Sunday, October 19, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Branches of Foreign Universities Play Major Role in Post-Soviet States

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 19 – Faced with the twin challenges of creating a skilled class of young people to help their economies grow and of bringing their own institutions of higher learning up to international standards, many post-Soviet governments have chosen to invite foreign universities to open branches in their countries.
An article posted Friday on the website of Moscow State University’s Information-Analytic Center for the Study of Social-Political Processes in the Post-Soviet Space describes the situation in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic whose involvement with branches of foreign universities is not atypical of the region (
Tashkent’s national program for the preparation of cadres, which is now in its third stage, has focused on the opening of new branches of foreign higher educational institutions and government assistance both for Uzbek students and foreign students who want to study in Uzbekistan, the article reports.
Branches of five – three from the Russian Federation (Moscow State, the Gubkin Oil and Gas University, and the Plekhanov Economic Academy) and on each from Great Britain and Singapore (International Westminster University and the Singapore Management Institute – are now functioning in Tashkent and others, including one from South Korea, may soon follow suit.
All these institutions, the Moscow State University experts note, opened “within the framework of the realization of specific points” of Uzbekistan’s National Program for the Preparation of Cadres and on the basis of a directive of the country’s council of ministries in order to ensure that these institutions serve the national interests of Uzbekistan.
Thus, all the branches of foreign universities that have opened have focused their curricula on economics, management, and the development of specific and in many cases narrowly defined skills – such as oil and gas exploration and transport – that Tashkent wants to see developed rather than on a broader academic program.
Annual tuition in these institutions ranges upwards from 2,000 U.S. dollars a year, an enormous sum relative to the annual incomes of most Uzbeks and one that would put these institutions beyond the reach of all but the children of the elite were it not for the existence of two special programs.
On the one hand, the government and the universities themselves provide scholarship assistance to nearly half of the students. And on the other, both government agencies and private firms routinely sign contacts with students who receive full rides in exchange for promises to work three to five years in those institutions upon graduation.
(The latter arrangement is clearly intended to limit the amount of brain drain from Uzbekistan that these institutions could and in some cases not only make possible but even promote.)
All students who pass the necessary examinations receive degrees which are recognized both by the Uzbek government and by the educational authorities in the countries where the parent university is based, and the best students have the opportunity to study abroad in these institutions as part of their programs.
Many of these institutions, the article says, are able to devote resources and maintain standards far above those of existing Uzbek higher schools, something Uzbek officials say they welcome: One of these officials added that Tashkent is actively “studying” what these branches do and “comparing it with [Uzbekistan’s] own.”
The Uzbek government, it is clear from the Moscow State University report, wants these institutions to train cadres its bureaucracy and economy needs rather than more broadly educated citizens, but there are three reasons why Tashkent will not be able to prevent these institutions from having a larger impact.
First, as the country’s education ministry admits, Uzbek officials are studying how these branches are functioning as compared to their own, an effort that suggests they will increasingly look to these institutions as models for Uzbekistan’s own higher schools.
Second, the programs of these branches do involve having some students go abroad for part of their training, an experience that will inevitably expose them to a range of ideas far broader than their technical specializations.
And third, in this area as in so many others, there is a competition not only between outsiders and the domestic institutions but among the branches, in this case, between those from Russia and those from other countries, and this too will broaden the impact of the branches.
Thus, Uzbekistan like many other post-Soviet states is likely to discover what the Russian authorities have at various points of their history: no country can make use of outside technical knowledge for very long without being affected as well by the context in which that knowledge has been developed and is being applied.

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