In a series of moves that have been tentatively welcomed by Central Asia-watchers, Uzbekistan has been enjoying a resurgence of international support under the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Mirziyoyev’s highest profile international visit so far was a trip this week to the United States. Covered in good detail by English language outlets including the latest excellent Majlis podcast, an exclusive interview in The Diplomat with Uzbekistan’s Minister of Justice, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, his three day visit led to a wealth of pronouncements and new bilateral agreements being signed. Concluding the visit, there has been general agreement – as you might expect from any good diplomatic visit – that things are looking optimistic for the future of Uzbek-US relations (even if parts of the American press is still struggling to pronounce the Uzbek leader’s name).
Of interest for international academic relations are two agreements, both signed at state level. The first will launch an Uzbekistan-based programme to “support partnerships between U.S. universities and higher education institutions across Central Asia”; the second provides for financial support to expand English language teaching in Uzbekistan. The English programmes will be targeted at teachers and students at school and university level, journalists and professionals.
The Memorandum of Understanding on institutional partnerships provides several points for discussion and reflection. Partnerships in higher education are normally signed on an institution-to-institution basis either as a very general agreement to cooperate or with specific aims in mind (e.g. to run a joint degree programme). It is less common to see agreements signed at bi-national level; in this case, it looks like the two governments have a specific programme in mind that will facilitate the entry of American higher education institutions into Central Asia.
This links to another observation: that the partnership here extends beyond Uzbekistan, even though the visit of Mirziyoyev has otherwise had an exclusively bilateral nature. The press release on the two agreements does not go into further detail so we will have to wait and see how this programme pans out once we have more information.
With all the fanfare surrounding this overseas trip and the enthusiastic proclamation of the US government’s press release that these are “landmark” agreements, it would be easy to think that Uzbekistan’s education system has been isolated from the international academic community. To some extent, this is true, as was the case for other sectors of society under the rule of previous President Islam Karimov. For example, the European Union’s Bologna Process of degree harmonization and partnerships has had less impact in Uzbekistan than its Central Asian neighbours. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector has actually been relatively international since the country became independent in 1991.
One of the region’s longest running international universities, the British Westminster International University in Tashkent, has been operating since 2002, offering teaching solely in the medium of English. A suprisingly wide range of other partnerships are also in operation, from Italy’s Turin Polytechnic University (opened in 2009) to recent (2014) South Korean entrant Inha University. Thus far, international academic relations such as these congregate in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. It is noteworthy that all of these were set up under inter-governmental agreements during the reign of Karimov.
I’d suggest two conclusions from all of this.
Firstly, this week’s visit by Mirziyoyev is a sure sign of the further reintegration of Uzbekistan into the global community, and it will be interesting to observe how these connections are (re)formed in similar and different ways to his predecessor Karimov. Such international relations are not new for Uzbekistan, but represent a new wave of outreach and partnerships.
Secondly, in terms of higher education, I think we are about to witness Uzbekistan building on its existing international ties and seeking greater convergence with the so-called “global academic community”, a phrase beloved of the Kazakhstans of this world. Thus, Kazakhstan now brings out its own university rankings and seeks to establish world-class universities in order to try and become more competitive with a model of higher education it observes globally.
Based on the country’s 2017-2021 Development Strategy [ru], it does indeed look like the current plan for Uzbekistan is towards this type of convergence. On higher education, the strategy callls for:
повышение качества и эффективности деятельности высших образовательных учреждений на основе внедрения международных стандартов обучения и оценки качества преподавания, поэтапное увеличение квоты приема в высшие образовательные учреждения
enhancement of the quality and effectiveness of higher education institutions based on international education standards and assessment of teaching quality, gradual increase in the admission quotas to higher education institutions
This raises much deeper questions about the nature of higher education worldwide. Is there such a thing as a globalized idea of the university? If there is, what are the implications for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the many other countries seeking to emulate it? And for international academic relations, what is the future of partnerships such as those signed this week between the US and Uzbekistan if countries can produce their own globalized university?
A small flurry of press stories recently (e.g. in University World News on 2 June, University World News on 4 May, The PIE News, Today.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.
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.
Today’s post picks up on a recent report by Yojana Sharma in University World News on a new alliance set up in China to bring together universities along the Silk Road, that ancient trading route linking China to Europe. In fact, the exact geography of ‘Silk Road’ is very broadly interpreted for this new grouping, bringing together as it does universities as far from the original Silk Road as Finland and Australia. That’s probably why it’s called the alliance of the New Silk Road!
The alliance is likely to be of strong interest to universities in Central Asia, and indeed the proposal to create a New Silk Road Economic Belt, which this universities alliance is connected to, was first publicly made by China’s President in Kazakhstan in 2013.
The title for the post is taken from the official invitation to attend the launch of the alliance at Xi’an Jiantong University in Shanghai this May. The invite says:
The New Silk Road is laden with hopes and dreams. It is a win-win road with friendship and prosperity. We extend a warm invitation to Xi’an at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, to endorse UANSR [Universities Alliance of the New Silk Raod] and most importantly promote the higher education, and make a difference in the traditions and innovations in the civilization.
Lofty ambitions, and it strikes me that this is a model for partnership that is worth monitoring closely to fully understand the impact it will have on Central Asian universities and even regional politics.
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.
**DON’T FORGET TO KEEP UP TO DATE WITH THE CAMPAIGN TO FREE ALEXANDER SODIQOV. SEE https://sabzalieva.wordpress.com/wandering-scholars-no-longer-free-to-wander-freealexsodiqov/**
From wandering scholars to strategic partnerships: the experience of British universities in Central Asia
My new article ‘From wandering scholars to strategic partnerships: the experience of British universities in Central Asia‘ is out this week in new publication Perspectives on Central Asia. Published by Eurasian Dialogue, Perspectives is ‘a quarterly bulletin dealing with the many aspects of life in Central Asia. This innovative publication provides Central Asia specialists and enthusiasts with perspectives on the region from an array of different academic disciplines.’
Here’s the abstract of my article:
‘Universities around the world are increasingly seeking to establish partnerships with higher education institutions in Central Asia. This article, written by a British higher education practitioner, builds on the author’s research into higher education in the UK and in Central Asia by exploring some of the key benefits and drawbacks of such partnerships from the perspective of British universities. An exclusive interview undertaken with the Registrar of Nottingham University offers a more detailed view of how one British university, which, although not operating directly in Central Asia, has engaged extensively with universities in other parts of Asia.’
The issue is available to download here: Perspectives_on_Central_Asia_nr4-ESpp11-15 or at http://eurasiandialogue.org/downloads/Perspectives_on_Central_Asia_nr4.pdf; my article is on pages 11-15.
The Korea Times this week reported on an initiative by the country’s new Uzbek Ambassador to encourage Korean universities to open branch campuses in Uzbekistan. This is an interesting initiative, both in that it’s being initiated by Uzbekistan – not known for its openness to the world – and as a demonstration that university partnerships don’t always go from west to east or north to south. Article below is (c) Korea Times, 10.01.14.
New Uzbek envoy invites Korean universities
By Kang Hyun-kyung
A new Uzbekistan ambassador to Korea said Friday that he is talking with several Korean universities heads to encourage them to open up a branch campus in his country.
“My government is now placing a special focus on the information technology sector,” Ambassador Alisher Kurmanov said during a courtesy visit to Park Moo-jong, president and publisher of The Korea Times.
“One of my first tasks will be opening up a branch of one of the Korean universities in Uzbekistan. For us, knowledge is important. Currently, six foreign universities are operating in Uzbekistan and one of them is from Singapore, of which I moved the campus project forward when I served as ambassador to that country.”
Korea is Kurmanov’s second foreign posting as ambassador. He opened up the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Singapore in 2007.
The new ambassador is optimistic about Korea-Uzbekistan relations under the Park Geun-hye government, predicting they will continue to grow deeper and closer.
Kurmanov expressed hope that President Park will visit his country this year.
“Our Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, who visited Korea in December, passed the invitation on to President Park on behalf of our leader. And President Park promised to try to visit Uzbekistan,” he said.
He said lots of activities are going on between the two countries.
“Now we have deputy minister of the IT industry who is a Korean. He is overseeing the whole government initiative. We also have a vice rector of our IT university in Uzbekistan. He is from Korea and was sent to our country,” he said.
Kurmanov replaced Vitaliy Fen, who had worked in Seoul for 18 years.
President Park encouraged the new envoy to play a significant role in promoting Uzbek culture in Korea to help Koreans have a better understanding of the country.