international

First Central Asian branch campus to open – and why diversity in higher education matters

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kittns
Will higher education end up looking the same wherever you are in the world?                                                                                          (Note: Obviously I didn’t choose this picture to encourage you to continue reading this post. Oh no. I’d never exploit cats in that way.)

It was perhaps only a matter of time before the rapid internationalization* of higher education in Central Asia made its ways outside the region’s borders, moving away from the current focus on internationalization within the region.

There are examples of internationalization reaching Central Asia littered all over the place. Here are just a few to illustrate the multitudinous growth: the first US branch campus to set up in Uzbekistan, the recently founded English-medium instruction International University of Humanities and Development in Turkmenistan, the recruitment of foreign faculty to work in Kazakhstani universities (a review of a new article on this is coming soon to the blog), and the introduction of Master’s degrees in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as a new level of degree that would in the old system have slotted between the old five year “spetsialist” degree and PhD-equivalent Candidate of Science.

Like other states and regions, the countries of Central Asia are now thoroughly exposed to the range of ideas, influences and processes flowing through higher education systems around the world.

What differentiates one state or region from another is how it decides to deal with those flows, and how much power, legitimacy and money it has available in making those decisions.

Kazakhstan has long stood out from its Central Asian neighbours in terms of the attention given to higher education. As I have argued elsewhere, the state takes higher education seriously and the extensive activity in this sector demonstrates the importance of higher education to the country.

In that context, it is unsurprising that a Kazakh university has become the first in Central Asia to establish a branch campus [ru]** outside the region.

The South Kazakhstan Pedagogical University has opened an office in Brussels, Belgium, with the aim of opening a full branch campus in the future. The university also hopes to build international partnerships, support “integration into the international education space” and “promote the image of education and science of a Kazakhstani higher education institution abroad”.

These are lofty ambitions. It is interesting to see the reputational/brand-building element, as this suggests that the initiative is not just to be beneficial to the institution but to the Kazakh higher education system more generally. This stands out from other similar initiatives where the common motivation tend to centre on the benefits for the institution opening the branch campus – financial gain, opportunity to support exchange of their academics and students, etc.

South Kazakhstan Pedagogical University also has ambitions to open offices at the University of Barcelona, Spain, and the University of Aveiro, Portugal.

We should applaud the initiative of this Kazakhstani institution to bring Kazakh higher education to Europe and its efforts to broaden academic mobility beyond the longstanding “North to South” flow of students to what they perceive as “better” academic systems.

kittns
Here they are again. Isomorphkittens?

I just hope that in this rush to “internationalize”, higher education systems and institutions retain distinctiveness. By copying models and ideas seen elsewhere, we can’t help but become more similar to one another. That might be seen as beneficial if it uniformly raises the quality of higher education, the options available to students regardless of their geographic location, and the ability to share and produce knowledge.

But if we forget our histories and we no longer care about having a diversity of different types of institutions in different parts of the world, then I worry that higher education will lose the ability to inspire, engender and build on creativity. Without creativity, there will be no discovery, and without discovery our world would become a very small and limiting place.

 


*By internationalization – a now over-used term that runs the risk of becoming a catch-all term like globalization – I mean exposing higher education institutions, curricula, faculty, students and structural arrangements to ideas from other systems. For Central Asia this mainly means harmonization with European higher education standards propagated through the Bologna Process, although the American higher education system also provides a strong model.

This exposure to outside ideas is taken on board locally in three different ways (I am grateful for “finding” new institutional theory, which gives me the ability to identify and summarize this). Firstly, ideas can be voluntarily adopted by individuals/institutions/their states. Secondly, they can be taken on because there is a feeling of “catch up” (our system is less good than X’s system, we’d better adopt Y change in order to avoid the risk of falling behind) or stemming from a desire to join an imagined international higher education community. Thirdly, there may a coercive element to the adoption, usually as a condition of receiving funding from an outside body for reform – such as the World Bank/Russian government funded project in Tajikistan to implement changes to the system of admissions to higher education.

**Branch campus – see Wikipedia for a decent explanation

International students, international communities

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I recently started a new job as Registrar at St Antony’s College, which is part of the University of Oxford. Each student at the University is a member of a College, and the College provides residential, pastoral and social facilities as well as providing teaching (for undergraduate students) and a base for researchers, seminars, conferences and so on. Many Colleges accept both undergraduate and postgraduate students whilst mine is one of seven postgrad-only Colleges. We specialise in international relations, politics, economics and history of particular parts of the world. St Antony’s is unique in that we host seven centres, each focussing on a different part of the world. Our student community is very international – around 85% of our students are from outside the UK. We also have a high number of visiting researchers, who come to work with our fellows as well as use the College’s fantastic library and academic/social resources.

One of the (many) things I like about St Antony’s is its cosmopolitan nature. Just yesterday I met with one of our former students from Chile, who is now head of the Chilean athletics team! Today I’ve been in touch with people in Norway, Pakistan as well as down the road in London, to name just a few places. Come the autumn term, there will be regular seminars on aspects of life and society around the world.

The international character of the College can be hugely beneficial for our student community, but it also leads me to thinking about how we integrate our students and what steps we can take to help them settle into life in the UK. Students who are new to the UK (and let’s not talk about the particular quirks of Oxford’s way of doing some things!) can have queries that range from big (help me with my student visa) to mundane (where can I buy bed sheets). What can my office – as well as the other student support services in College – do to make the path as smooth as we can for our students? And once we’ve done that, what we can we do to enhance their experience of being in Oxford, but without impinging on their main priority, which is to study?

Elisabeth Gareis has an interesting article in University World News this week looking at an aspect of the second question. She has investigated friendships between international students and host nationals, pointing out the positive effects such friendships can have: improved language skills, greater levels of well-being, enriched perspectives in the classroom and so on. However, the reality is that these kinds of friendships don’t exist as much as they should/could, and Gareis offers some good suggestions for institutions to help facilitate this.

She is absolutely right, though, to point out that ‘accountability also lies with the students themselves’. It’s hard work being an international student (I’ve been one myself and can testify to this!): continually putting in more effort than if you were studying in your home country and often dealing with cultural adjustments as well as changes to your study environment. But ultimately the experience you will have abroad will be much richer and more positive if you can make that extra effort to integrate yourself.

Nevertheless, the burden should not fall entirely on the international student. Host national students also need to try much harder to get on with their international colleagues. A Tajik friend of mine recently returned from studying in the US and said she didn’t make any American friends, and that is not for want of trying. At a recent Society for Research into Higher Education seminar, Paulo Pimentel Bótas of the University of Bath pointed out that UK students are often less well prepared to critically reflect on their own work than Chinese students brought up with the Confucian style of self-criticism before criticism of others. As such, host nationals can learn as much from nationals of other countries as international students themselves can learn – but the major challenge is to enthuse and engage home students to do that.

If you have examples of steps you have taken to integrate yourself as an international student, or things you have done as a home student to help international students, I’d love to hear about them.