Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
20th Nov 2012

Field report: demand for education up sharply in Uzbekistan

As ICEF's Director of the CIS countries, Mr Sergey Krasnyanskiy manages ICEF's operations in Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. From his office in St Petersburg, Russia, Sergey coordinates ICEF's relations with agents, educators, and service providers in all territories of the former USSR. Sergey's responsibilities include gathering tomorrow's insider intelligence on international student recruitment; recently, Sergey travelled to Uzbekistan to investigate the state of the Uzbek study abroad market. The insights gathered during his trip suggest a society poised to send a growing number of students abroad. We explain why the Uzbek market shows so much potential, and to give you an edge in this upcoming market, we summarise hints from local agents on successful student recruitment strategies in Uzbekistan.

A large youth population

With its large youth population, Uzbekistan already manifests one of the most important characteristics of a major source country. An estimated 30 million people live in Uzbekistan, a number twice as great as the population of Kazakhstan, the next most populous central Asian country. The majority of the population is between 14-25 years old; and with a growth rate of 2.7% per year, the youth population is therefore expected to increase.

Demand for education outstripping supply

In fact, Uzbekistan's youth is expanding so quickly that Uzbek educators are struggling to meet the demand for education, particularly at the post-secondary level. Currently, there are more than 70 universities in Uzbekistan, and only 60% of them are under control of the Ministry of Education. The main languages used in universities in Uzbekistan are Russian and Uzbek, but some lessons are also taught in English. In Uzbekistan, only 10% of the tertiary-age population is enrolled at higher education institutions, compared to an average of 25% for all of central Asia, and 38% for Kazakhstan in particular. This state of affairs is not caused by a lack of demand. In the last decade, the number of post-secondary applicants has grown dramatically, from 217,000 in 2003 to 345,000 in 2008. Uzbekistan's educators do appear to have made a heroic effort to meet the needs of the country's young people: since the year 2000, admissions have increased by a third every year, and the overall number of university students has multiplied by 1.5. But even this radical expansion has not met demand by a wide margin. In 2006, for example, 300,000 prospective students battled for 50,000 spots. These numbers imply that Uzbek higher education cannot accommodate a large number of domestic students – another sign that Uzbekistan has the potential to become a significant source of international students.

So what about study abroad?

Considering the imbalance between supply and demand in Uzbek higher education, we might expect a large number of students to choose education abroad. To some extent, this is already the case. The percentage of Uzbek post-secondary students who study abroad is already exceptionally high: over the last few years, around 9% of all enrolled students chose to study abroad. Among countries with a similar number of residents, Cameroon and Morocco alone have a higher outbound student ratio. On the other hand, the actual number of students studying abroad – 20,000 – raises eyebrows for the opposite reason: it seems strangely low. Why should it be higher? Considering the numbers described previously, hundreds of thousands of applicants are turned down annually. And sources in Uzbekistan report that student fairs are routinely attended by tens of thousands of prospective international students. Considering these numbers, and the interest they imply, why aren't more students choosing to study abroad?

Information, the indispensable ingredient

Many young Uzbeks may be missing the opportunity to study abroad simply because they don't realise that they can. A large section of the Uzbek population lives in the Fergana Valley, which lies in the east of the country. The inhabitants of this area have limited access to the Internet or relevant publications and materials; many of them are simply unaware of the possibilities of studying abroad. To local observers, this population – with its limited awareness about study opportunities abroad, and its growing wealth – shows great potential as a source of international students.

So to some extent, the attraction of students from Uzbekistan seems like it will depend on successful marketing.

The question of cost

According to sources, young Uzbeks who are aware of their options may have previously shied away from international study due to cost. Yet even now, the cost of study seems unlikely to stop many students. After all, tuition can be expensive at Uzbek institutions, even by Western standards, varying between US $1,000 and US $25,000 per year. These tuition fees are paid by at least 60% of enrolled students, suggesting that Uzbek students are willing and able to invest in their education – and that cost of study does not sufficiently explain the limited number of Uzbeks studying abroad.

In addition, Uzbekistan's economy is booming. The country's GDP has grown by an average of 8% per year, causing a significant rise in per capita GDP.

For the study abroad industry, Uzbekistan's economic situation is particularly significant. In economies with a per capita GDP below US $10,000, research has established a clear link between per capita GDP growth and a substantial increase in tertiary-level enrolment. It seems then, that higher education enrolment in Uzbekistan is set to increase at even higher levels than before.

Study abroad, government policy, and changes on the horizon

Of all the factors that influence the extent to which Uzbeks study abroad, government policy appears to have the greatest impact. What is clear is that the government does take internationalisation seriously, and is willing to invest in this area. In 1997, authorities took an important first step by launching the Umid Foundation to finance internationalisation. Initially, Umid funded study for Uzbek students at institutions abroad, primarily in Western Europe and the US. However, in 2002, the Uzbek government decided to shift Umid's focus to counter brain drain; instead of funding Uzbek students abroad, Umid was tasked with bringing international education to Uzbekistan. In cooperation with the British Council, Umid allowed UK institutions to compete for permission to establish a branch campus in Uzbekistan. University of Westminster won the bid; and the Westminster International University opened its doors in 2002. The branch campus is administered by UK staff, and issues degrees validated by its home institution. Besides introducing Western style higher education to the country, the government took further steps to strengthen domestic education, placing restrictions on study abroad and organisations involved in the business. Observers believe that these restrictions are largely responsible for the low number of Uzbek students who study abroad. However, the general consensus seems to be that these restrictions will be lifted in the next few years; and as barriers are removed, the unsatisfied demand for education – fortified by growing wealth – should cause the number of Uzbek international students to erupt.

Opportunities for education providers

To benefit from these developments, you may be interested to know what steps you can take now. Drawing upon suggestions by our local sources, we have put together a list of strategies that can help you succeed in Uzbekistan's future market. As noted previously, because demand for higher education outstrips supply, Uzbek students appear to be particularly interested in international post-secondary study. And as the population grows younger and younger due to a strong birth rate, agencies are also noting a growing interest in secondary schools, particularly boarding schools. Furthermore, as interest in study abroad develops, agents have observed a growing appeal of non-traditional destinations – particularly those that offer quality education at a low cost relative to leading destination countries such as the US or UK. These alternative destinations exert particularly strong attraction if they are geographically closer to Uzbekistan than “traditional” destinations (e.g. Eastern Europe and China), if they share a similar culture and religion (Uzbekistan is largely Muslim so for example, Malaysia is increasing in popularity), and if there is no language barrier (Russian is spoken widely in the country). Difficulty in obtaining visas to the US and UK has also prompted interest in alternatives to these destinations, such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. But because these countries do not operate a diplomatic office within the country, visa applications must be submitted to the embassies in Moscow. For applicants, this process is difficult, time consuming, highly uncertain, and – for many prospective students – ultimately discouraging. To remove these obstacles to enrolment, Uzbek agents recommend opening consulates and trade offices in Uzbekistan.

By simplifying and supporting the visa process, these offices would encourage students to apply; should the relevant authorities be willing to take this step, Uzbek agents predict a surge in applications.

The establishment of diplomatic offices in the country could grant additional advantages: these offices could help the countries in question to promote themselves to the many Uzbeks who are unaware of these countries as study destinations. This kind of promotion “on the ground” is especially important in a country where people are accustomed to making decisions based on personal relationships and word of mouth recommendations.

Opportunities for e-learning

For educators who have difficulty attracting Uzbek students due to visa restrictions, agents recommend considering the development and promotion of e-learning opportunities to meet rising demand. Online courses and programmes can even help pave the way for those students who wish to study abroad physically. These students could complete a language course or academic preparation course offered by an institution located in the country in which they intend to study; the certificate gained from such a course could do much to help the student obtain a visa, since visa authorities look favourably on certificates obtained from institutions located at the destination.

The advantage of agents

Due to the way in which people in Uzbekistan gather information and make decisions, it may be challenging for institutions, organisations, and countries that have not established a local reputation to enter the market. In addition, Internet access is not widely available; therefore, contemporary marketing techniques may be far less effective than they are in developed countries. To overcome these challenges, education providers may consider working with education agencies located in the country. Several of these agencies have grown their businesses over many years, having built trust with their communities by sending students abroad successfully. Providers who work with these agencies can benefit from the reputation of the agency, and the word-of-mouth advertising channels that providers do not have access to. In Uzbekistan, providers can also work with multiple agencies since Uzbek communities are organised along tribal lines, and members of each community tend to work with the same agents. As a result, most agents in Uzbekistan don't compete with each other, since each have their own client base. Should educators decide to work with Uzbek agents, they are advised to allow for flexible agreements, particularly with respect to student numbers; this kind of flexibility is necessary in a country in which conditions for business can change rapidly. All in all, Uzbekistan shows great potential as a fruitful source of international students in the near future. Who taps into this potential in the next 3-5 years and beyond, remains to be seen.

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