This week, Will Maciver, Partner Director for Study Group discusses higher education and study abroad as a force for positive change in the 'Stan' countries of Central Asia.

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A steppe in the right direction

“Human rights abuses in the group of countries known as the ‘Stans’ can make them awkward business partners, as the six universities revealed to have branch campuses in Uzbekistan recently found out. But is it right to suggest that the higher education sector is sacrificing ethics in pursuit of international growth when dealing with the region?

When the USSR imploded in the early 90s, the Caspian Basin became a major strategic focus. Straddling East and West, rich in oil and minerals and in the shadow of China, India and especially Russia, influence in the region features high on the shopping list of aspiring superpowers.

Here, the cult of personality still reigns and ’managed democracies’ or outright dictatorships are the norm, making the region seem alien and in some cases appalling to us in the West, often justifiably so.

However, I started working in the USSR in 1988 (in education since 1995) and have seen firsthand how much the region has to offer UK higher education and we to them in return. Despite the poor human rights records of countries like Uzbekistan, engagement and closer links to the Western world is the only realistic path to change – and universities are in a unique position in this respect.

In the long term, students returning to the region after their studies will bring with them increased expectations of government and society having experienced Western culture. One day they will eventually be in positions of influence, or their volume will have built to a critical mass, and there's a real chance they could affect some positive change.

For example, since 2009 Study Group has brought more than seventy Chechen students to the UK under a partnership with their government. The country has a frightful recent past and has suffered terribly from the effects of war. But access to international education is essential to giving the Chechen Republic the best possible chance of economic and social development. Their society has been through a great deal in the last twenty years, but this new generation has different values and ideals to the last – as is often the case in the Western world – and the generation after them will do too. To deny them, or anyone, access to the best available education because of the nature of their government would be a human rights issue in itself.

This element of idealism is something that exists in all of us that work in education. We all see ourselves as being in the business of positive outcomes and the betterment of the individual, which can’t help but lead to improvements in society.

If we believe education is a right and not a privilege then the branch campus model as seen in Uzbekistan is a positive development. In my experience it is rarer but not unheard of elsewhere in the region, particularly in Kazakhstan – the richest of the Stans – where people can more often afford to look beyond their borders for education. An international education (i.e. travelling abroad) offers the best all-round experience, but taking British education to those that can’t come the other way should be welcomed. Branch campuses in China don’t seem to attract the same kind of attention.

For universities, there is more than just economics at play here. It is forecasted that by 2020, 80 per cent of international students will be from Asia. In this context what universities crave more than anything is diversity, so regions like Central Asia – where we’ve been working since 1992 - Latin America, Africa and the Middle East are important to international recruitment strategies.

The current numbers are good and continue to improve, but they could be better. Over 2,500 students came to the UK from Kazakhstan – which benefits from the fantastic Bolashak International Scholarship Program – and Azerbaijan last year. In 2011, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan between them sent over 300 students to the UK. Once here, they are encouraged through managed integration to experience as much of the culture of the UK and its people as they possibly can, meaning they take more than a world-class degree home with them. For universities, in addition to the commercial benefits, the diversity they bring, their academic prowess and alternative, often unconventional, approach to learning is invaluable.

Education is a global force for good and one of the UK’s more wholesome and greatest exports. And while we’re certainly not social engineers, in the business of churning out Western ambassadors, we do have a chance to make a contribution to less-developed nations in terms of giving them the skills and experience they need to improve. Good education does change the world, but it will only happen one student at a time.”

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