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What does the Asian Universities’ Alliance mean for Central Asia?

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A small flurry of press stories recently (e.g. in University World News on 2 JuneUniversity World News on 4 May, The PIE NewsToday.kz and ICEF Monitor) announced the arrival of a new partnership of higher education institutions, the Asian Universities’ Alliance (AUA). Bringing together 15 universities from 14 countries, the AUA aims to promote academic mobility between institutions and countries and enhance collaborative research activity.

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Partnerships and alliances come in many shapes and sizes

As reported by University World News, the founding members include China’s Tsinghua University and Peking University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology or HKUST, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, South Korea’s Seoul National University, Japan’s University of Tokyo, Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, Myanmar’s University of Yangon, Malaysia’s University of Malaya, National University of Singapore, University of Indonesia, Sri Lanka’s University of Colombo, United Arab Emirates University, Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University and Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University.

University alliances are an excellent manifestation of the soft power potential of higher education (check out this Google search for many, many examples of this). As also noted by Andrew Gunn and Michael Mintrom writing for University World News, what is unusual about the AUA is its choice to focus only on top-ranking universities in Asia – many alliances bring together a range of institutional types from a number of world regions.

Gunn and Mintrom go a step further, suggesting that the AUA is “distinctive because of the extent to which it is a form of Chinese soft power.” Indeed, the AUA is led by Bejing-based Tsinghua, considered one of China’s best universities.

At a time when responses to China’s (literally) far-reaching One Belt, One Road economic and foreign policy have often expressed concern/fear about China’s grand plans, it is interesting that responses to the AUA have been largely positive, even though it is unashamedly focussed on increasing Asia’s position in global higher education.

Perhaps the lack of negativity comes from the lead institution’s more nuanced vision for the alliance. Quoted in The PIE News, Tsinghua University president Qiu Yong said that this was not about Asian universities trying to mimic their Western counterparts:

Higher education should not have only one voice. Western education is also successful but I do believe that there are Eastern educational philosophy and heritage that deserves to be cherished also.

(The fact that Tsinghua is providing US$1.5m of funding to kickstart the AUA may also help explain the aura of positivity…)

As you’ll have seen from the list of members above, there is one Central Asian institution in the new alliance – Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University. This gives me the opportunity to reflect on the impact that the new AUA may have in Central Asia, not just for Nazarbayev University, but more generally for higher education in the region.

I suggest that this could go one of two ways for universities in Central Asia.

First and foremost, Central Asian universities will be able to use the AUA to position themselves as a bridge between the US/Europe and Asia. Kazakhstan has already been doing this very effectively for a number of years, and the country’s President is very fond of the “heart of Eurasia” geopolitical symbolism in describing his country.

Indeed, Nazarbayev University President Shigeo Katsu echoes this discourse directly, and is quoted by Today.kz as saying:

Казахстан находится в сердце Евразии, между Востоком и Западом, поэтому я думаю, что важно развивать сотрудничество не только с западными, но и азиатскими вузами. Учрежденный сегодня Альянс азиатских вузов будет полезным не только для учреждений высшего образования как таковых, но и, в первую очередь, самих студентов, которые смогут общаться друг с другом на площадке молодежного форума Альянса.

[Kazakhstan is at the heart of Eurasia, between East and West. That’s why I believe that it’s important to develop cooperation with both Western and Asian universities. The new Alliance of Asian Universities will be useful not only for higher education institutions like ours, but also – and importantly – for students, who will be able to communicate with each other through the Alliance’s youth forum.

There are opportunities for other Central Asian universities to replicate this bridging symbolism in a way that makes sense for their own institutional missions.

A second possibility is that, rather than the AUA offering the opportunity for Central Asian universities to position themselves between Asia and the West, they might instead prefer to move in just one direction. I think it is feasible that a number of universities will see the AUA as legitimizing their own interests/strategies in connecting with Asian higher education.

China is increasingly influential in Central Asia, primarily through its economic might (although reports suggest this may be taking some time to embed). Universities could see the AUA as a way to benefit from this regional leadership, rather than struggling against it. Joining an alliance as an active and willing partner would certainly give institutions a stronger position in the AUA than being co-opted (coerced?) further down the line.

Does the AUA force universities to make a choice about whether to align with Asia or to join Kazakhstan’s strategy of straddling global groupings?

I don’t think so. Rather, I believe that universities in Central Asia that are minded to think strategically can benefit from the AUA without closing themselves off to other alliances. As Indian Institute of Technology Bombay Deputy Director Prasanna Mujumdar noted,

If we have strength to pool universities together, the best of minds from both sides, each with their own niche expertise to contribute…

…then you create the possibilities of enhancing the educational offerings of your university. You have a formal network of partners with whom you can exchange students, supporting their learning and broadening their worldview. You have the opportunity to draw on expertise (and potentially physical research equipment) not available in your own setting. And you are part of a bigger whole, able to look not just at the local and national environment but to a regional setting as well.

Creating and developing these factors means that your university is better positioned to then join other networks, whether these are bilateral partnerships or larger associations like the AUA.

The key challenge for universities in Central Asia will be to demonstrate the value they can bring to such partnerships. The many strengths they have are often overlooked because the countries of Central Asia are considered to be marginal in the world system or because the legacy of the Soviet higher education system is (wrongly, in my view) dismissed as weak/irrelevant. Views like this are hard to overcome, and make the challenge for universities harder, but it is imperative that universities do what they can to step up to this challenge.

Kyrgyz students 2015 – who, what, where

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This is a wonderful infographic from Sputnik, a Russia media agency that set up shop in Kyrgyzstan last year. Produced recently for International Day of Students, the original article is here.

For me, the most interesting stories are:

  1. The mismatch between the funding that the state is making available to students, and the courses they want to study
  2. The continuing popularity of computing-related and social sciences subjects
  3. The huge growth in the number of international students from India and Kazakhstan, and the parallel crash in the Uzbek student body

For non-Russian readers, a translation is below.

Kyrgyz student infographic 2015 sputnik.kg.png

Emma’s English translation…

Title: Student-2015

Which courses did students choose this year, what do the brightest want to be come and which professions does the state need?

Image 1 (light background)

Left: courses for which the government provided the most scholarship places – physics/maths, philology (a combination of literary criticism, history and linguistics), medicine

Right: most popular courses (by enrolment statistics) – economics, law, medicine

38,275 students enrolled in 2015, compared to 38,259 in 2014.

Image 2 (dark blue background)

4,868 students received state funding in 2015; 3,415 students received state funding on the basis of their results in the nationwide admissions exams (ORT in Russian acronym) in 2015. The median score in the ORT was 150,8 to get a state scholarship.

33,407 students are self-funding in 2015. Their median ORT score was 133,2.

Which courses were most popular amongst those scoring highest on the ORT?

  Average score Highest score
State funded places
Software engineering 201,8 229
IT 190,3 214
Medicine and related 185 230
Self-funded places
Software and programming 202,4 234
International and comparative politics 170 197
International and business law 168,8 223

How many state funded places were offered in 2015?

5,441 divided between 24 universities. The highest number of places (615) went to the Kyrgyz State Technical University; the lowest (62) to the Kyrgyz Republic National Academy of Arts. The average tuition fee is 33,000 som (USD$430) compared to 30,000 last year.

Number of foreign students studying in Kyrgyzstan in 2014/15

The yellow to green indicator at the top is for countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States; the pink to red indicator at the bottom is for other countries. The graphs below show an increase from around 3,000 to 4,800 from Kazakhstan during the period 2009/10 to 2014/15 and a huge drop – from 6,000 to 600 from Uzbekistan. The biggest increase from outside the former Soviet region is from India, where student numbers have grown from around 500 to nearly 2,500.

Does research always have to be targeted towards economic benefit?

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If you are a developing Asian state, the answer apparently seems to be ‘yes’. This has been suggested as a strategy for Asian countries in achieving their research and development goals. Resources for scientific research, whether undertaken in universities or in the private sector, should be carefully allocated and targeted towards specific areas for priority development.

Here is well-known international higher education academic Philip Altbach writing about China and India back in 2001:

One strategy available to China and India is targeting specific areas for intensive research and development investment. These areas are generally in fields that can directly benefit the economy and that build on existing strengths in the country.

And here’s another academic, William Cummings, on the growth of a new academic centre in the Asia-Pacific region in 2010:

An interesting line of speculation is that the different academic systems of the Asia-Pacific region might develop distinctive directions of excellence in the decades ahead… China is notable for its achievements in space and in computer-related areas. The Philippines is known for its training of doctors and other health personnel. An infusion of increased resources might allow the country to gain prominence in the health-related sciences.

In recognition of the recent Day of Science in Kyrgyzstan, President Almazbek Atambayev is also weighing in:

Science is of paramount importance in the formation of human capital that is an important factor in accelerating social and economic development of any country. In Kyrgyzstan, it is necessary to concentrate the whole scientific potential on priority directions for the country.

Three narratives from the last 15 years, all suggesting concentration and specialization in some form or another. I think this raises interesting questions around:

  • defining national research/science priorities in an interconnected and interdependent world
  • the benefits and drawbacks of focussing investment in a small number of fields vs sharing resources more widely, if also more thinly
  • the relative weight placed on economic development vs social development
  • whether this push towards concentration is visible in other regions of the world
  • the role that universities can play either in supporting government policy or developing their own priorities drawing on their local, national and global networks

References

Altbach, Philip, “Gigantic Peripheries: India and China in the International Knowledge System,” in Hayhoe, Ruth and Pan, Julia (eds), Knowledge Across Cultures, 2001, pp. 199-214.

Cummings, William.  “Is the Academic Centre Shifting to Asia?” In David Chapman, William Cummings and Gerard Postiglione (eds.) Border Crossing in East Asian Higher Education   (Hong Kong: Comparative Education Centre, University of Hong Kong and Springer Press, 2010), 47-76.

Manasova, Kanykei, “Almazbek Atambayev: We have to concentrate all scientific potential on priority directions for country”, 24.kg, 10.11.2015, accessed from http://www.eng.24.kg/community/177917-news24.html

More on Nazarbayev University

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I try not to blindly copy and paste articles about Central Asian higher education so I’m passing on today’s link with a little bit of hesitation. The reason for this is that the article takes an uncritical approach to the subject. Whilst the article is factual and informative, it’s not controversial (in its true meaning that it may give rise to disagreement): there’s simply nothing much to discuss. The title sounds promising but it doesn’t deliver. Nonetheless, I’m including it and think you should read it because:

a) I like to keep tabs on developments at Nazarbayev U

b) there is a little bit of insight into how India approaches higher education in neighbouring Central Asia and that comparative perspective is valuable

Oh and also to make sure the blog doesn’t become obsolete (there isn’t much happening in Central Asian higher education at the moment)!

(c) Ashok Dixit, http://www.newstrackindia.com/newsdetails/2013/07/05/195-No-evidence-of-education-linked-brain-drain-in-Kazakhstan-says-Nazarbayev-Varsity-Provost.html.

No evidence of education-linked brain drain in Kazakhstan, says Nazarbayev Varsity Provost

Astana, July 5 (ANI): Tertiary or higher education in Kazakhstan is being given the utmost importance by the Government of Kazakhstan as I understood from my interaction with Professor Simon Jones, the Provost of Nazarbayev University, one of the country’s better known institutions of higher education.

Hailing from Wales in the United Kingdom, Professor Jones, a specialist in micro-engineering and a passionate follower of the game of cricket, told me that Nazarbayev University is an autonomous research university located in Astana, and just two years old, and aiming to be the best research-oriented university in Central Asia in collaboration with 30 universities, including the National University of Singapore, the Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Cambridge.

Having already been informed by Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture that about 9000 Kazakh students were studying abroad on scholarships, I asked Professor Jones whether there is a possibility of Kazakhstan experiencing a brain drain of sorts similar to what India had experienced between the 1960s and 1990s.

Emphatically stating that there is no evidence of Kazakhstan experiencing or suffering from brain drain now or in the future, Professor Jones said: “The Government of Kazakhstan is following an education policy that is progressive, that believes in encouraging the younger generation to strive for higher educational qualifications, whether here or from abroad, as it believes that it is important to develop the country, and ensure a better future for Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstan Government is the single biggest employer of students who have acquired higher education degrees from abroad.

Making a specific reference to the “Bolashak Scholarship”, Professor Jones said this scholarship was created by decree by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1993 as part of Kazakhstan’s transition towards a market economy and its desire to expand international contacts through its workforce.

He said that in the early 1990s, there was an acute need for a workforce with advanced western education, and therefore, it was deemed necessary to send the most qualified youth to study in leading educational institutions in foreign countries.

Kazakhstan’s “Bolashak Scholarship” is merit-based and the selection process includes not only academic credentials, but also competence in the language of study, psychological testing and an interview process.

A student has to also profess commitment to the development of Kazakhstan and have a spirit of patriotism to be eligible for the scholarship.

Jones said that the final decision on which student or students are eligible is made by the Republican Commission, chaired by the State Secretary and composed of the Ministers, members of Parliament, and members of the Office of the President.

The Republican Commission also approves the country of study and program of study.

The scholarship requires that all recipients return to Kazakhstan after graduating and work for five years in Kazakhstan. The scholarship pays for all costs related to education, including tuition and fees, costs of travel, and a living stipend. Scholars are expected to maintain academic excellence.

The most popular countries are the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Australia and Malaysia.

Other interesting information made by Professor Jones were that the university is determined to attract the best of faculty from around the world, including from India, to teach its students, who are currently from Kazakhstan. He said that probably from next year, students from other countries maybe admitted.

He said that Nazarbayev University has on its faculty academicians from the IITs, Non-Resident Indian researchers who teach a wide variety of subjects.

He said Nazarbayev University is legally linked to both the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and the Nazarbayev Endowment Fund, all of which are dedicated to promoting educational reform in Kazakhstan.

The Supreme Board of Trustees is the managing authority of the University, Intellectual Schools and the Fund, and is headed by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Board of Trustees is in charge of general management of the university’s activities.

The university currently consists of six schools: the School of Engineering, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the School of Science and Technology, the Graduate School of Business, the Graduate School of Education, and the Graduate School of Public Policy. The School of Medicine is expected to open in 2015, and a School of Mining is currently being considered.

Nazarbayev University offers a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees, ranging from bachelor’s degrees to the Ph.D.

As of 2012, undergraduate majors available to students included anthropology, biology/biomedicine, chemical engineering, chemistry, civil engineering, computational science, economics, electrical and electronic engineering, mathematics, mechanical engineering, physics, political science/international relations, robotics and mechatronics, sociology, world history/philosophy/religion, and world languages, literature and culture.

Most students at Nazarbayev University are initially admitted to the Centre for Preparatory Studies, a one-year programme operated by University College, London. At the end of this programme, they then apply to undergraduate programmes in the University itself. In addition, some students are admitted directly to the undergraduate programmes at the University, while others transfer to the University from other universities.

Nazarbayev University has established six internationally respected partnerships. Each school in the university has one or more partner institution, with which it works on issues of curriculum and programme design, student admissions, faculty recruitment, and quality assurance.

For example, the partner institution of the School of Engineering is the University College London, which also operates the Center for Preparatory Studies at Nazarbayev University. The partner institution of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences is the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Carnegie Mellon University is the partner institution of the School of Science and Technology.

The university is also home to the Centre for Life Sciences (CLS) and the Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System (NURIS).By Ashok Dixit (ANI)