TASHKENT -- Governments in Central Asia are encouraging young citizens of nearby countries to consider crossing borders to attend university.
"Actively exchanging students and encouraging contacts between youths will help reduce the remaining tension ... among Central Asian countries," Valerii Khan, a Tashkent political scientist, told Caravanserai. "This generation of students will make regional policy and will occupy key posts in government and business."
Extremists "always try to place their bets on nationalism and intolerance of neighbouring peoples", said Khan.
Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been mulling ways to bring in more foreign undergraduates.
Kazakhstan, which hosted 3,380 Uzbekistani students in 2016 according to government figures, in May made a push to have more citizens of nearby countries study in its universities.
Twelve Kazakhstani universities held an educational fair in Tashkent May 22-23 to publicise their offerings to young Uzbekistanis.
The schools represented included Nazarbayev University, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University and the Kazakh-British Technical University.
Earlier in May, those universities held the same fair in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
"This is the first wave of Kazakhstani universities in Uzbekistan," said Zulfiya Tulibekova, a Kazakhstani Education Ministry official.
"We're certain that our trip will create publicity and that the number of Uzbekistani students in our country will increase," she said at the May 22 news conference, which Caravanserai attended, on the exhibition's opening day.
Youth welcome new opportunities
"I'm very interested in studying in Kazakhstan," Bakhtiyer Akhrorov, a student at a Tashkent junior college, told Caravanserai. "The country is much closer than other CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries or Europe is, and it would be possible to go home more frequently. We share a similar mentality, so I think that I could make friends right away."
''I don't want to enrol in our universities because I am not satisfied with their level [of quality]," Firuza Usmanova, another Tashkent junior college student, told Caravanserai. "That's why I'm examining options abroad, and Kazakhstan is very interesting for me."
Previously, Caravanserai reported on Uzbekistan's plans to reform higher education, a sector that receives much criticism today for problems like corruption and too few slots for would-be students.
Uzbekistanis who enrol in Kazakhstani universities will find costs similar to those in Uzbekistan.
In 2016, the average cost for an academic year at a Uzbekistani university was 7.6 million UZS ($1,989), compared to 8.4 million UZS ($2,200) at L. N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University in Astana, Kazakhstan, according to statistics from both countries.
Even without concerted efforts to attract foreign students, Kazakhstan already has a fair number attending its universities, according to Kazakhstani Education Ministry statistics released during the opening of the Tashkent exhibition.
Besides the 3,380 Uzbekistanis in 2016, Kazakhstani universities had 402 from Afghanistan, 466 from Tajikistan and 1,049 from Kyrgyzstan.
Scholarships, travel discounts, other benefits
Uzbekistani students are eligible for scholarships, some even covering full tuition, in Kazakhstan. At the same time, both governments are working to cut costs of travel between Tashkent and Almaty.
"Uzbekistani students may receive a higher education in Kazakhstan free of charge through international agreements," said Tulibekova at the May 22 news conference.
On May 24, both countries' railways announced reduced fares for trains between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan May 27 to December 28.
The substantial reduction for anyone buying a ticket 31 to 45 days in advance -- 45% -- will come in handy for students who take the train between Tashkent and Almaty. That discounted fare is 36,000 UZS ($9.60).
More Afghan students in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan, meanwhile, is planning to help a war-torn neighbour by enabling more Afghans to study in Uzbekistani universities.
Eduards Stiprais, head of the EU Delegation to Uzbekistan, described the project at a May 4 Tashkent news conference.
"We think that this can be a very interesting sphere for further co-operation," he said, according to Podrobno.uz. "Having a similar culture and language can only facilitate the arrival of students from Afghanistan."
About 9% of the Afghan population is ethnic Uzbek, according to some estimates. Afghans who study in Uzbekistan use Uzbek as their language of instruction.
The project is under way, the Uzbekistani Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialised Education press office confirmed to Caravanserai, but it refused to release details until negotiations end.