Creating a Central Asian Higher Education Area

Big and exciting news in the world of higher education in Central Asia: a Central Asian Higher Education Area is finally on the cards.

Five cats cuddled together… Five Central Asian countries agreeing to a partnership… OK, OK, it’s pure feline clickbait. Sorry not sorry.

The plans have been formalized and signed by the five countries’ Ministers of Education in the Turkestan Declaration signed in June 2021.

When it comes to higher education, the Central Asian countries have a history of bilateral partnership, cooperation with other countries (Russia, China) and regions (well, region in the singular: the European Union is the main player), but the absence of a regional alliance or even any particular interest in galvanizing their geographic proximity has been striking. This is something Natalia Leskina and I found in our research on the efforts made by both Russia and China to construct a Eurasian higher education region: these outside actors have been more active in shaping a regional imaginary than the Central Asian states themselves.

The Turkestan Declaration, signed at the end of this year’s Central Asian Education Ministers’ Conference, is explicitly designed on the European model. It even names the Bologna Process as providing “leadership and guidance for the further development of higher education” (p.1).

The new Central Asian Higher Education Area (CAHEA) envisages:

  • “developing comparable National Qualifications Frameworks;
  • optimization of the procedure for the recognition of educational documents, academic degrees and titles;
  • implementation of a comparable credit system according to ECTS, the European Credit Transfer System;
  • supporting regional mobility of students, faculty and academic staff by ensuring recognition and crediting of periods of time spent on learning;
  • ensuring the quality of education in order to develop comparable criteria and methodologies;
  • cooperation in the development of educational programs, joint study programs, practical training and scientific research;
  • providing targeted grants for higher education to citizens of countries that have joined to this Declaration;
  • participation in joint research projects.” (quoted from p.2 of the Declaration)

The CAHEA will have a Secretariat based in one of the participating countries – my money’s on Kazakhstan hosting it – and will initially focus on four main areas of cooperation:

  1. An alliance of Central Asian Universities
  2. An assocation of qualifications recognitions organizations
  3. A Central Asian Education Quality Assurance Network
  4. A students’ alliance

Each of these four planks is designed to bring the national higher education systems into greater harmony, whether through mutual recognition of qualifications, joint student research or integrated courses/programmes.

According to a Kazakh news agency, the idea for the CAHEA was put forward by Askhat Aymagambetov, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Education and Science. With the support of the “western colleagues”* also present at the conference, the idea was adopted and the result was the 3 page Turkestan Declaration.

As well as the expected praises being sung about academic cooperation, Aymagambetov is also quoted as connecting the need for a CAHEA with increased inter-regional migration. Migration of people is very much a recurring hot topic for Central Asia. Aymagambetov notes that 70% of the education documents verified through foreign recognitions of qualifications procedures are from other Central Asian countries, also pointing out that there are currently 20,000 students from Central Asia studying in Kazakhstan, a number that is on the rise.

The CAHEA therefore combines intellectual ideals with a practical recognition of the high mobility that already exists within Central Asia. As the current flows of students tend to be directed towards Kazakhstan, there is doubtless something to be gained by Kazakhstan promoting more integration. I’m not trying to say that Kazakhstan harbours some evil masterplan to steal all the region’s students; rather that it is in their interests to spearhead and therefore take the lead in shaping this emerging regional grouping.

Absent from the Declaration or related press on the CAHEA idea is any discussion about financing this new institution or funding for its initiatives. On the one hand, this is unsurprising for a high level declaration more based on principles. On the other hand, this gap speaks more loudly than you’d expect – where, for example, is a commitment to an Erasmus+ style major scholarship/funded set of exchanges with students from within the region and beyond?

On the money side, I expect the CAHEA to be fairly low budget given the relative lack of national financing available for higher education (or any other public sector, come to mention it) in some of the Central Asian countries. What will be interesting to follow is whether Kazakhstan takes financial as well as moral leadership of this initiative, or whether this marks a first opportunity for the European Commission to fund and devise a replica of the European Higher Education Area.

The signatures are still freshly inked on the Turkestan Declaration, so it’s too early to see any results of this new initiative. However, it remains an extremely exciting development for higher education in the region, and I have good reason to believe that this will indeed turn into more than just a statement of intent.

*Their words, not mine. The article lists these colleagues as representatives of the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the Bologna Follow-Up Group, and Erasmus+.

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