About Emma

I’m a higher education policy specialist with 20 years of expertise in research, teaching, policy analysis, consultancy, and practice.

I’ve published widely in academic journals/books as well as in general interest publications, webinars, and podcasts.

Current professional expertise

As Head of Research and Foresight at UNESCO’s International Institute for Higher Education, I lead a range of international projects including: the right to higher education, the futures of higher education, virtual student mobility, academic freedom and self-regulation of higher education governance.


I completed my PhD in Comparative & International Higher Education from the University of Toronto, Canada in 2020 (yes, I’m a Zoom doctor…). My thesis is about how and why change happens in higher education, with a focus on post-Soviet higher education systems. My PhD was funded by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and a Study Abroad Studentship from the UK’s Leverhulme Trust.

My thesis won the 2021 Dissertation Award from the Comparative & International Education Society Eurasia SIG; part of my doctoral research was awarded the 2018 Excellent Paper Award for an Emerging Scholar by the Knowledge Politics and Policies Standing Group of the European Consortium of Political Researchers.

I have an undergraduate MA (Hons) in Russian Studies & History from the University of Edinburgh, UK; a Postgraduate Certificate in Conflict & Development from the Open University, UK; and an MBA in Higher Education Management from the Institute of Education, UK (now University College London).


As a researcher, I explore the effects of current global shifts on education policy in comparative and international perspective. At York University (Toronto, Canada), I coordinated a SSHRC-funded project on the international education-migration nexus and was the lead researcher for Canada. I also completed research for a new project on the geopolitics of international higher education.

I have also formally collaborated on research with the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the University of Toronto, the Higher School of Economics (Russia)/University of Oxford, and the University of Central Asia.

Since 2011, I’ve been running a blog about education, society and politics in Central Asia. This stems from working in Central Asia for an inspiring and groundbreaking education initiative in the early 2000s plus subsequent freelance and voluntary work as well as a host of other ongoing connections in the region. My blog has been named one of The Guardian’s “best social media accounts for academics” (2016) and my blog posts have attracted attention from a wider audience, including El País, Huffington Post and Yahoo Canada.


I teach courses in higher education, education policy, and international/global studies. At graduate level, I have taught international academic relations, systems of higher education, and comparative educational theories and methods. At undergraduate level, I’ve taught large enrolment courses in critical international development students.

I support students to build their own bridges between their lived experiences and the course material through active learning processes that encompass opportunities for reflection and developing self-awareness. I’m an experienced mentor and have a career long commitment to promoting women’s professional development.

Policy analysis and consultancy

As a policy analyst and consultant, I have advised on education projects for the governments of Tajikistan (with the World Bank), Estonia and the UK, the University of Oxford, and the University of Central Asia. I managed conferences, membership and governance at the Central Eurasian Studies Society.

I am an Advisory Board member at the Centre for Global Higher Education (University of Oxford/University College London) and a founding Advisory Council member of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. I was a Board Director of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education.

Higher education administration

As a higher education practitioner, I enjoyed a progressively senior career working in higher education administration and management at the University of Central Asia (Tajikistan), University of Oxford (UK) and the Institute of Education, University College London (UK) prior to starting doctoral research.

I am co-author of the book Managing your career in higher education administration (2014), part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Universities into the 21st century series.


In addition to English (my native language), I have fluent Russian, good but rusty French, intermediate Spanish and a smattering of other languages.

Social media and networks

Twitter @EmmaSabzalieva



39 thoughts on “About Emma

  1. kazaknomad

    If you read my blog over 3 1/2 years you will find out what I experienced teaching at western universities in Almaty and also in Astana. I won’t name their names but it is not too difficult to figure out if you know anything about Kazakhstan. Enjoy blogging about two of MY favorite topics, higher education in Central Asia.


    1. Thanks for your reply, Kazakh Nomad, and I can take a wild guess at the two universities you are talking about! It’s great to know there are other people out there interested in higher education in the region, and you found the blog before I’d even attempted to publicise it! (I’d love to know how you picked it up?).


      1. I think I did my usual Tag Surfer on WordPress to find your blog that has tags connected to KZ. Every day I read a LOT of other interesting blogs like people who are biking through Central Asia or I found out more things about the April 2010 uprising in Kyrgyzstan that way. I stay informed about a place I love and care about the people who live in places where I have spent some time. You are right, there is NOT much written about higher education in Kazakhstan simply because it is a delicate subject. Cultural and linguistic issues along with East meets West is all a part of the mix. I hope you can unravel some of the mysteries that reside alongside each other such as urban vs. rural education. The privileged vs those in poverty. I fear the divide may be worsening instead of getting better. But working with those Kazakh students in the western universities gave me hope for the country’s future. Strange paradox. Work IN the university system under some of the KZ or other administrators and there is reason to not be hopeful. Work with the parents or the young people and there is good things in store for you. Keep writing, please!!!


      2. An interesting observation about working in the university system vs working with parents/young people.

        As the blog develops I hope to have contributions from both groups you mention so that should bring a deeper perspective to my own contributions.


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  3. Hi Emma, I’m a spanish journalist from El País Newspaper and I want to send you some questions about your last post about the high heels. Could you contact me, please? Thanks!


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  5. Hi Emma, I’m terrible at writing comments on blogs, so I’ll just say that I really like the idea and design of your website, and look forward to exploring your posts. I’m a Russian translator and writer with a Central Asia fixation…



    1. Thanks Jon and nice to hear from you (we connected on LinkedIn a while ago). Are you planning any trips to Central Asia? You’d definitely have plenty to write about if you went!

      The blog uses a free WordPress template, but I chose it very deliberately because part of the design is similar to the Central Asian/Iranian suzani textile. The content of the blog is also quite deliberate, picking up on my two key interests in the region and in higher education around the world. Put the two together and there you go! I do sometimes write on more general themes such as politics and social change as well.

      Happy reading!


  6. Dear Emma,

    I hope you still remember me!

    I’m writing to ask a small favour. I have been asked to write a short article about Uzbekistan, in particular the game of cricket there. Cricket is very popular in the Asian subcontinent, and as there are many Indians and Pakistanis living in Central Asia as students, I was wondering if you knew some people working at international Uzbek schools or universities, who could could put me in touch with some of them?

    I know it’s a long shot, but I’m struggling!

    Best wishes,



    1. Hi Viktor. I worked in Tajikistan after studying Russian at university, which is where my interest stems from. The decision to study Russian was a chance one that I hadn’t planned, but it has changed my life!


      1. Viktor Li

        Interesting. I was born in Dushanbe in 1982. When were you last be in Tajikistan? I am native of Dushanbe city, but I live in USA now because of the war in Tajikistan. Many Koreans lived in Dushanbe in 1980s, along with Tatars, Russians, and others. Alas, the country is in a new era now.


  7. Doug Blum

    Hi Emma,
    I’ve just stumbled upon your excellent blog as well as a paper you did on the impact of study abroad. I’d love to be in touch! I’ve recently finished a book length manuscript on cultural globalization as it relates to return migration in Kazakhstan, and I’m researching a piece on Central Asian students abroad. So we obviously have a lot of interests in common.


    1. Hi Doug,
      Thanks very much for the message, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. It would be great to be in touch. In the meantime I’m going to make sure I find a copy of ‘National Identity and Globalization’ which looks really interesting! I have a growing interest in young people in Soviet and post-Soviet Central Asia and am thinking about how to take that forward in the longer term.


  8. Muqaddas

    I am Muqaddas.I am Tajik and am living in Dushanbe,studying in the Moscow state university in here. I really dont like life in Tajikistan,I dont mean my family,what I mean is,the life in here for youngers is very hard. If you have money,you can live good in Tajikistan ,otherwise you feel yourself as Nothing. No good Education,no place for students to go after the school, no clubs(extracurricular activitied) for us to express ourselves,there is only one exception,is sport,but it casts money. Damn,thats so hard in here. Please if you have free time and any questions to ask about Tajikistans education,corruption in here you can ask me,I will tell you not only my oppinion but other Tajiks too.
    Thank you.


    1. Dear Muqaddas,
      Thanks for both of your messages. I’m privileged to know that you have found my blog although sad that you share some of my negative outlooks for higher education in Tajikistan. The main question I am asking at the moment is “why is higher education not developing in Tajikistan?”. Because there is a lot of money coming from the World Bank etc etc, but we aren’t see real change in the system. I would love to hear your views about that question.


      1. Muqaddas

        Thanks for your reply. We dont know about money that come to us from the World Bank,we dont feel it,but we see how people who are working in the best places in here get their pockets bigeer and fill them with money. Thats a corruption,its a big problem in here,everyone can see it but noone is changing that. Thats very bad for students psychology,some may get crazy because of that. You are welcome to ask more questions. If you want you can add me in the viber.


      2. Hi Muqaddas,
        Thank you for the generous offer to ask you more questions! I can see that corruption is a major issue for you. Have you or your friends personally experienced problems?
        We can continue this discussion by email/viber – I will contact you directly.
        Best wishes, Emma.


  9. George D

    Hi Emma,

    I’m really glad to have come across your blog. I’m currently working on a couple of projects (both totally still in their formative stages) on cultural heritage and revival in Central Asia. I was particularly interested in your comment about suzani, above.

    One of these projects involves providing opportunities for students from the region to study at postgraduate level in the UK. This, of course, runs completely counter to what your own work is focused upon achieving! But it’s precisely for this reason that I’d like to talk to you about it. It’s important that we have properly considered all the potential ramifications of this project.

    I’d be delighted to speak to you further about this.



    1. Dear George,

      Thanks for getting in touch and I hope you will find my blog a useful resource. I don’t have any stance on studying abroad, contrary to what I think you’re suggesting! In fact, I am currently an international student myself… I think there cam be many benefits both for students and host nations to having student mobility programmes. I would be happy to discuss your projects further with you. I will email you to start the ball rolling.


  10. Hi Emma!

    I found your article ‘Challenges in contemporary higher education in
    Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’ while doing a coursework. I haven’t read it yet. Despite that happy to see your contribution to the development of Central Asia.

    Thank you a lot,


      1. Hi,

        Sorry, it took me long to respond. I did not use your article, because my research focus shifted from Higher Education to Secondary Education. I wrote a proposal to become a fellow in the U.S. My proposal was accepted. I will start my fellowship this fall. I will be looking at private-public partnership (PPP) practices from around the world, and see if the same concept could be used in Kyrgyzstan.

        However, I am generally interested in reforming and improving education system in Kyrgyzstan. I believe, this should our government’s main priority.



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  15. Nazgul

    Dear Emma,
    I have encountered your blog as I was searching for some information related to Nazarbayev University partnership with western universities.
    Let me first introduce myself. My name is Nazgul Bayetova and I am from Astana, Kazakhstan. I am currently pursuing my doctorate degree in Higher Education at Florida International University, Florida, USA. My professor has become extremely interested in strategic partnership of NU. Unfortunately, as you probably know, I have encountered issues finding feasible research studying related to this topic. I have read your previous posts and I am sure you are an expert in this area. Please let me know if there are any chances to learn about this topic on this website. Could you please share any additional information about NU as well?
    Thank you very much
    Nazgul Bayetova
    Miami, Florida.


    1. Dear Nazgul,
      Many thanks for getting in touch and I hope your research is going well! You can use the search function on my website to see what I have written before about Nazarbayev University, and I also wrote an article about building world class universities that uses NU as the case study. You can link to this on the Publications page of my site.
      Best wishes,


  16. Dear Emma,
    I am visiting Uzbekistan for the first time and would like to make contact with any institutions or groups that are working on citizen science projects andor the SDGs. Can you suggest any contacts?


    1. Hi Libby,
      It’s great that you are going to Uzbekistan! I hope you have an excellent time there. Great question – I will put out a call to my Twitter followers and see whether anyone has any leads. My other suggestion would be to see which institutions/groups the UN in Uzbekistan in supporting, particularly as this relates to the SDGs.
      Best wishes,


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