Malaysia

Could Kazakhstan become a regional higher education hub?

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With the Kazakh government’s new regional education hub plan, Meme Cat can have the best of both worlds

If you’re the Kazakh state, the answer is an obvious “yes”. No details have yet to emerge from the Centre for International Programmes, the government agency tasked with internationalizing Kazakh higher education, but you can bet that if the public policy agenda is leading in this direction, it won’t be long before the hub becomes a reality.

Higher education hubs have been successfully created in the Middle East (Dubai is a great example) and South-East Asia (Malaysia is another success story), and create special spaces for foreign universities to set up a branch campus or partner with a local university. Thus, students in the hub country and its neighbours can study for an overseas degree without leaving the region.

This has many advantages for students – hub-based campuses tend to offer a similar quality of education for a fraction of the regular tuition fee ticket, and with all the benefits of not having to travel far.

For the host country, acting as a hub can bring economic benefit by attracting more international students and staff/faculty, and enhance the country’s reputation through the legitimacy generated by the international universities. For Kazakhstan, reputation really matters and I imagine this would be seen by the state as a major benefit to creating an education hub.

This year, 14,000 international students are already studying in Kazakhstan, mainly coming from neighbouring countries. At the same time, 70,000 Kazakh students are studying abroad – not quite 10% of the total student population of a little under 650,000 – and there are plans to make the renowned Bolashak Scholarship more accessible in the coming years.

Interestingly, it was neighbouring Kyrgyzstan that until recently seemed the most likely Central Asian country to set up a regional education hub. In the 2000s, Kyrgyzstan was hosting up to ten times more international students each year than Kazakhstan, despite a population seven times smaller.

A 2012 study by Nurbek Jenish found that relatively low tuition fees and a low cost of living were the main reasons that international students head to Kyrgyzstan. International students – mainly from Central and South Asian countries – also perceived the quality of higher education and the opportunity to study in Russian or English to be beneficial, as well as the perception that admission requirements were soft.

But it is dynamic Kazakhstan that now appears to be running with the hub idea. This is not just because of the economic and reputational benefits, although those are evidently highly influential policy considerations. As Zhanbolat Meldeshov, President of the Centre for International Programs, pithily puts it:

«Студенческая и академическая мобильность, это мировой тренд в эпоху глобализации. Нельзя остановить этот процесс, можно только в нем активно участвовать.»

“Student and academic mobility is a global trend in the era of globalization. It’s impossible to stop this process, so you can only actively participate.”

This is another classic example of Kazakhstani policy pragmatism: if you can’t beat them, join them… and ultimately seek to beat them at their own game.

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.

Student recruitment in Central Asia

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When you think of university outreach/access projects in Central Asia, you tend to think of initiatives by universities in richer countries in Europe or East/South East Asia to recruit students to study in those richer countries. More successful and popular efforts tend to be underwritten by the offer to fund the study through a scholarship. I would contend that universities in Germany, Malaysia and Singapore have been particularly effective in raising awareness of provision in their countries; see e.g. my June 2014 post on Malaysian Limkokwing University.

This post is also a good example of the growth of a different trend, namely transnational education. This is where a university establishes a branch campus in another country so that students can study for a degree from that university without leaving their home country. The UK’s Times Higher Education had a good story on the expansion of transnational education from a UK perspective a year ago.

Within Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has been the biggest importer of international students, educating nearly half (40%) of all international students coming to the region. As well as other Central Asians, countries in South Asia such as India and Pakistan are also providers of students coming to Kyrgyz universities, where they can get a reasonable quality degree, often in English, at a much more reasonable cost than countries further afield. Bishkek-based American University of Central Asia, which teaches in English, has official recruiting agents as far afield as South Korea and Ukraine in addition to Central and South Asian countries.

But now, is Kazakhstan now looking to compete? A recent article in the Tajik media suggests that universities in this regional economic powerhouse are stepping up their activities within Central Asia, with the forthcoming visit of representatives from Astana-based Nazarbayev University to Tajikistan later this month. Apparently there are just two Tajik students studying at Nazarbayev University at the moment, an institution that in 2013 the US State Department called ‘a model in the region for educating global citizens in an increasingly interconnected world economy.’ Nazarbayev University has a clear model for bringing the best of the world to Kazakhstan through, for example, its recruitment of internationally faculty and partnerships with top ranking global universities. Alongside this strategy, the university – and others in Kazakhstan – would be strongly advised to develop and maintain a strong regional strategy to recruit high quality Central Asian students and equip them with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to build better regional cooperation.

Malaysian university to open in Tajikistan

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Malaysian Limkokwing University has committed to opening a campus in Tajikistan, a not unexpected move by this ambitious and globally facing technical/creative university, which I first investigated in 2011.

The announcement was made during President Rahmon’s visit to Malaysia earlier this week. In the press release on the President’s website [ru], it is noted that there are ‘only’ around 40 Tajik students studying at Limkokwing (at its main campus in Malaysia) and around 200 Tajik students studying across that country. Presumably the aim now is to encourage more Tajik students to experience a Limkokwing education without leaving Tajikistan, a trend that has been growing around the world and particularly in the Middle East and some African countries (Mauritius seems to be a popular destinations for UK universities setting up overseas).

I think this is a great move both for Tajikistan and for Limkokwing. Tajikistan brings its first major overseas branch campus to the country (not counting the Moscow State University branch that opened a few years ago; using the wonderfully Soviet concepts of ‘near abroad’ and ‘far abroad’, I’m referring now to developments with the ‘far abroad’) and assurances that this will be an opportunity to develop home-grown talent and not to import the so-called ‘fly in-fly out’ lecturers who come from outside the country to teach a class and then leave again. According to trusted Tajik news agency Asia Plus’ story on the new campus, 80% of the teaching staff will be Tajik. In addition, there will be a quota of places for Tajik students, who will also benefit from tuition fee reductions.

What’s in it for Limkokwing, you might ask? This will be its first full foray into Central Asia and will add to established branch campuses in Asia, Africa and the UK as well as partnerships around the world (see www.limkokwing.net/malaysia/about for more). I expect that the academic offering of creative and technical courses geared towards getting graduates ‘job ready’ will be popular not just amongst Tajik students but with students from other Central and South Asian countries and with employers too. It’s a great foothold into a market (inasmuch as we can call it a ‘market’) with great potential (e.g. to increase participation in higher education, to fill the gap left by students who leave the country for study) and I am really pleased to see the Tajik government ostensibly being so welcoming and forward facing towards this relationship. And I’m sure it helped seal the deal for President Rahmon to be awarded an honorary professorship at Limkokwing out of it too.

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