Oct 17, 2014 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

While much has been said recently about East Asia’s rising star, Central Asia is not often at the forefront of discussions about higher education. However, despite a thrust into economic, political and social uncertainty with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region is characterized by a commitment to establishing itself on the Higher Education scene. Here’s a closer look at the exciting opportunities and international experiences offered in this region of the world. Read more about programs in Central Asia here.

Reform and Conform

The five republics of the former Soviet Union -- including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- each have their own unique history, culture and languages. However, all are united by the "Towards a Central Asian Higher Education Area: Tuning Structures and Building Quality Culture" (TuCAHEA) initiative.

This project, started in October 2012 and scheduled to conclude in 2015, partners universities from Europe, Central Asia, and the Ministries of Education of the five ex-Soviet nations toward the formation of a Central Asia Higher Education Area (CAHEA). This consortium will be in alignment with the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the Bologna Process, and will follow centralized standards for everything from quality assurance to credit recognition.

Some universities have already adopted the Bologna system, such as KIMEP and AUCA. They are the first private Universities in Central Asia to have change to the Bologna system of education and to possess international accreditation. With English programs, KIMEP and AUCA are opening dorrs to international students.

While there is some debate over whether this will involve a sacrifice of independence and cultural autonomy, TuCAHEA’s ultimate goal is to bring Central Asia’s higher education sector into a cohesive state -- both within the region and as part of the larger European system.

The Case of Kazakhstan

If the bulk of what you know about Kazakhstan comes from Borat and Almaty's apples, you’re not alone. However, that’s likely to change in the near future. The world’s largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan is home to 17 million people of 131 ethnicities and a geographical wonderland including everything from flatlands and steppes to deltas and deserts. It is also widely perceived to be the region’s most developed country in terms of higher education.

And while its an emerging entity at best at present, the country continues to gain traction as a destination for international study. In fact, many believe that Kazakhstan -- a member of the European Higher Education Area, and home to approximately 150 universities, nine of which earned spots in the QS World University Rankings -- is on its way to becoming Central Asia’s regional academic hub. Universities such as the Kazakh University of Economics named after T. Ryskulov, the International Academy Of Business (IAB) - Almaty Management University, Kazakh-British Technical University (KBTU) are on the rise. Read more about studying in Kazakhstan here.

Kazakhstan is home to an ethnically diverse population, and its universities are also marked by diversity. At Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, which claimed the country's highest spot in the QS Rankings, 4,000 of the school’s 20,000 students come from a whopping 80 countries all over the globe. Meanwhile, L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University (ENU), which earned the country's second highest ranking, offers courses in an abundance of languages, including Kazakh, Russian, English, French, Chinese, French, German and Turkish. With the goal of becoming a bastion of research and education in Eurasia, ENU comprises many scientific and research organizations.

No 21st century discussion of higher education would be complete without mention of internationalization, and this certainly applies to Kazakhstan. Like most other nations around the world, Kazakhstan is eager to embrace international students and scholars. To that end, global partnerships and collaborations are increasingly prevalent in the higher education sector. Factor in two decades of deepening ties with the European Union in the areas of development and trade, and the doors keep opening.

The Other Players

In 2009, two other emerging players, the Kyrgyz Republic (also known as Kyrgyzstan) and Tajikistan, joined forces with Kazakhstan and the Aga Khan to form the University of Central Asia (UCA) in the hopes of claiming a front and center role on the international higher education stage. Currently in its planning stages, UCA -- the world’s inaugural internationally chartered university -- will eventually have three campuses in each of its founding countries. 

Like Kazakhstan, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are committed to attracting international students in order to enhance research and innovation through globalization. And while neither nation may come to mind when you first consider study abroad opportunities, there are many incentives, including financial: significant scholarship support -- from the federal government, private institutions and universities themselves -- is available for international students. Furthermore, looser laws have made it easier to study abroad in this region.

There are many high quality schools offering interesting programs for international students, such as the Central Asian Studies Insititute (AUCA), a unit of the American University of Central Asia.

While Central Asia needs international students to raise its global stature, the region offers plenty of reciprocal benefits to students. Those looking for linguistic enrichment will be thrilled by the opportunity to be immersed in many languages, including Kazakh, Kyrgyzstan, Russian, Uzbek, or Uyghur dialects. History and political science enthusiasts, meanwhile, will enjoy gaining first-hand insights into contemporary life in the “cradle of humanity” during this particularly momentous time in history. And with more than 64 million people occupying the 4,000 pancontinental miles along the world-famous Silk Road, there’s no better place to experience many vibrant cultures different than your own.

And then there's Russia: BRICS status, a vital language in scientific and technological disciplines, an epic literary and cultural tradition, and more than 880 universities undergoing an educational revolution make Russia a desirable destination for many international students. And like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Russia's enlistment in the Bologna process promises a system that is increasingly compatible with Europe's.

As Central Asian higher educational institutions continue to push for a more global presence, internationalism will remain a critical issue. Students eager to not just study history but witness it for themselves are poised for a thrilling experience in this emerging educational landscape.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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