The Oxford of Uzbekistan

Uzbekistani President Mirziyoyev’s (fictional) cat also has construction plans

First announced in 2019, more details are emerging of plans to construct an Oxford-style leading university in Uzbekistan. Presidential University (or President’s University, depending on how you like to translate Президентский университет), as it is currently known, will be a small institution catering to 8,000 of the brightest Uzbek students. All of its teaching staff will be international.

The comparison to Oxford was not made by me, although the eagle eyed among you may recall seeing the ‘Oxford of…’ moniker before on this blog. Back in 2012, one of my first posts outlined the then nascent development of Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan and the efforts to create this flagship university to emulate other highly esteemed institutions such as Oxford and Harvard.

In this case, it was Uzbekistani President Mirziyoyev who said “We want to be the first to bring an Oxford education to Uzbekistan. British education is world leading. We’ve opened new Presidential schools and now we’re going to open a Presidential University…”

Other than the apparent prestige of associating with Oxford, Mirziyoyev is also using this new project as a way to stop the outflow of talented young people. As he noted, around half of those who study abroad don’t come back to Uzbekistan. They stay abroad because of better conditions and higher salaries, Mirziyoyev revealed.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, or one that’s unique to Uzbekistan. The use of higher education and the creation of flagship universities to address perceived deficits in the domestic system has been used before, notably in Central Asia with the aformentioned creation of Nazarbayev University (which started life as New University and got renamed for the then President and now Founding President).

The idea that importing different educational models and personnel will shake up the delivery of higher education does have some merit. On the other hand, I very much doubt that it will reduce the number of young people who seek international opportunities to study abroad.

However, the basic premise that an external model (in this case, British, but it could as easily be American, German, etc) is somehow ‘better’ for a country is very problematic. Think about the basis on which that British system has been built, the coloniality of it, and the white supremacy it normalizes. Not only is it not a desirable model to strive for, but it’s a model that cannot by its very nature be reproduced because it is designed to be exclusive and to retain a them-and-us hierarchy.

In the context of the region’s other ‘Oxford’, Nazarbayev University, I’ve written about the challenges of trying to build a world-class university outside the global ‘core’. Good luck to Mirziyoyev and co if they go ahead with their Oxford project, but I suspect that they’d have greater success by investing state funds and attention in improving pay and conditions in existing universities and seriously tackling corruption in education and across societal spheres.

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