Bureaucracy lives and thrives in the higher education institutions of Central Asia. It may be more than 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed but the volokita (red tape i.e. bureaucracy) that the USSR was so well known for remains in many social institutions of the formerly Soviet states. Universities are no exception.
Opened to great aplomb in September 2017, the second campus of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan follows hot on the heels of the opening of the first campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan a year earlier.
Created in 2000, the University of Central Asia (UCA) aims to foster economic and social development in mountainous communities in Central Asia, with a novel model to open three campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Each should attract people from within the countries and from further abroad, provide a “world-class” education (something, it seems, all universities now aspire to), and create a new generation of leaders, business people and so on.
That’s the grand, expensive, and truly remarkable vision for UCA.
The reality of working with the three host states has proved quite different, as recent events exemplify.
Unconfirmed rumours are circulating that UCA won’t in fact be able to run its new courses at the Khorog campus this year because they haven’t got all their documents in order.
Yes, you heard that right.
A state of the art brand new university (I was able to visit the campus shortly before it opened, and can confirm that the facilities are quite outstanding) that has been set up with the explicit purpose of trying to improve life in Tajikistan is being forced to suspend its activities because of a paperwork problem.
A story that started on independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus’ website on October 6 claimed that not all the documents required to receive a state licence to run a university have been received and as a result, the Ministry of Education and Science has not yet formally given approval for UCA to operate in Tajikistan.
That original story now appears unavailable but another news agency, Ozodagon, took up the story on October 11 [ru], although appeared to have little to add to the facts.
UCA declined to be interviewed by Ozodagon other than to say that the story carried by Asia-Plus was incorrect.
Apparently UCA will continue teaching, either online or by transferring the first Khorog cohort to Naryn, where business continues as usual.
Whether or not it is true that UCA’s licence has not been granted (and my reading is that it is not, but that there is likely some truth around the edges), the more important point this story raises is the pervasive nature of bureaucracy in Tajikistan and the related problem of getting a job done.
Where is the incentive to innovate, to set up a small business, bring in foreign investment – or yes, even open a university – when the requirements set by the state for doing so are so difficult and extensive? Of course it’s important that enterprises operating within the jurisdiction of a state adhere to regulations laid out by that state and endeavour to do the best job they can.
But in the case of Tajikistan, the bureaucracy goes too far.
During my fieldwork this summer, I witnessed this first hand. A university administrator was attempting to get a piece of documentation signed off by a Ministry of Education official, and after many months of hard work with many colleagues across the university had the document ready. The document was significant in length and recounted in detail the curriculum plans for that particular institution for the forthcoming academic year.
Despite dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s (almost literally), the administrator returned from the visit to the Ministry crestfallen. The civil servant had refused to sign the document.
Because the document had not quite printed properly and three letters were missing from one word.
The word itself was understandable despite missing the last few letters.
Eventually, after several anguished hours of working out how to fix this without re-printing the document – which had been produced on a special size of paper – a very manual cut and paste job saved the day.
After a second trip to the Ministry, the mandatory signature and stamp were received to the great relief of my administrator colleague.
This entire spectacle appears to solve no purpose other than provide personal satisfaction to the bureaucrat at the Ministry of Education. Look under the surface and there’s a lot more at stake. Corruption – the possibility of making someone’s life so difficult that it’s easier to pay a bribe than go through the legal channels – is high up on the agenda.
The broader political agenda of the Tajik government also plays a role, which is a subject for more detailed discussion another time.
And then there’s the possibility that the two incidents mentioned above merely symbolize an extreme level of bureaucratization of the sort that Weber, in laying out his ideas about the modern rational and technical era over a century ago, could not have begun to imagine.
These days, there’s a lot of literature out there – both in the academic and the policy worlds – on studying abroad. You can read about why students choose to go abroad for higher education, how studying abroad changes students, how states compete to recruit the best students from around the world, what this all means for the global inequality between nations … and much, much more.
Studies of students studying abroad from or in the former Soviet Union, my particular region of interest, are few and far between. Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics English-language publication Higher Education in Russia and Beyond collected a good array of new work on this growing area of interest earlier in 2017 (including my article on Tajikistan’s international students) and there’s a special edition of an academic journal on study abroad from Central Asia planned for later this year/early next year (watch this space).
Amongst a handful of researchers focussing on Central Asia, Nazgul Mingisheva of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Medical State University presented really interesting empirical work on international students from South Asia who study at her university at the 2017 ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference. There are also a growing number of publications on the impact of the Kazakhstan government’s massive Bolashak scholarship scheme, which to date has funded over 10,000 students to complete Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhDs and vocational/short-term study abroad.
So that’s the state of the field: a vast amount available on study abroad in general, and really not very much (in English at least) on student mobility from the perspective of the former Soviet countries.
As such, the findings from a new study by Maia Chankseliani of the University of Oxford have been greeted with a great detail of interest. Firstly, her research on student mobility from the former Soviet states fills in broad gaps in our empirical understanding of trends and changes in study abroad from this large region.
More important, however, is her stunningly stark finding that there seems to be a link between where students from the former Soviet countries study and levels of democratic development in their home country. The basic hypothesis is that the more students who study in European Union countries as opposed to Russia, the greater the likelihood that their home country is more democratic. Just take a look at this:
Here you see that countries towards the top-right (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) have both much higher proportions of mobile students heading to European Union states AND higher rankings in the Economist’s democracy index.
Conversely, those countries that send fewer of their mobile students to the EU (bottom-left of the graph – mainly Central Asian states) also experience lower levels of democratic development.
Now, contrast those findings to the next graph, which plots the number of study abroad students going to Russia against levels of democratic development. The results are almost completely reversed:
Here you see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sending the fewest mobile students to Russia, placing them at the top-left of the graph. Although the Central Asian states are less grouped here, there is clearly a connection with the proportion of students going from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Russia vs the EU and their levels of democratic development.
Whilst abroad, students are exposed to the norms and rules of a democratic country and potentially undergo personal changes in their own views about politics, society and economics. On returning home, they may become facilitators for greater democratic development.
This thesis appears to be compellingly supported by her data (although Kyrgyzstan seems to be an unaccounted-for anomaly). If true, states wishing to transmit their own democratic norms and values have a clear rationale to start channeling their soft power resources into recruiting students from less democratic nations.
However, I think the data only tells us part of the story.
The graphs, clear and compelling as they are, do not explain how students who have studied abroad go back and make a difference in their home nation. Can you really induce a change in political system simply by having temporarily lived in a democracy? Or is it that the changes Chankseliani is indicating are on a much smaller scale – tiny individual actions that collectively may lead to a cultural shift at home?
Further, the actual number of mobile students from the former Soviet states is tiny compared to the overall number of people in those countries who go through higher education, and even less compared to the population as a whole. Put otherwise, there simply aren’t enough people studying abroad to come back and make such significant changes at home that democratize the country.
Finally (for now), the biggest issue I have with the data is that they disregard the history and context of the home setting. Take the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example.
Each of these countries has centuries-long histories of statehood, and each shares the same geographic neighbourhood as Europe. Indeed, the boundaries of contemporary Lithuania have changed so much over the last few hundred years between what is now Germany, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania that in some respects it’s a very artificial distinction to separate out the Baltics from Europe in the first place. As soon as these three states regained independence after the Soviet period, they threw themselves back towards Europe, gaining EU membership in 2004. It could be argued, then, that it is the structural conditions of these states – their history, geography, culture, and pre-Soviet political systems – that leads to students going to study more in the EU than in Russia and to their current democratic political systems than to the notion that it is the returning mobile students who lead to democratic change.
Chankseliani acknowledges this in her longer presentation on the subject, available on ResearchGate. This opens the way to some fantastically interesting future studies on what she terms the actor vs structure debate.
What do you think?
Are students who’ve studied abroad drivers of political change? Is this even possible in authoritarian states?
Or is the systems and structures that surround us that are responsible for political developments?
Did you know that Kazakhstan’s first university was opened in Tashkent – in today’s Uzbekistan?
Or that the its first Rector (Vice-Chancellor) was a final year student?
Or that throughout the Soviet period, there was only ever one university in Kazakhstan’s capital?
All these fun (yes, they are fun!) facts and more can be found in a lighthearted new article by Andrei Mikhailov writing for Kazakhstan’s InformBureau [ru].
The article, which I’ve translated from Russian below, nicely captures the energy and novelty of formal higher education in the early Soviet period.
Lenin’s government couldn’t build institutions fast enough, so Kazakh students (that is, students living on the territory that has since become Kazakhstan) were sent to other parts of the Union, often to the fabulously named Communist Universities.
As an aside, I read an informative article about the Communist Universities earlier this week by Panin and Harlamova КОММУНИСТИЧЕСКИЕ УНИВЕРСИТЕТЫ ДЛЯ НАЦИОНАЛЬНЫХ МЕНЬШИНСТВ Панин Харламова 2012 [ru]. They were set up for “national minorities” and had two purposes: to train political workers for Soviet government work, and to train revolutionaries for other states. Teaching took place in a wide range of languages, from Finnish to Korean. These universities were a short-lived phenomenon, shut down in the second half of the 1930s after Stalin decided that the national question had been solved.
Back to Kazakhstan. Mikhailov suggests that back in the Soviet period, the lack of higher education made it a more valuable commodity than in today’s world of practically universal access to tertiary education. He notes with warm approval that the student to faculty ratio at Kazakh State University was an incredible 2:1 in its initial years, with over half of the faculty bearing Professor or Associate Professor designation. You wouldn’t get that nowadays, Mikhailov wants us to know.
Read on and learn more, and if that’s whetted your appetite for more Central Asian university history, take a look at my previous posts on this topic.
The first Kazakhstani university was opened in Tashket. And its first Rector was a student.
(c) Andrei Mikhailov and Kazakhstan InformBureau; English translation by Emma Sabzalieva
Today, when higher education in Kazakhstan has become widely available (and, it seems, has lost all meaning), it’s a good time to remember how it all began.
Until October 1917 on the territory of modern Kazakhstan, there were only a few gymnasiums [higher schools] (including two in Verny). But there was not a single higher education institution. So until 1928, the highly educated class of Kazakhstanis were trained outside of Kazakhstan.
Our educated intelligentsia were mainly trained in three universities – Turkestan State University, Central Asian Communist University in Tashkent and the Communist Workers University of the East (KUTV) in Moscow. In 1924-25, 927 Kazakhs were trained at Turkestan University, and 100 Kazakh students in Moscow universities.
And our first higher education institute [HEI] – the Kazakh Institute of Education (Kazpedvuz) – was opened in 1926 … in Tashkent. To be fair, it was “especially for Kazakhstan.” It was transferred to Alma-Ata [now Almaty] in 1928 and became the first of our domestic universities – the Kazakh Pedagogical Institute.
Three more HEI followed specializing in veterinary and zootechnical sciences, agricultural sciences and medicine. So, when in 1932 another teacher training institute was established in Uralsk (based on the one transferred from Orenburg), the number of HEIS had grown by five times since 1916!
However, no one at that time could foresee the heyday of higher education that we are witnessing today. Now almost all school leavers are almost automatically enrolling in higher education. Nowadays, wherever you look, you will surely see an academic or someone who can offer some kind of scientific advice. For world science, such an abundance of high-level scientific minds in Kazakhstan is of little importance, but… nevertheless, it’s nice when two seemingly unremarkable Kazakhs meet by chance, and both turn out to be well-known scientists, Doctors of Science [Soviet qualification higher than a PhD], professors, “who made a huge contribution”, etc. etc.
When the first Kazakh Pedagogical Institute was organized in Tashkent, experienced teachers were especially invited from Moscow. (Surprisingly, none refused the invitation!) Among them was, for example, the famous explorer of Central Asia – Professor of Turkology S.E. Malov.
But the most curious thing is that the first rector of Kazpedvuz was… a student, Temirbek Zhurgenov. Zhurgenov studied at SAGU (Central Asian State University), the first HEI in the “Red East”, created five years earlier by the decree of Lenin.
Unlike today’s muddled nomenklatura of “doctors” and self-proclaimed academics, Zhurgenov – even as a student – was very well-known. Even before becoming the rector of Kazpedvuz in his final year of study, he became the plenipotentiary of the Kazakh ASSR in the Republic of Turkestan in his second year. And unlike the rapid career rise of today’s leaders, Zhurgenov’s career development came off the back of a series of good posts – and family money. (It is interesting that Zhurgenov was later also able to find time to Chair the People’s Commissar of Education in Uzbekistan).
The first university in Kazakhstan appeared only in 1934. It was the famous Kazakh State University (KazGU) named after Kirov in the city of Alma-Ata. In the first year, there were only 54 students in its two faculties (physics and biophysics). And for every two students in those years, there was one teacher! And what teachers there were! Amongst the 25 teachers, there were 5 professors and 10 associate professors including those from Moscow State and Kazan State [very prestigious] Universities!
It is interesting that the KazGU was located in the building of the former Verny gymnasium (where Frunze studied). And more interestingly, it was the only university in the capital of the republic all the time that Kazakhstan was part of the USSR. So when students were asked, “Where do you study?”, there was no need to clarify their answer: “At the University!”
The President of Tajikistan (his official title is now somewhat longer and less catchy: The Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, His Excellency Emomali Rahmon) strikes a great pose and can be found in action all over Tajikistan. I’ve saved you the trouble of traipsing around the capital Dushanbe by creating this gallery of posters, taken this summer, purely for your viewing pleasure. No, really, you’re welcome.
It’s been rather quiet on the blog of late.
Don’t worry – I haven’t run out of ideas to keep the blog going. On the contrary, I probably now have too many. I also have a LOT of new photos of universities to add to my photo gallery (see the bottom right part of the homepage). Bet you can’t wait for that!
The reason for the lower than usual level of activity is that I’ve been doing fieldwork for my PhD thesis over the last two months.
This has involved meeting with over 30 wonderful academics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and spending a time with each of them discussing their personal experiences of working in higher education since the late Soviet period.
I have learned so much from my respondents and am incredibly grateful to each of them, not just for their time, but also for their willingness to share their own stories with me. Once I am back in Canada next month, I will need to spend time reflecting on these interviews and making sure I do justice to the rich data I have been able to gather.
All the interviews have been anonymised so I can’t thank people publicly – but they know who they are. Thank you. Спасибо.
In addition to doing these interviews, I’ve also been selected to present at three conferences, one in each country.
At the joint ESCAS-CESS conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in June, I organized a panel on The shifting landscapes of post-Soviet higher education, presenting the paper Conceptualizing change in post-Soviet higher education. I also convened a roundtable on to discuss the future for higher education in the post-Soviet space. Read more about the conference here.
In July, I was invited to present at a conference on Tradition and change in a contemporary world in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This is a very fitting theme for my thesis work on change (and stability), although at the request of the conference organizer, the paper I presented drew on my earlier comparative work on the UK and Canada and was entitled Connecting history with contemporary identity in higher education. The article that this paper is based on can be found here.
Finally, here in Astana, Kazakhstan, I am pleased to have presented today (19 August) at the first annual conference of the Graduate School of Public Policy at Nazarbayev University.
My paper was Public policy and higher education reform in Central Asia, which discusses how the world-class university has become a global public policy strategy for higher education.
Although this is an excellent example of policy convergence, I argue that Kazakhstan’s strategy in creating Nazarbayev University offers a creative shift to this world-class university model: one that embraces the dominant global university model whilst at the same time transforming it to be useful and applicable for other purposes. You can read my related article on this subject here.
The conference was themed around good governance and attracted a diverse array of international presenters. Each of the presentations I was able to see added something new to my understanding of governance and public policy, from thinking about the state as a supplier of institutions for economic diversification in Kazakhstan (by Zhanat Murzakulova) to learning more about the implications of informal institutions for post-Soviet education systems (by Dr Dina Sharipova), and a lot more in between.
And last but not least, in amongst all the interviews and conferences and photographing university buildings, it’s been absolutely wonderful to catch up with family and friends. Being dispersed so globally can have its downsides, so it makes the moments of being together even more special.
What a great summer.
Held at the stunning new purpose-built campus of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, ESCAS-CESS was the largest international conference of Central Eurasian regional studies scholars ever to be held in the region.
I organized a panel and convened a roundtable, contributing to the eight sessions dedicated to education during the course of the conference. You can see the program here.
Panel: The shifting landscapes of post-Soviet higher education
Together with presenters Dmitry Semyonov* and Daria Platonova of the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia, Martha C. Merrill of Kent University in the US and Sari Eriksson of the University of Helsinki in Finland, we discussed our research on the forces that have driven changes in the size, the shape, and the governance arrangements of higher education systems in Central Asia and the wider post-Soviet space.
We collectively aimed to advance our understanding of how change happens in higher education and the implications these changes have had in particular post-Soviet settings.
My paper analysed how change in higher education since 1991 in Central Asian countries has been conceptualized, responding to a gap in the understanding of how theories of change are applied to higher education.
The paper was based on a document analysis of 34 purposively selected peer-reviewed English language academic journal articles published between 1991 and 2017. Articles were identified through the use of words such as ‘change’, ‘development’, ‘post-Soviet’, ‘reform’, ‘transformation’ and ‘transition’ in the title, abstract, keywords, or introduction.
As I study shifts and continuities in higher education through the theoretical lens of institutional change, I analysed the articles using a typology of modes of change I adapted from Streeck and Thelen**. This delineates both the process of change (as being on a scale between incremental and abrupt) and the outcome of change (as being on a scale between continuity and discontinuity).
Below is the visual I used to show how I mapped the articles on to the typology. During the presentation, I went through each of the quadrants in more detail to explain the rationale for placing the articles there and give some indication of the content / viewpoint that you might expect to find in each.
Roundtable: From Soviet to European to Global? Future Directions for Higher
Education in Central Eurasia
Over the last 25 years, the broad narrative of higher education reform in Central Eurasia has been a shift away from a Soviet model towards a model aligning with many European policies. More recently, efforts at adopting global norms are emerging.
Of course, such a concise synopsis overlooks the many intricacies of change in the very different Central Eurasian states. Furthermore, it might suggest that such a Soviet-European-Global ‘transition’ is not only linear, but that it (inevitably) leads from one starting point to one shared destination.
Thus, the aim of the roundtable was to question these assumptions from multiple perspectives. Some of the questions we focussed on were:
Is it meaningful to compare higher education across Central Eurasia?
Is there a crisis in the academic profession?
Who and what is higher education for?
Joining me at the roundtable were Martha C. Merrill of Kent University in the US, Sari Eriksson of the University of Helsinki in Finland and Zumrad Kataeva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia.
It was an excellent conference: interdisciplinary, a mix of newer and more established researchers, new contacts and old friends, and a chance to try out some of my PhD research through my panel presentation.
Were you at ESCAS-CESS? How did you find it?
*Shortly after publishing this blogpost, I received the tragic news that Dmitry died on 17 August 2017 following a car crash. Dmitry was a great young researcher with a promising future and his death is simply terrible news. My condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues at the Higher School of Economics.
**Streeck & K. Thelen (2005) Beyond continuity: Institutional change in advanced political economies
It’s university admissions season in Tajikistan and as a record number of school leavers sit the nationwide university entrance exams, ever-reliable news outlet Asia-Plus took a look at the prospects for the class of 2021.
This unified nationwide testing system was introduced in 2013 as part of a project funded by the World Bank and with Russian government assistance. This follows a pattern seen across the post-Soviet states, where university-specific admissions arrangements have been centralized into a national testing system with one of the main goals being to overcome corruption (bribe-taking, use of contacts etc) in university admissions.
(For a more detailed overview of shifts in access to higher education across the former Soviet Union, I recommend this 2012 paper by Anna Smolentseva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia)
In the Tajik university entrance exam system, all potential university students have to take three exams in Tajik language, maths, and the history of the Tajik people and the foundations of the state and law. Then, depending on the subject you wish to specialize in, you also take another three exams focusing on that area. The five subject-specific clusters are: natural and technical sciences; economics and geography; philology, pedagogy and art; social studies and law; and medicine, biology and sport.
The National Testing Centre produces a useful document for future students called ‘How to choose your course’ [ru] (this uses the term “spetsialnost’” or specialism, which dates back to the Soviet era of planned economy and direct pipeline from university to job market). The guidance suggests that candidates consider the following questions:
-What do you expect to achieve from this specialism?
-Does it meet your interests, aptitudes and abilities?
-Can this area satisfy your needs?
-Can you make a living from this area?
The guidance underlines the importance of the last question and highlights a phenomenon also identified by Asia-Plus, where the prestige of subjects such as economics and law has led to a glut of graduates who now sit unemployed because demand far outstrips supply.
With over 10,000 candidates competing for less than 5,000 nationwide places in subjects related to social studies and law, there is clearly a large gap – not just between those who will make it to university and those who won’t based on the exam score, but in the subjects students want to study and what the government thinks the labour market can bear.
Asia-Plus spoke to candidates taking the exams about how they’d chosen their areas of specialism. Farrukh aspires to be a prosecutor or investigator because they are “the most respected people” and they earn a lot. Muhammad’s father is a teacher and would like him to become one too, but Muhammad is pessimistic: “Teaching isn’t a prestigious career anymore. My dad’s a teacher and where has that got him? He hasn’t even got a car. He owes everyone money.” Like Farrukh, Muhammad dreams of joining the legal profession.
The perceived prestige of economics, law and medicine has in parallel downgraded the prestige of science and technology related jobs. However, as one commentator in the Asia-Plus article notes, “I think that electricians and plumbers earn a lot more than doctors and lawyers. I paid an electrician $800 for 3 days’ work!”.
People I’ve spoken to in universities here are acutely aware of the need for more students to fill scientific and technical positions in the labour market, and it’s clear that the government is also trying to encourage students in this direction. As Asia-Plus notes, Tajikistan has a great need for more graduates with skills in new technologies, geology, industry, transport and energy.
Yet it is the overwhelming and now fairly enduring trend towards areas such as economics, law and medicine that make the headlines. This interest is generally associated with the earnings potential of jobs in these areas – both the take-home pay packet and in the potential to unofficially earn extra on the side.
The take home message here is not all negative. The fact that nearly 100,000 school leavers are choosing to take the university entrance exams because they want to continue their education is laudable. If spread evenly across the subject clusters, that would mean an average of 1.5 candidates for every university/college place available. Demand is high. The tradition established during the Soviet era of placing strong value on higher education in Tajikistan persists, despite the difficulties the country has experienced since becoming independent in 1991.
Nevertheless, a supportive underlying culture in this case is not enough.
I am a great believer in the transformative power of higher education, but it also seems that a dose of labour market-related realism is in order here.
Much more outreach work needs to be done in schools to help young people learn about the post-university job options that are available to them. The prestige of technical jobs has to be addressed creatively and positively. Public sector jobs ought to attract greater salaries so that good candidates are not turned off by the prospect of spending four years in university only to earn $100 a month.
And another point that is not made in any of the government documentation is the need to enrich the job opportunities (and social mobility possibilities) available to female students, especially those from rural areas. As one respondent to Asia-Plus’ interviews noted, she’d ideally like to be a banker or a tax inspector. However, as a rural woman she’s instead limited to being a midwife or a teacher.
And so the cycle continues…