You're fired: 10 university heads lose their jobs in Uzbekistan

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There was no love lost this Valentine’s Day as ten university leaders in Uzbekistan were fired

It was not an auspicious Valentine’s day for ten of Uzbekistan’s university leaders this year, with several newspapers running a story with the tantalizing title ‘10 university Rectors lose their jobs in one day‘ on February 14.

If previous leadership changes are anything to go by (see e.g. Tashkent State University of Law, Tashkent State University of Economics), there is probably more to this than the bureaucrat’s favourite reason: “they reached pensionable age”.

Hints at the reasons for the mass removals came during a meeting between the President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and industry, university and research representatives at the end of January. Mirziyoyev was scathing in his criticism:

In the coming days, we’re going to fire a number of Rectors. According to information I have here, these Rectors aren’t even worthy of being security guards at their university. They lack knowledge, education, patriotism and the ability to do their job.

Ouch.

Mirziyoyev also said that throwing these leaders in jail wouldn’t end the corruption that remains endemic in Uzbekistan’s higher education. The whole environment needs to be changed. True.

The universities involved in the February 14 changes at the top are:

Tashkent State Pedagogical University

Jizzakh State Pedagogical Institute

Navoi State Pedagogical Institute

Namagan State University

Tashkent Chemical-Technological Institute

Karshi Institute of Engineering and Economics

Namagan Institute of Civil Engineering

Kokand State Pedagogical Institute

Tashkent District branch of Astrakhan State Technical University

Tashkent State Dental Institute

Samarkand State Medical Institute

Kyrgyz students in Russia

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Say hi to Pep, who likes to hang out at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Pep has nothing to do with today’s story but I seem to have exhausted most of the internet’s attempts at cat memes relevant to university students.

Whereas their Uzbek counterparts are being sent home from studying abroad, Kyrgyz students are heading to Russia in ever greater numbers. From 1,300 in 2006/07, there were 5,700 Kyrgyzstanis studying in Russia at last count in 2016/17.

But in the style of the classic Russian gameshow What? Where? When? (Что? Где? Когда?), let’s find out more.

The most popular Russian cities and universities for Kyrgyz students are not in the major metropoles of Moscow and St Petersburg, but in the country’s regions. The Siberian city of Tomsk – one of the closest to Kyrgyzstan, just north of Kazakhstan and a mere 2,300km away – has the top two – Tomsk State University and Tomsk State Architecture and Building University.

Following the Tomsk pair, the next most popular are a duo in Moscow – the Higher School of Economics and the Russian People’s Friendship University, and then Kemerovo State University. Kemerovo is just down the road from Tomsk and its popularity is probably linked to its convenient location.

The Russian Minister for Education Valeriy Falkov is pretty happy about this given the government’s emphasis on developing higher education in the regions.

Kyrgyz students in Russia are more likely to study medicine and an array of technical subjects and hybrid courses such as agrobusiness.

Students from around the former Soviet space are these days not necessarily drawn to Russia because of the historic ties from their Soviet legacy. Nevertheless, there persists a sense – particularly in economically poorer states like Kyrgzystan and Tajikistan – that Russian education is ‘better’ than the domestic system based both on its history as well as comparatively higher investments in the system. Furthermore, there are still plenty of Central Asian students being educated in Russian who can manage the language of instruction.

That said, it’s just as likely that the current generation of Kyrgyzstani 18 year olds – who were born a good decade after the fall of the Soviet Union – are attracted by scholarships that are offered not just on admission but for placing highly in competitions and olympiads organized by Russian universities. A number of education fairs held annually in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia/ex-Soviet region also help recruit students to Russia’s higher education system.

The upward trend of international students in Russia is gaining some attention in the academic and practitioner worlds, and for good reason. Of the 5+ million students studying abroad, Russia is now the sixth most popular destination country. The number of international students in Russia has grown by 9% per year on average over the past 15 years; the government has an ambitious plan to increase numbers from the current figure of 220,000 to 700,000 by 2025.

Why are Uzbek students abroad being sent home?

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No choice but to home for Uzbekistan’s overseas students

Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Education has announced that Uzbek students studying abroad in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan should return home and enrol at a domestic higher education institution.

The Ministry has been quick to underline that this decision is not connected to the novel coronavirus that has been panicking the world after spreading rapidly in and from China in early 2020.

Instead, the reasons given are two-fold. Firstly, parents of these internationally minded students are apparently concerned about the difficulties of getting money to their offspring. The second issue is that some of the universities where these students are studying are not listed in Uzbekistan’s national ranking. This in turns has led to a question about whether these universities are of sufficient quality for the nation’s next generation to be educated at.

Hm. Something’s not quite right here.

It’s true that students from Turkmenistan who are studying abroad have experienced difficulties with receiving money transfers from home or using their Turkmen-issued bank cards internationally, as I have reported on before. On that basis we could surmise that Uzbek students in Turkmenistan might indeed experience some problems with getting funds from their relatives. Tajikistan has been having a rocky relationship with money transfers too, though largely because the government is keen to scrape as much commission from the companies that are still allowed to operate. But I’m not aware of any potential issues for students in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

So yes, there may be some truth to the first reason given – although is that enough in itself to summon all overseas students home? What about those studying in non-Central Asian countries?

As for the second issue of quality assurance, call me cynical but that just seems fabricated to cover for something else. Uzbekistan has barely been able to put together its own national ranking – the Ministry of Justice outright cancelled the Ministry of Education’s first effort in 2018!

Since then, Uzbekistan has proceeded to put together rankings but this is the first I’ve heard of them taking international (i.e. non-Uzbek) universities into account. It seems like an awful lot of work to go through when the country is still in the very initial phases of ranking its own universities.

The recall of students has implications for the students themselves, for the host universities, and for the relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbours.

Uzbekistan’s universities are notoriously hard to get into – not because of corruption (although that’s definitely a problem) but because there are so few places. In 2019, 1 million school leavers competed for under 150,000 places. Little wonder that many of those denied a place at a domestic university look abroad.

In a pattern than plays out across Central Asia, most of Uzbekistan’s international students head to Russia – 26,000 last year alone. But there are significant numbers nearer to home too: more than 4,000 in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and almost 2,000 in Kyrgyzstan. So the loss of these students will have a major impact on the host universities.

This is a particular problem for Tajikistan’s Pedagogical University, which apparently has a whopping 2,500 Uzbek students on its books. Almost all of them are ‘contract’ (i.e. fee paying) students paying around 4,000 TJS (around US$400) per year, which all adds up to a significant amount of revenue for the university and will be sorely missed once the students leave.

Finally, this has ramifications for Uzbekistan’s bilateral and regional relations. Only recently starting to thaw, the Uzbek government has made huge inroads into improving its relations with its neighbours. In higher education this has led to, for example, many new cooperation agreements between universities and commitments to joint research and academic mobility.

This new and unexpected move to recall Uzbekistani students is thus not only surprising, but potentially throws a (small) spanner in the works as the overall schema for Central Asian regional relations had just begun to look more positive than ever before.

More Russian schools for Tajikistan

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A quick primer on how to say ‘cat’ in Russian. Easy, right? Oh, wait…

Here’s an interesting story on the continued growth of Russian language (and primarily Russian government funded) schools in Tajikistan. The story is (c) RFE/RL Tajikistan and author Farangis Najibullah (an excellent journalist; please check out her other work):

No Shortage Of Students As Tajikistan Builds New Russian Schools

Originally posted at https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-new-russian-schools/30384557.html on January 18, 2020

Tajikistan’s parliament has approved an agreement to build five new Russian schools in the next three years, with funds largely provided by the Russian government.

The move shows the Tajik authorities’ willingness to maintain close ties with Moscow and reflects a growing demand among Tajiks for Russian-language education.

During a parliamentary debate in Dushanbe on January 15, Deputy Education Minister Rahmatullo Mirboboev said the schools will be designed to hold at least 1,200 students each.

The Russian-speaking community has significantly dwindled in the Central Asian country as the population of ethnic Russians has fallen from some 395,000 in 1979 to just 35,000 when the last census was taken in 2010.

Despite that, it’s expected there will be no shortage of students for the new Russian-speaking schools.

The demand among Tajiks for more educational facilities in which Russian is the language of instruction has risen both in cities and rural areas in recent years.

There are already 32 Russian-only schools in Tajikistan, with 10 of them established in the past two years.

Dozens of mixed-language schools offer education in both Tajik and Russian classes, taught separately.

Rampant Unemployment

Tajik parents who enroll their children in Russian schools say it will enhance their chances of studying in Russian universities and getting well-paid, white-collar jobs in Russia.

Unemployment is rampant and wages very low in Tajikistan, one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics. The average monthly wage in October was $140.

“My eldest son goes to a Russian school,” says Zahro, a pediatrician from the northern province of Sughd who didn’t want to give her full name.

She says her younger son couldn’t get a place in the Russian school and that he is “currently studying in Tajik” while waiting for a vacancy.

“A longer-term plan for them is to study medicine in Russia, possibly in some smaller cities where living costs are not high,” Zahro said. “The children are working hard, we’re also getting additional private instruction in chemistry and physics.”

Like many other Tajiks, Zahro believes the Russian-language schools in Tajikistan generally offer a better-quality education.

Russian schools are the second-best option for middle-income parents like Zahro, who can’t afford to send their children to private schools.

There are dozens of private schools and lyceums — including English schools — that enjoy a reputation for providing quality education with a broader range of extracurricular offerings, smaller class sizes, and experienced teachers.

Russian Investment

Plans to open more Russian schools in Tajikistan were discussed during a meeting between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Dushanbe in September 2018, the Tajik leader’s official website reported.

Rahmon has always maintained a close relationship with “strategic partner” Russia, which hosts many hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrant workers.

The migrants’ remittances — estimated at around $2.5 billion and equal to about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018 — is an important factor for Tajikistan’s social and economic stability.

Russia, in turn, has always been keen to keep Central Asia within its sphere of influence, and uses Russian-language education and the lure of economic opportunities as a tool of soft power.

Since August 2018, Moscow has sent more than 100 Russian teachers to Tajikistan — a mountainous country of some 8.9 million people — while also providing textbooks for the country’s Russian schools.

A large portion of the teachers’ wages are reportedly paid by the Russian Education Ministry.

During his annual press conference on December 19, 2019, Putin mentioned the need to open more Russian schools in Central Asia.

“It is more difficult to adapt for those who come, for example, from Central Asia. What can we do? We have to introduce our education systems, open Russian-language courses, Russian schools, and university branches,” said Putin when asked about Russia’s demographic situation and the immigration issues his country faces.

Tajik education officials say the five new schools will be built over the next three years in the capital, Dushanbe, as well as in the cities of Khujand in the country’s north, Bokhtar and Kulob in the south, and the western town of Tursunzoda.

DIY budgeting: The self-financing experiment in Uzbekistan's universities begins

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Further to my December 2019 post, An Uzbek experiment, the new do-it-yourself funding model for 10 of the country’s higher education institutions (HEIs) has now come into force. All 10 will be under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education to ensure that prices don’t jump too high, too fast and that standards don’t slip – and most importantly, as one news agency points out, to prevent corruption slipping in.

If cats could account for themselves…

So, as of January 1, 2020, the HEIs, a mix of universities and specialized institutes, are now able to:

  • Set their own tuition fees
  • Introduce new Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees
  • Continue to receive state funding for some students
  • Decide how their institutional budget will be split

This last point is one of the most important, although not getting as much press attention as the excitement generated by the possibility of new courses / fear that fees will be hiked.

Why? Because until now, all HEIs in Uzbekistan had to conform to the rigid model imposed by the government: 46.8% on salaries, 33.1% on scholarships, 11.5% on budget deductions (i.e. retained by the government) and 8.6% on other expenses. So now, if one of the 10 DIY-HEIs wants to increase faculty salaries, buy more computers or offer more student funding, it can do so.

Next door in Tajikistan, where I have been doing interviews with university-based researchers, this self-financing model and the flexibility it provides to set your own budget is seen as a very positive move for the woefully underpaid academics still committed to the academic cause. In Tajikistan (as in some other former Soviet countries), self-financing is offered to universities that obtain ‘national’ status. So far only one university of 35 in Tajikistan has this, but there are others that are keen to upgrade both for reputational purposes and financial flexibility.

New Minister of Education for Tajikistan

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Cats sparking joy, unlike certain Tajik civil servants…

Whilst Russia has been making the headlines for its more-Marie-Kondo-than-Marie-Kondo approach to replacing government personnel (if it doesn’t spark joy…), the Tajik government has been doing some pretty comprehensive new year cleaning of its own.

I heard earlier today (January 24, 2020) from a knowledgeable source in Tajikistan that many high ranking staff in the Ministry of Education have been kicked out and replaced with more forward-looking and innovative colleagues. This framing is interesting given that for the most part our outsider view of most civil servants in Tajikistan is of corrupt / nepotistic practices outweighing talent and policy vision in employee selection.

However, the source assured me that the head of the Ministry Nuriddin Said was safe in his top spot… but only minutes later, I found out that he too has been moved on. Said had been Minister of Education and Science since 2012 but as of today has been moved to lead the government’s Television and Radio Broadcasting Committee. That seems a big step down.

Said was an unpopular Minister, receiving heavy criticism for his poor Russian language skills. An online petition even circulated on social media in 2018 calling for his resignation. That is extremely unusual for Tajikistan, where social movements are not allowed to exist (unless government sanctioned) and any hint of online protest tends to get the internet shut down.

Responding to the dissatisfaction with his language skills, Said responded “I’m neither Tolstoy nor Solzhenitsyn”, but did acknowledge he has a strong accent when speaking in Russian. You can judge for yourself here.

Said has been replaced by Mahmadyousuf Imomov, who until today was Rector of Tajik Nationa University. Imomov is no stranger to government, as he is also a representative in the Majlisi Milli, the parliamentary upper house.

Imomov began his academic career in 1981 immediately after graduating from Tajik State (now National) University. He worked at the Institute of Languages and Literature before moving to the USSR Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Literature. He later switched to work at the Tajik Academy of Sciences and after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, taught at Tajik State University. By the end of the 1990s he had worked through various promotions to the level of Dean.

His first major leadership position came in 2004 when he was appointed as Rector of the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, at the time a new entrant on the Tajik higher education scene (it was founded in 1996) and considered at that point to be the country’s top university. In 2012, Imomov was moved to become Rector of Tajik National University and now, another eight years later, he has become Minister of Education and Science.

In other education-related government appointments:

  • Updated Jan 27: Some confusion as to who will replace Imomov as Rector of Tajik National University. Previously, it was reported that Abujabbor Rahmonzoda was taking over but today (Jan 27) I read that in fact the new Rector is the youthful Khushbakht Khushbakhzoda. Khushbakhzoda is still in his 30s and was previousy Dean of the Finance and Economics Faculty, whereas Rahmonzoda was previously a presidential advisor on social development and public relations. Prior to that Rahmonzoda was Rector of the Pedagogical University (2012-14), Minister of Education (2005-12), and a representative on the TV & Radio Broadcasting Committee (what is it with this committee?);
  • Deputy Minister of Education of Science Sayfiddin Davlatzoda has been ‘exiled’ from his cushy Dushanbe posting, replacing Muhammad Shodiyon who has been fired as Rector of Bokhtar State University.
  • The head of the Centre for Islamic Studies under the President of Tajikistan has become Murodullo Davlatzoda, an Islamic Studies scholar and ex-parliamentarian.

A full list of the government changes as at January 24 can be found here.

Lift off! Kyrgyz Space Program launches its next phase

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The all-female team at Kyrgyz Space Program had the idea first!

As some of you know, I am an enthusiastic supporter of a brilliant initiative for girls and young women in Kyrgyzstan called the Kyrgyz Space Program.

The Kyrgyz Space Program is aiming high: specifically, into space. They plan to build and launch Kyrgyzstan’s first ever satellite – and to do so with an exclusively female team. In early 2018, the Kyrgyz Space Program was launched [ru] with the support of media outlet Kloop, which continues to be a partner of the project.

Since then, the program has recruited and trained a core team of 10 young women, held masterclasses and camps, spoken at a TedX event, travelled to the UK to meet Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut and more! In January 2020, the team took delivery of the development kit they need to build their prototype. It’s a huge step forward for the team, and brings them that bit closer to being the world’s first ever all-female-constructed satellite.

Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and please consider becoming a sponsor of this amazing project!

Why does Kyrgyzstan need a satellite? Well, as the team say, “why not?!” The technology and parts are more accessible and cheaper than ever before, and Kyrgyzstan would be following other countries such as Ghana, Lithuania and Mongolia that have also decided to launch their own cubesats (the smallest type of satellite).

Why should it only be built by girls/young women? Let me quote the team directly (my translation):

We’re fed up of discrimination against girls and women in Kyrgyzstan. We’re fed up that in many families, girls are being brought up as servants. We’re fed up that many girls in Kyrgyzstan are being kidnapped, raped, and then forced to live with their rapist, having to call him “husband”.

We’re also also fed up with tens of thousands of other stories of awful injustices towards women.

But what can we do in response? We wanted to create an environment in which a group of girls would make history for real. In doing so, they would overcome stereotypes and cliches and inspire other girls in Kyrgyzstan (and perhaps around the world too) to realize their most fantastic dreams.

We believe that Kyrgyzstan can become a much stronger place if its citizens – irrespective of gender, race and social origins – can create, invent and surprise the world because of our discoveries.

We want the girls who will build the first Kyrgyz satellite to become role models for all young people in our beautiful country.

If you’re still reading here, let me say this again: Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and please consider becoming a sponsor of this amazing project!