The future is still bright

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The world is a different place these days as COVID-19 spreads its wings in all directions (officially reaching Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by the time of writing on March 18).

When we look back on these unusual times, I think we will see that coronavirus achieved what no politician, activist, or movement has yet managed by forcing us to collectively question the kind of world we want to live in. When the dust has settled, will we return to the economic growth imperative that has failed to be an equalizer across and within societies? Or is now finally the time to listen to the voices that have been clamouring for change – for change to relations between peoples, between humans and the earth, between places?

Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, whose name will be memorialized by the Kyrgyz Space Program

This blog isn’t the place to answer these deep questions. It is, however, a space where I can use my voice to share visions for a more hopeful future. (And do so in a way that ties in with my interests in Central Asia, education, society and politics…)

It seems fitting, then, that today’s post is about young people in Central Asia who are pioneering science and technology because they think it will help the development of their country. How about that for a positive and hopeful vision.

Who are these young people? They are the Kyrgyz Space Program, a group of dedicated women in Kyrgyzstan who want to build the country’s first satellite and relaunch the space industry. Despite some really unpleasant gender stereotyping and ongoing issues in securing funding (plug: please support them on Patreon if you can), the team is persisting and is on track to launch a CubeSat satellite in 2021.

Beautifully and poignantly, they are going to name their satellite Burulai, after Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, a 20 year old medical student who was abducted by so-called bride kidnappers and later murdered in 2018. As one of the team members says:

It will make her name immortal. I just hope that people won’t forget about her.

Aidana Aidarbekova, Kyrygz Space Program team member

Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and feel optimistic for the world’s future by watching this lovely 25 minute documentary recently released by AlJazeera. And please share the link to spread the joy of discovery and hope.

International Women’s Day: Celebrating female success, still marching for progress

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If cats did celebrations… PS Women: you don’t need a cat to be successful. But you knew that already.

8th March saw the annual marking of International Women’s Day (IWD), which is a formal opportunity to celebrate female success on the one hand, but also a time to lament the continued global persistence of male-dominated structures and norms, and to work on ways to reverse this situation.

IWD has developed and gained prominence since its founding at the beginning of the 20th century, and was a firm fixture in the Soviet calendar.

IWD continues to be celebrated around the former Soviet space to this day. I particularly enjoyed the Moscow Times’ Buzzfeed-friendly feature ‘5 Russian Women You Haven’t Heard Of But Should Have‘. (Check out number 5!).

Over in Uzbekistan, the local Sputnik news agency ran with a story about Gulchehra Rikhsieva, currently the only female Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of a higher education institution in the country. Rikhsieva heads Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies, having worked there since 2000 and assuming the leadership in 2019 after a short spell in government as Deputy Chair of the Senate Committee on Science, Education and Healthcare. She is a member of the Republican Commission on Gender Equality and the national Higher Education Council.

In an interview with Rikhsieva, she brings up some of what has become the ‘new normal’ in Uzbekistan’s higher education – rapid reforms, university rankings, competition, internationalization and so on. So far, so on message.

But a couple of the questions really grate, undermining everything Rikhsieva has to say about her plans for the university, the future for Uzbekistan, and so on. Could you ever imagine a male Rector being asked ‘How compatible is your role as a Rector with your family responsibilities? How do you cope with managing the university and household chores?’, or ‘Do female Rectors accept male Rectors? Isn’t it difficult for them to work with you?’

I didn’t think so.

Next door in Kyrgyzstan, women leaders of a different kind have also been facing both gendered and physical barriers. A women’s march on March 8 was initially banned by local authorities and then permitted to proceed, but then got cut off and assaulted by a group of masked men. Things turned from bad to worse when the police, who had been waiting in the background, arrested around 70 people who had been attacked.

Yes, that’s right. Not the attackers. The victims of the attacks. They were arrested.

The country that was once touted as the island of democracy is rapidly sinking under the weight of a shift to a set of norms that normalize so-called ‘traditions’ like bride kidnapping, permit abuse against women, and ban the expression of female issues.

The brilliant Kyrgyzstan-based movement Bishkek Feminist Initiatives calls for the development of feminist values in Kyrgyzstan and beyond, solidarity and respect for fairness and human rights, and the creation of a feminist space that will increase rights and opportunities for women and girls.

There are many ways we can do this, as individuals and by working together. Let me ask you to take the time to work out what (more) you can do. Even if you don’t think you can do much on your own, there is always somewhere to start.

It could be by supporting an organization involved in education and training for women or girls (as you probably know, I’m a huge fan of the Kyrgyz Space Program). It could be by educating yourself on the key issues faced by women and girls in Central Asia and around the world. It could be by amplifying the voices of females, whether that’s at a work meeting or on social media.

We all need to stand up and take action to end inequality against women and girls, and create a world where anyone can be and do anything.

Academic freedom in Russia

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Somewhat beyond the Central Asian scope I normally cover, but a topic that is highly relevant around the former Soviet space is academic freedom.

I recently listened to a very interesting podcast on the topic of academic freedom in Russia. The episode focussed on a series of recent events and interventions at the elite Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

Much was discussed in the course of the 10 hour Academic Council meeting at HSE

The debate centres around a TEN HOUR long Academic Council meeting – not the fact that these poor souls were trapped in the same space for such a long time, but the discussions that arose around proposed changes to internal rules that could impact on the ability of students, faculty and staff to discuss ‘political’ issues. (Political in quote marks as it’s one of the points of contention that politics is not properly defined anywhere).

The podcast is one of the first in the Naked Pravda series by the excellent Meduza news agency, which reports on Russia but safely from the confines of outside the country. It is one of the best sources of news (in Russian and in English) about Russia so as a side note, if you are a Russian reader but don’t currently get Meduza’s daily email, sign up now. It’s always on topic, very smart and funny, and will keep you up to speed on politicking po-russki.

Back to the podcast, which is in English: download it here from the podcast’s website. The link also has a good written summary of what’s discussed in the podcast in case you prefer to read than listen.

I recommend the podcast, although I note with disappointment that there were no female guests on this episode. There are more than enough qualified women out there, and it’s not difficult to find them. Naked Pravda can and should do better on that front.

Financing higher education in Kyrgyzstan

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For a small country with a population of a little over 6 million, Kyrgyzstan has an awful lot of universities – 68 at last count. For comparison, Singapore (population 5.8m) has exactly half as many and El Salvador (identical population to Kyrgyzstan) has 26 universities.

As with many countries in the former Soviet space, the number of universities and institutes (collectively, higher education institutions, or HEIs) rocketed in Kyrgyzstan with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even so, growth in the higher education system in Kyrgyzstan was phenomenally high, increasing by 325% in the first 15 years of independence. In neighbouring Kazakhstan, the increase over the same period was a more modest 197% (!).

Higher education growth in Kyrgyzstan came in both the pre-existing public sector as well as the nascent private higher education scene, and these days, the split between public and private HEIs is more or less 50-50.

With so many universities competing for students and limited state resources, Sputnik Kyrgyzstan recently published a fascinating interview with a senior administrator at one of the country’s leading institutions, Kyrgyz National University (KNU) on how the university gets and spends its money. This level of detail is often very difficult to glean from universities or Ministries of Education, so it adds quite significantly to our understanding of how higher education in a major state university in the former Soviet space is funded.

If cats did university budgets…

Income

KNU is a public university according to its history and current legal status, but in fact only gets 7% of its funding from the state.

As one of the biggest universities in the countries, they have over 17,500 students on their books and it’s these students who basically keep the university propped up. 92% of students are fee-paying, meaning that only a small minority are funded by the state (through various scholarships for e.g. high academic performance in secondary/high school or family/social status).

The biggest source of income by far is the 485 million som a year the university generates from tuition fees – equivalent to US$7m. Not bad considering that tuition fees didn’t exist as recently as 30 years ago.

From the state, KNU receives 40 million som a year (US$600,000) in the form of funding for students in receipt of government scholarships. The university allocates 60-70% of this on salaries and employment taxes.

Other income is minimal in comparison: 12 million som a year (US$170,000) in rent from its four dormitories, and 6 million som (US$85,000) from its residence in Issyk Kul (a popular lakeside holiday destination) and from eight dissertation councils.

In total, KNU is generating 543m som or US$7.85m in income a year.

Tuition fees and student numbers

Fees at KNU range from 31,000 som per year (about US$450) on ‘cheap’ courses such as physics, chemistry and Kyrgyz philology up to 46,000 som (around US$650) for economics courses in the Kyrgyz-European Faculty.

Each faculty has some wriggle room in setting its fees – some are planning to increase theirs by up to 10%, whereas others are actually decreasing them. This has been the case in physics and meteorology, where KNU has struggled to fill both fee paying places as well as state funded spots.

Total student numbers at KNU are considerably higher than at many universities, but have nevertheless dropped quite dramatically. Whereas around 28,000 students were fee paying 3-4 years ago, that number has almost halved to today’s figure of 16,330.

State sponsored places have also been reduced from 2,100 to 1,346. However, the university does not believe that the government will totally withdraw scholarship funding.

Expenses

As a state university, KNU has some limits on how it can spend the tuition fee income. They are required to allocate 80% to salaries and the remaining 20% for local taxes, staff/faculty travel, physical resources (furniture etc) and infrastructure maintenance.

A senior lecturer can expect to receive around 6,000 som a month from the state funding (a paltry US$85), which KNU then supplements depending on the lecturer’s teaching load and level of qualification (PhD/Candidate and Doctor of Science qualifications would entitle to you a higher pay grade).

The university doesn’t say what the total monthly pay packet looks like for senior lecturers, but the average monthly salary in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital (where KNU is located), is US$285. Let’s hope that senior lecturers are not too far off that figure.

KNU pays 144 million som (US$2m) to the state in various taxes each year, as well as a whopping 564 million som (US$8m) for electricity, water, and communal and other services.

I can’t calculate the total expenses per year as it’s not clear from the article whether the 20% of fee income in taxes is included in the 144m figure noted in the previous paragraph. And either I’ve misunderstood someting or there’s a typo in the services figure: if it really is 564m som a year, that’s more than the total income and presumably would mean the university would run very quickly into bankruptcy.

Those queries aside, the availability of data like this sheds important new light on higher education financing in Kyrgyzstan. For me, the big takeaway is how little of the university’s funding actually comes from the state despite its appellation as a public university and, as a result, just how dependent KNU is on tuition fee income and therefore students’ continued desire to study at the university.

Going, going, gone: Kazakhstan’s Innovation University is shut down

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A swathe of regulations, rankings, mergers, acquistions, and threats of closure for poor quality universities typify the Kazakh government’s drive in recent years to increase and assure quality in its higher education system.

The latest target of the quality movement is Innovation University, which had its operating licence removed in late January 2020 after two inspections in 2019 found that the university was in breach of a number of rules.

The university, known in Kazakh and Russian by its less snappy full name, Regional Social Innovation University, is in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent, 600km from former capital Almaty and a mere 130km from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent.

Time to move on from Kazakhstan’s Innovation University, which lost its operating licence in early 2020

The Ministry of Education and Science announced that not only had the university broken various rules, but it had not put any measures in place to improve the situation after the first inspection in 2019. The Ministry further pointed out ‘gross violations‘ in admissions – accepting students that hadn’t taken the correct exams, hadn’t provided originals of the ENT (nationwide university admission exam) certificate, and so on – as well as in teaching, where it was found that published timetables for classes were not being adhered to.

As a result, the university’s licence has been withdrawn and students are being transferred to other higher education institutions. A final decision was due from the Ministry in early February, but I have been unable to source this. The university’s website is still functioning and makes no mention of any interruption to its activities.

Since this announcement, another two universities have had their licences withdrawn: the Central Asian University in Almaty and Kazakhstan Maritime University in Aktau.

Innovation University was not particularly well known in Kazakhstan until June 2019, when local police discovered a drugs den in the university’s sports hall, finding that drugs were being consumed on university premises. Furthermore, one person was arrested in the said sports hall-cum-narco-haven for dealing drugs.

This led to the Ministry of Education carrying out an unplanned inspection of the university, finding no fewer than 63 violations of its rules and regulations for higher education institutions.

If drugs and rule-breaking was not enough, Olga Zhukova, an intrepid correspondent for Total.kz news agency, reported in August 2019 that the university was flouting the regular rules for admissions and also effectively operating a ‘cash for degree’ scheme.

On making enquiries, Zhukova was told that she could enrol in the distance education course and would be able to earn her degree in just two years. Zhukova also spoke with students at the university who reinforced what she had been told: as long as you pay your fees, you can get your degree in two years. No need to come to class or take exams. As one student told her, “It’s great! I’ve told all my friends at work to enrol!”

Zhukova notes that Innovation University was formed from the merger of three universities in Shymkent and offers a wide range of courses, but it suprisingly only has two medium sized buildings on its campus, one for the administration and one for teaching. Little wonder there are timetabling issues…

Closing down Innovation University certainly seems like a good idea in the light of the administration’s flagrant disregard for the rules and students’ eagerness to buy their way to a degree certificate.

The problem is that there are places like Innovation University all over Kazakhstan – and around the world. This one will be shut down, but there will always be someone else willing to sell you a degree. Though whether or not they also have someone on site willing to sell you drugs is another matter.

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.