Welcome to the new frontier – Central Asia

UCL is setting up shop in Kazakhstan but critics are worried about that nation's human rights record. Lucy Hodges reports

Fresh from setting up a campus in Australia, one of Britain's top higher education institutions, University College London, is turning its attention to Kazakhstan, a vast country bordered by Russia, Uzbekistan and China and made famous by Ali G's Borat.

But there is nothing remotely silly or satirical about UCL's foray into Central Asia. The university is planning to help the Kazakh government establish an international university in Astana, the new capital of the country. Specifically, it is assisting on a one-year foundation programme to get science and engineering students up to the right level for university degree programmes to be taught in English.

The new University of Astana will start in autumn 2009 as a high-quality, research-led, global institution. UCL will teach maths and physics to up to 120 students to prepare them for a four-year BSc in information and computer technology.

"Kazakhstan is emerging as a key strategic partner for the UK," says Professor Michael Worton, UCL's vice- provost who has been brokering the deal. "It is also a country which is committed to modernisation and internationalism and it has enormous natural resources. It believes that education is one of the key ways of mobilising its resources, both human and natural."

Not everyone is happy with the move because of Kazakhstan's human rights record. Several opposition leaders and journalists have been killed recently, and Western observers do not consider the country's elections to be free and fair. But Kazakhstan, rich in oil and gas, has been booming economically and is now considered to the dominant state in central Asia.

UCL clearly believes that a university can do more to change attitudes by engaging with a country than by remaining aloof. Moreover Worton suggests that Kazakhstan is no more to be criticised than China or countries in South America and the Middle East. "We can't play our part in making the world a more liberal place by doing it from the outside in a neo-colonial way, saying we have the answers," he says. "We have to get in there." The move shows the extent to which British universities are now seeing themselves as global players, not only taking students from all over the world but reaching out to help overseas universities build up their capacity. In the Middle East, UCL is also active and is expected to announce shortly that it is creating a small campus to teach archaeology and cultural heritage.

The aim in Kazakhstan is to create a university that will become an education hub for central Asia. The country has plenty of other universities but they are not world class and the Kazakhs want a Westernised curriculum with a year's study abroad as part of the undergraduate programme.

"But this has got to be a Kazakh university," says Worton. "The Kazakhs have to build it. I told them it would take a lot longer than they thought but they would get a real university of their own making embedded in central Asia."

This philosophy may be one reason why UCL won the contract in competition with the Universities of Cambridge in Britain, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon in the USA, and the National University of Singapore.

UCL's adventures abroad are just one aspect of its internationalism. Branded "London's global university", UCL has a high proportion of foreign students (30 per cent) and deliberately tailors its courses to reflect that. To that end, it has produced a booklet on the kind of students it hopes to produce and what it means to be educated as a global citizen.

It has even persuaded its academics to agree on what characteristics it hopes to produce in its graduates. There are six of these. UCL wants to produce critical and creative thinkers who are ambitious as well as idealistic, and sensitive to cultural difference. It wants its graduates to be entrepreneurs and prepared to assume leadership roles – and to be highly employable.

The issue that provoked most controversy among the academics in the arts and humanities faculty was the point about producing leaders out of its graduates. "People said 'oh gosh, you want to turn them into little Mussolinis'," Worton explains. The word remained in the booklet, partly because the students value it. They asked in their job interviews to provide examples of leadership at university.

UCL is keen for students to develop a global perspective on the subjects they are studying as well as take part in extracurricular activities. Examples are given in the booklet.

Emily Read, 23, an American studying for an MSc, says that UCL is a brilliant place to study because there is such an international mix. "They were so helpful when I applied and gave me so much support in getting to Britain."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Administration Assistant / Apprenticeship Industry

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for an e...

Recruitment Genius: NVQ Assessor

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Private Training Provider off...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own