeast Asian students studying in the US?  Uncertain economies in parts of Asia and in the US may well be factors. In contrast, the number of Chinese students in the US continues to boom with now more than 194,000 reported in US graduate and undergraduate programs. That’s more than 25 percent of the now record high number of 764,495 international students in the US.

At the same time, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand are increasingly becoming popular choices for students in Asia, as these countries make concerted efforts to attract international students. China is also aggressively pursuing students from the region.

Recognizing the “soft power” value of international education, China is steadily working to increase its number and share of international students — especially those from ASEAN member countries.

In 2011, more than 30,000 students from ASEAN nations studied in China. That’s a number that China plans to grow to 100,000 by 2020 under its “Double 100,000 Students Mobility Program”. That program also envisions 100,000 Chinese students studying throughout the ASEAN countries. If this program reaches its goal, vastly more students from Southeast Asia will be studying in China than in the US.

To lure students, some governments and universities also are designing programs that cut down on paperwork and wait times by having the student visa and academic enrollment processes work more in tandem.

A 2011 Australian Education International (AEI) survey of some 1,330 students drawn from six Asian nations sheds light on the impact of such efforts. Overwhelmingly, students ranked Australia’s procedures and approval waiting time as more efficient and faster than those of the US. Canada and the United Kingdom also received higher rankings than the US.

Here are three simple suggestions for a way forward to change present trends. First, the United States should take a lesson from others. The US should roll out pilot programs that harmonize the university enrollment and student visa application processes in order to reduce wait times and uncertainty, as Australia has done.

The US student visa and application processes are separate procedures for international applicants — one managed by the US State Department, the other by individual universities.

A student who has been accepted to a US university may well find a visa comes too late, if at all, to begin studies on time.

Second, the US Department of State’s “Education USA” activities should further highlight the wide variety of US educational opportunities available. The US has internationally recognized state colleges that would be the envy of many nations and would welcome more international students, including from Southeast Asia.

Third, US policymakers should recognize that international education is a competitive advantage and must be included as a key component of the US policy pivot to Asia. An inability to adapt to this reality is costing the United States opportunities to reenergize valuable cultural linkages to Southeast Asia today that could well pay dividends tomorrow on both sides of the Pacific.

Curtis S. Chin is a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok.  Jose B. Collazo is a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia.

What actually matters, new curriculum or what?

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, December 08 2012, 12:03 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

“I won’t be at school on Saturday,” said a 12th grader, “since my mom told me to prepare for a final exams try-out.”

“Aren’t we having such a great program ‘the Slovakia Day’ that the Slovak ambassador himself is visiting our school?”

“Yes, I know. But what can I do?”

The good female student wished to join her friends running the program, especially because she is an active and creative member of the students council. Besides, being a 12th grader, she realizes that involvement in the organizing of a big school event is a learning activity itself.

She was trapped in a dilemma. Her mother, trapped in the myth of national exams and a cognitive oriented paradigm in education, forced her to go to a Bimbel (non-school learning center). Her “real” school, where more actual and creative learning was facilitated, offered her something more fitting to her own choice.

Yet, what could she do? She is in an educational system where not many choices are available.

The Education and Culture Ministry has just disseminated a new curriculum which will be effective in the next academic year, 2013/2014. The subjects are fewer and the learning periods are longer.

There is, for instance, no English or science at primary level and the emphasis is now on moral or character-building education and basic academic skills.

We surely do hope that it is not just “the exchange of a macaque with a monkey”, as a Malay proverb says. There is a big hullabaloo but we have nothing new other than the noise itself.

Our educational history has frequently shown our preference for a panacea to cope with the problems. We are accustomed to referring to metaphysical reasons to understand problems instead of taking the reality itself as the ground.

What reliable and valid research does the ministry have, for instance, to support its argument for the new curriculum?

Meanwhile, in practice, the endorsement of new curriculum never means much. It just makes the school administrators and teacher busy for a while to adjust the costly administrative or procedural documents and then arrive at the same amnesia: Running a school and teaching are the same routines since the olden days.

Back to our story above, what matters in schooling is actually how the students can be better served with fruitful activities. “I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand,” taught Confucius more than two millennia ago.

“Education” should be the processes of learning, through which students actively and creatively actualize themselves. Understanding is the problem of being able to do or make something instead of merely taking an exam.

Education succeeds best when the students are not objects, listeners or memorizers, but conversely when they are the subjects, actively finding knowledge through concrete experiences.

Sudents’ knowledge is built on the bricks of fun and creative activities. Learning is facilitated to enable students to construct what their senses perceive from the reality and at the same time use their imagination as the active medium to glue up the perceived concepts which in turn materialize into greater and fruitful knowledge constructs.

The academic knowledge of the students — different from what they acquire in the conventional learning based on textbooks or chalk-and-board — will be mainly obtained through self-endeavor. It is not only because of their being excited psychologically but also because of the atmosphere intentionally or unintentionally created.

As such, the less-motivated students — who are often improperly handled in the conventional educational system — will be encouraged to participate more actively.

With this conditioning, the students obtain both the width and the depth of academic skills compared to conventional learning. Quantity and quality of the explorations will multiply. Well-motivated students will search for sources and resources which previously were unthinkable and unusable.

In the psychomotor domain, a program like “Slovakia Day” helps students to materialize concepts, imagination and their abstract knowledge into a product. In building a castle miniature, for instance, they not only have to work out with their psychomotor organs but at the same time must apply what they learn from history, math or science in order to ensure the miniature represents its original being.

Affectively, the program enables the students to wisely function in organizing it. They learn to come up with initiatives as well as be responsible and solve problems in teamwork at various levels. This fact is different from what they learn conventionally, where abstract concepts of ethics are deductively introduced in a teacher-centered pattern if not through rote learning.

Such program encourages students into cross-cultural understanding, acceptance of the diversity of cultures, religions, or races. They must be able to present themselves as an entity with dignity, being proud and fully respected as a part of world society. Here, tolerance disseminates and civilized attitudes are fertilized.

So, what matters in our education is actually applicable initiatives and commitment to run them, not to repeated changes to the curriculum. Willing teachers and administrators are the main actors, whose mentality should be enlightened.

The writer is a teacher in Jakarta and researcher at Paramadina Foundation.