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Victor Sumsky: “Cooperation in the area of education is the most important reserve for strengthening relations with ASEAN countries”

Victor Sumsky, Doctor of History, the Director of the ASEAN Center at MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) University run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, talks about the upcoming Russia-ASEAN University Forum at the EEF

Victor Sumsky: “Cooperation in the area of education is the most important reserve for strengthening relations with ASEAN countries”

– Victor Vladimirovich, Russia will have one more platform for dialogue with ASEAN countries: the “Russia-ASEAN University Forum” will be held in Vladivostok during the Eastern Economic Forum on September, 1-2. Please tell us more about this initiative.

– This initiative originated during the preparations of the program of activities to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Russia-ASEAN Dialogue Partnership, which we are celebrating in 2016. Not so long ago, a similar forum was held on the occasion of the BRICS Summit in Ufa. Now we are trying to apply this positive experience to the Russia-ASEAN Partnership. There are two answers to the question of why we want to bring together the officials of the education sector, science and culture, representing our countries. One of them is related to the fact that universities are very complex organisms, and the discussion on their effective management, and best prevailing practices in this area, are of independent interest for professional managers. However, another thing is also evident: universities are the keepers of vast amounts of knowledge accumulated by mankind, generators and distributors of new ideas – they have a direct relation to literally everything that happens in the modern world, they have an enormous potential for analysis and the evaluation of the direction towards which this world is moving. It is natural to expect from the people, whose lives are linked to universities, competent forecasts in relation to various areas of human activity, unconventional recommendations on how to approach the solution to various problems. Considering these, the ASEAN-Russia University Summit provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the progress of our cooperation in politics, security, the economy and culture, as well as to turn it into a full-fledged strategic partnership. After all, this is the goal that the leaders of the Russian Federation and ASEAN countries have set following their Sochi Summit in May this year.

The choice of location, which will host this Forum, is symbolic. The campus of the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) – the newest and most well-equipped campus in contemporary Russia – is seen as the clear confirmation of the country’s interest in the development of its eastern territories, and the strengthening of ties with its Asian neighbors, including ASEAN countries.

Along with the FEFU, as the host of the EEF, other universities of Siberia and the Far East – and of course those of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other institutions for higher education of Russia – will be widely represented. In conclusion, it should be noted that the management and experts of MGIMO, leading this project in close partnership with the Far Eastern Federal University, are involved in the development of the Forum`s concept, its organizational preparation.

– Since the Forum will be attended by representatives of universities from the ASEAN countries, please tell us about the state of higher education in these countries.”

– It is known that the ASEAN brings together ten countries that are very different from each other in terms of size, level of economic development and political systems.  However, in each of them – from tiny Brunei to vast Indonesia – there are universities that have received recognition in the region and sometimes beyond, due to the high level of teaching, international team of students, strong international relations and good conditions for research activities. The universities of Chulalongkorn and Thammasat in Thailand, the National University of Singapore, Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines are the national pride of their respective countries, the personification of their countries to an extent similar to that of the Moscow State University and St. Petersburg State University. However, these are not all the educational institutions, which the ASEAN countries can be proud of. Thus, in Vladivostok our rectors and professors will meet with very serious and respected colleagues from Southeast Asia, and their discussions promise to be truly meaningful.

– What is the current situation of  Russian cooperation with ASEAN countries in the area of higher education and research?” What does it look, if you compare us with other partners of the Association?

– Let us say that today the number of students from ASEAN countries studying in Russia is significantly lower than in the United States, China, Japan or Australia. However, it is quite evident that Russia is popular in its own way, as well as being competitive as a country that provides high-quality and relatively inexpensive education in the area of medicine, exact and natural sciences. We can train engineers of various profiles, our students steadily excel in international competitions in computer science and programming; Russian traditions and competence in disciplines related to aeronautics and astronautics are well known. It is natural therefore that in Russian medical universities – not only in the capital city, but also in such cities as Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod – one can easily meet students from Malaysia, and students from Myanmar in the Bauman MSTU and the Stankin Technical University.

As for the leaders, in terms of the total number of students studying in Russia, today these are Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia: year after year, several thousands of students from these countries are trained in our universities. In my opinion, the prerequisites for achieving the similar levels of attendance by students exist in Thailand and Indonesia. The question as to what further actions can be taken to further attract students from ASEAN countries to Russia, and young Russians to in the best universities in South-East Asia ( by the way, where a number of Russian students could be higher) will be discussed at the Forum.

No review of Russian-ASEAN cooperation in the area of higher education would be complete without mentioning the contribution of MGIMO to this effort, and here is why. In the case of MGIMO, it is appropriate to speak not just about the training of national specialists, but about the education of national elites – political, business, and intellectual. Today, the list of the alumni of our University includes almost four hundred Vietnamese, about a hundred of Cambodians and approximately the same number of Laotians, and in many cases, these are high-level diplomats, managers, party and government leaders. Among our outstanding alumni we count Ms. Soung Ratchavi, ASEAN Deputy General Secretary in the recent past and currently the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cambodia. Saleumxay Kommasith, also an MGIMO graduate, this year became the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lao PDR. These examples encourage us to reflect on the great opportunities we have to enhance mutual understanding and cooperation with ASEAN countries – as, indeed, other external partners as well – that arise due to exchange of students and teachers, together with other joint initiatives in the area of education and science. I have no doubt that this topic will be one of the key topics at this University Forum in Vladivostok.