Brunei Darussalam: Focus on education

To boost the quality of its education system, Brunei Darussalam has formed key partnerships with foreign governments and leading international institutions, as well as taken a leadership role in regional education.

On June 11, for example, the University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD) and the US-based East-West Centre, a research organisation aimed at promoting better relations between the US and Asia, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to provide English-language instruction to all 10 ASEAN countries.

The MoU represents just one education-related partnership the Sultanate has formed in recent years. Indeed, it follows up on an announcement in November 2011 launching the Brunei-US English Language Enrichment Project for ASEAN, a $25m project funded by the Bruneian government to span five years.

Next month will see government officials and teacher-trainers from all ASEAN countries arrive in both Brunei Darussalam and the US state of Hawaii for three-month English courses to improve their communications skills, discuss issues impacting the region and learn how to best use information technology. The teachers will have then have the opportunity to teach at higher education institutions in various ASEAN countries, implementing what they’ve learned in Hawaii.

Recent collaborative efforts also include an agreement between UBD and the US’s University of Michigan to conduct research and development programmes, an initiative announced in late July by Andrew Haig, a professor in the physical medicine and rehabilitation department at the University of Michigan.

Regarding the collaboration, Haig said, “Our universities have gotten really close […] Five faculties from UBD have visited and are developing research on obesity and exercise. Besides the research, we are also developing a nursing programme, whereby one of the University of Michigan’s nursing professors is now a joint professor at UBD. UBD is also developing a programme in public health on joint research projects.” The two institutions are cooperating in other areas as well, such as the business school and education.

Brunei Darussalam has taken an active role in promoting education within the region as well. This is part of the country’s overall goal of developing a competitive knowledge-based economy, with specialised labour at all levels. Indeed, the Sultanate has participated in several initiatives to boost education in ASEAN, thus asserting a leadership role within the region.

Another project Brunei Darussalam has promoted is the ASEAN curriculum sourcebook. According to Muhammad Nuh, the minister of education and culture, the text will be a teaching resource for primary and secondary schools within the bloc, intended to develop an outward-looking, stable, peaceful and prosperous ASEAN community. The book addresses important themes related to the ASEAN as an organisation, such as its origins, processes, purposes and achievements, among other topics. With a population of 600m, representing 9% of the global population, ASEAN has enormous potential to take a leading role in the global economy, making it all the more crucial for bonds to be formed between the bloc’s nations.

The Sultanate’s diligent efforts reflect its awareness of education’s significance in economic development. A key target of Brunei Darussalam’s Long-Term Development Plan 2035 (Wawasan 2035), launched in 2008, is to build an education system that provides opportunities for every citizen and resident to meet the requirements of the changing economy.

Much is at stake for the Sultanate. According to a report published in 2011 by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the country’s low foreign direct investment (FDI) levels are linked to its tertiary education index, which stands at around .18, compared to the average ASEAN index of over .30.

As a result, UNCTAD says, Brunei Darussalam currently receives the lowest level of FDI among ASEAN countries. In the first half of 2011, the country received $522.88m in FDI, with the mining and quarrying sector receiving the lion’s share, with $425.87m.

According to Roger Gibbins, the director of SGS Economics and Planning, an Australia-based consultancy firm, the tertiary education index is low because the economy is driven by oil and gas revenues, which are then injected back into the economy through public services.

“The need for people in the workforce to pursue education is not so great, as jobs in the public sector are secured,” Gibbins told local media, emphasising the need for planned economic diversification as the current private sector would be unable to support a growing workforce. Education would play a key role in spurring greater diversification.

With increased opportunities being made available to Bruneians and support from important partners such as the US, the Sultanate is headed on the path of creating a knowledge-based economy. The outcome of its initiatives in education will be significant, not only for the country’s future, but for the region’s as well.

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