Narrowing the Gap through Strong Network and Mutual Trust among Universities in the Mekong Region

29 July 2021

By JAIF Management Team

Since the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in December 2015, increase in the flow of skilled workers, capital, goods, information and technology is witnessed in the ASEAN region, while the biggest challenge for the ASEAN community integration is to fill the development gap that exists between the original ASEAN Member States and the relatively new ASEAN Member States, namely Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam (CLMV). Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF) has been focusing on addressing the development gap for more than a decade since the establishment of the fund, especially in human resource capacity building in the CLMV countries.

Under the framework of JAIF with the cooperation of the ASEAN Secretariat, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO RIHED) implemented the project on Support for Capacity Building of the Greater Mekong Subregion University Consortium (Phase 1) during 2018 and 2019. The Project aimed to strengthen CLMV’s higher education with the focus on human resource development. The project is also in line with the priority areas of the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) that aims to narrow the development gap through strengthening people-to-people connectivity and human resource development in the ASEAN region.

The project targeted 22 member universities in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam among the GMS-UC. It aims to enhance the overall quality and competitiveness of higher education institutions in the ASEAN region by conducting series of activities during the two-year period.

Four main activities were implemented with different targeted groups involved in higher education. There are University President/Rector Forums which targeted university leaders, Management Leadership Development Workshops for senior leaders to identify strategic issues, create vision, develop strategic planning and quality assurance of universities. As a platform to share good practices and approaches for education and research, the project conducted Teaching and Research Capacity Development Workshops. Lastly, Internationalisation and Cross-border Education where key stakeholders of students, alumni, industries, and Japanese research funding agencies opened space for collective learnings for internationalisation efforts from Japan and ASEAN countries.

These activities resulted in the continuous improvement of the quality of GMS-UC member universities and contributed to narrowing the quality gap between the universities in the CLMV and other high or middle-income ASEAN countries.

Dr. Romyen Kosaikanont, Centre Director of SEAMEO RIHED, the proponent of the project, looks back and tells that CLMV countries have great potential, but there are development gaps as well. As an intergovernmental organization, SEAMEO RIHED has close ties with the respective governments in the Mekong sub-region, hence she was convinced that this project would be a turning key not only to strengthen the field of higher education but for the development and integration of the sub-region as a whole. Vo Tran Trung Nhan, Programme Officer of SEAMEO RIHED added that the Greater Mekong Sub-region’s higher education had needed regional support for capacity building of its higher education institutions. The project employed needs based approach and addressed the quality enhancement of targeted universities in need for capacity building.

In the interview, participants from Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar shared about their actual experience and learning, as well as how they have applied their knowledge gained in the field.

Prof. Kyaw Kyaw Khaung, Rector, East Yangon University, Myanmar

Prof. Kyaw of East Yangon University who participated in the University President/ Rector Forum expresses he was uplifted with the expertise shared in the forum. The Rector is genuinely passionate about internationalisation of higher education in Myanmar and is making day-to-day effort even in adversity. Universities in Myanmar are constantly facing shortage of funds because government funding is the only funding mechanism, and most of the funds are allocated to the salaries of faculty staff. Hence, the funds cannot be devoted to the development of research. He has been negotiating with the supervising ministry to incorporate the SEAMEO RIHED’s Asian International Mobility for Students (AIMS) Programme, which allows students to gain cross-cultural experiences, but honestly shares that it is not easy. During the Study Visit conducted as part of the project, Japanese and Thai experts visited his university to give lectures to students and set up a forum for exchanging opinions. This became a catalyst to open the eyes of many students and faculties. He claims, “internationalisation is not only about studying abroad, but many things can still be done at home.” In addition, another learning from the forum is the importance to raise awareness of the global trends by students. The university started an internship program with neighboring small and medium-sized enterprises intending to strengthen the relationship between the industries and the university and to realize further development of the industries in Myanmar.

Prof. Tum Saravuth, Rector, Svay Rieng University, Cambodia

In Cambodia there are limited numbers of PhD holders who are capable to teach at universities due to the tragedy in the past. “We are in the process of building a new education system, and there is still a long way to go” tells Prof. Saravuth of Syay Rieng University. The University was founded in 2005. It has just taken the first steps toward internationalization and gained much from the Management Leadership Workshops. The University is located in a special economic zone with various high-tech factories, and the Rector recognizes the need for a highly skilled workforce in Cambodia. He reached out to King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in Thailand, who is also a member of GMS-UC, through the Director General of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport of Cambodia, and started the exchange of information and regular visits. The University designed a ten-year strategic plans to set up an internationally certified engineering program in collaboration with KMUTT. Prof. Saravuth says the university was able to benefit most from the strong network built through the project and the best practices shared on how to identify strategic goals for a university.

Prof. Yean Sambo, Vice Rector, Chae Sim University of Kamchaymear, Cambodia

Prof. Sambo of Chae Sim University is also one of the beneficiaries who put into practice the know-hows of the practical credit transfer system acquired in the Teaching and Research Capacity Development Workshops. The University has set up a joint degree program with the Faculty of Agriculture of Hanoi National University and sent 50 students to Viet Nam during the two years from 2019 to 2020. Professor Taiji Hotta is the founder of the credit transfer system University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP), which has been widely adopted in the Asia-Pacific region. He is also an expert of this project and shared his expertise on internationalisation and cross-border education in order to realize harmonization of quality assurance and credit transfer systems in the ASEAN region. The Vice Rector says they were able to learn concretely how to set up a curriculum that suits the needs of their own universities without falling into the mindset of copying the methods of western countries or Japan but applying them to their own country context.

Prof. Kaisone Phengsopha, Director of the Postgraduate Study Office, National University of Laos, Lao PDR

In Lao PDR, the education quality is one of the poorest among the ASEAN Members States, Prof. Kaisone of the National University of Laos (NUoL) candidly shares. Especially with this COVID-19 pandemic, universities in Laos are facing a new predicament. In order not to interrupt the curriculum even when the infrastructure and equipment are scarce, faculties and students are struggling to adopt a new way of learning by using complex technologies. However, the Director asserts that much of what they learned in the workshops is being put into practice in improving the quality of education. Above all, the knowledge about the formulation of strategic plans for university management and the internationalisation of education, which was shared by the Japanese and other ASEAN experts, was significant in designing a university’s five-year plan until 2025. This plan includes exchange programs for students and staff with universities in the CLMV and a joint research program with high-profile foreign universities. In addition, how to practice Strength Weakness Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) Analysis was one of the most essential learnings for the university leaders obtained during the project. Through this method of analysis, they were able to clarify where the challenges of the university existed and what should be strengthened. In Laos, job opportunities are rare, so it is crucial for the young generation to train themselves to create new job opportunities. To face this challenge, NUoL is developing a business development module which will be introduced in all study programs to help students establish their own business related to their disciplines.

Participants of the 2nd Rectors Forum of Greater Mekong Sub-region University Consortium poses for a group photo session.


As the proponent of the project, SEAMEO RIHED also had a number of learnings through the project. “Working with different countries with diverse work cultures, needs and competencies gave us an opportunity to grow and the expertise accumulated can be put into future projects”, shares Dr. Romyen. In addition, the strong network and mutual trust built through the project are valuable assets to all GMS-UC members. They can reach out to one another for help or connection when needed.

Active discussion takes place in the Teaching and Research Capacity Development Workshop.


Japan has been a consistent supporter of promoting higher education in ASEAN that will contribute to the prosperity of the region and fostering long-term and mutually beneficial educational cooperation and promoting people-to-people exchanges. The Vision Statement on ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation1 emphasizes the alignment of the ASEAN Plus Three Cooperation on Education and ensuring its complementarity with the ASEAN Work Plan on Education 2016-2020.

1 Vision Statement on ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation was adopted to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation on 14 December 2013 and the Revised Implementation Plan was later adopted on 6 August 2017.