Regional cooperation on higher education in Central Asia to improve with World Bank support

A high-level conference to foster dialogue and cooperation between Central Asian countries in higher education, co-organized by the World Bank and the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation of Uzbekistan kicked off today in Tashkent.

Central Asian countries have a large and dynamic higher education sector that has undergone significant transformations since their independence. First and foremost, the numbers of higher education institutions and students have substantively increased over the last decades. Today, over 430 universities are operating in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan providing educational services to 1.8 million students.

Despite the progress in increasing the enrollment rate and expanding the number of private universities, the Central Asian higher education systems face some challenges. These include relatively low quality of teaching, inadequate funding for local universities, limited access to higher education for disadvantaged students, as well as outdated curricula and learning infrastructure that do not meet current and future labor market requirements. Central Asian countries are also lagging on global research efficiency indicators and rank lowest globally in the levels of research financing accounting for only 0.12% of GDP.

Global experience shows that regional integration of higher education systems is an effective instrument to address similar obstacles in the sector and offers opportunities for long-term growth across industries. By fostering cooperation, knowledge sharing, and resource pooling among universities, the quality of higher education and research in Central Asia can be improved.

The conference in Tashkent was designed to intensify cooperation in the above-mentioned areas. It was attended in person and online by the Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Education and Science of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, other government officials, rectors of leading Central Asian universities, representatives of international development organizations, and regional and international experts in higher education.

“The Government of Uzbekistan is delighted to host this conference. It allowed high-level participants to discuss the opportunities and further steps for regional cooperation towards improving the quality of the higher education sector,” said Ibrokhim Abdurakhmonov, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation of Uzbekistan.

During the conference, the World Bank presented a report “Towards Higher Education Excellence in Central Asia: A Roadmap for Improving the Quality of Education and Research through Regional Integration”. It offers a roadmap to stimulate the Central Asian governments’ cooperation across three priority areas. These include policy recommendations to improve access, quality, and relevance of higher education; strengthen research and innovation capacity; and advance instruments for an integrated regional higher education area.

“There is a clear case for stronger regional cooperation across the Central Asian higher education systems,” noted Rita Almeida, World Bank Education Practice Manager for Europe and Central Asia. “We have analyzed the advantages of a regional approach to higher education based on international experience, and there is immense potential for regional collaboration to improve the quality of higher education and research in Central Asia.”

The report recommends adopting unified regional accreditation standards to ensure that the quality of higher education is comparable across the region, as well as regional labor market forecasting to help guide the relevance of higher education programs.

The report also stresses the importance of developing incentives to conduct and publish quality research results to strengthen innovation capacity as well as the creation of a regional fund to support research and cooperation between universities and research institutes.

Finally, the report recommends implementing mechanisms supporting the recognition of qualifications to facilitate mobility and employability in Central Asia, in addition to the launch of a regional short-term mobility program for students and faculty members.

The conference participants discussed the recommendations proposed by the World Bank and further steps for enhancing regional cooperation in the higher education sector.

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