Turkmenistan’s universities in search of European partners

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Turkmen youth in Romania for the International Festival of Culture in 2015. Image source: http://www.turkmenistan.ru/ru/articles/40834.html

A rare story from Turkmenistan [ru] popped up in my inbox recently. Authored by the Russian language website turkmenistan.ru, it describes how a group of university leaders from the country recently visited Romania to discuss expanding their institutional partnerships.

The short article lists a number of agreements being signed between universities in the two countries. From the Turkmen side, the institutions included in these memoranda are the Turkmenistan State Medical University, the Turkmen State Institute of Economics and Management, the Turkmen Agricultural University and the Turkmen State Institute of Architecture and Construction.

The signing of bilateral partnerships between universities in different countries is commonplace in global higher education, so the fact of the agreements isn’t in itself noteworthy.

However, with so little coverage available about higher education in Turkmenistan to those outside the country (and possibly also to those inside the country), this short story nevertheless offers insights into two areas of interest for Central Asia/higher education followers:

  1. International cooperation – Turkmenistan has chosen to remain notoriously isolated since obtaining independence, although its extensive oil and gas reserves attract significant activity by international firms. Despite occasional incursions onto the global stage, such as hosting the 2017 Asian Games at terrific expense, for the most part, Turkmenistan chooses to organize its own affairs. Higher education largely continues to follow the model inherited from the Soviet period, although efforts are underway to ‘globalize’ some universities in the country*. It is in this light that we should view the recent overseas trip made by a handful of university leaders: a small but perceptible shift towards allowing outside influences into the domestic higher education system. This framing then opens up other questions around what is motivating this growth in international cooperation, and what the intended purposes of institutional agreements are (the article does not give details on the agreements that were signed last month).
  2. Choice of partner – it’s impossible to draw conclusions from the limited information in the article, but I would speculate that the choice to partner with universities in Romania was deliberate. Romania and Turkmenistan share aspects of the socialist/communist higher education legacy but unlike Turkmenistan, Romania is a member of the European Union and has sought to rapidly internationalize higher education since joining the EU in 2007 (for more, download this free book on higher education reforms in Romania). For Turkmenistan’s universities, this offers not only a mutually understandable starting point, but a foothold into the European higher education area. There are a range of EU projects connecting Turkmenistan to Europe, and education is one of the EU’s priority areas. So it makes sense to seek out a ‘friendly’ partner who might also help Turkmenistan as and when it makes deeper incursions into the European higher education space.

 

*If you cannot access this article but would like to read it, please contact me. Where possible, I link to open access materials.

 

New publication: Review of ’25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity’

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25 Years book cover
Feel the weight of history

I have a new book review out.

Sometimes, a book comes along just at the right time. The recent publication of 25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity was that book in 2018 for me.

The book is the main end product of an exhaustive and huge-scale project led by the Higher School of Economics in Russia over the course of several years, and as I say in my review, the book is truly an impressive achievement.

Each of the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union gets a chapter dedicated to developments in higher education since 1991. Alongside these empirical chapters, there are two conceptual chapters laying out the overall framework of the book and setting the post-1991 shifts into the historical context of the Soviet Union. This was indeed a formative period for higher education, even in the republics that had much older histories of higher education and a number of pre-existing universities.

Of course it’s a tough ask to summarize the main points of a >400 page book in 1,500 words but my review is an attempt to do just that. I’m pleased to say that the publisher has made a number of copies of the review available free of charge; to download my review, click here.

And then, I hope, the review will whet your appetite to delve into the whole book, which can be downloaded totally free from the publisher’s website (or bought in hard copy for 30 Euros).

Internot: Wi-fi access in Tajikistan’s universities still a pipe dream

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no wi fi

Fast, reliable and free internet access is widespread across many university and college campuses these days. In fact, access to the world wide web, often delivered wirelessly by wi-fi, is so much of an everyday expectation that those working on campus tend to take it for granted, noticing only on those rare occasions when the internet goes down for a few hours.

Not so in Tajikistan, where Asia-Plus reported recently on the ongoing challenges for students and faculty in obtaining access to the internet [ru] on the country’s campuses.

Even the country’s leading university, Tajik National University, has not yet been able to roll out free wi-fi across all of its departments, and that’s with additional funding from China (see also my previous post on China’s generous financing of infrastructure in Tajikistan).

And whilst there seems to be general agreement that decent internet access can support distance learning and provide greater access to learning resources and electronic libraries, the jury appears to be out on whether Tajikistani students should be trusted to make sensible use of free wi-fi – were such a facility to be available.

There appears to be some scepticism that greater access to the internet might lend itself to non-learning outcomes (basically because students would be stuck on social media), leading the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Journalism at Tajik National University to suggest that the internet “should be controlled”.

(That the government regularly closes down websites such as Facebook and YouTube at the first hint of a scandal or unrest goes unsurprisingly unmentioned in the article – and neither does the article note the many workarounds that Tajikistanis – students and otherwise – employ to get around such restrictions.)

But let’s take a step back before weighing in on whether and how students’ access to the internet should be monitored. The bigger picture is that students, faculty and staff in Tajikistan are currently living with limitations on the information they can access and the possibilities that the web can offer to enhance their teaching and learning practices.

Beyond free internet, there’s also the question of electronic journals and books that sit behind expensive paywalls. There are so many of these that the cost of subscribing is generally prohibitive to all bar the richest institutions.

As one student notes in the article, the introduction of web-based learning techniques – even in face-to-face lessons – could significantly improve the student experience. This could be asking students to do online research or using web-based polls/quizzes in large classes. Right now, the student reported, classes are “sometimes so boring that students fall asleep”.

Mobile phone use in Tajikistan is huge: on average, there is just over one phone for each and every citizen in the country. This suggests huge potential not just for higher education but for government and a wide range public service providers to develop creative ways to use that high level of mobile phone penetration to support learning and service delivery.

Nevertheless, with access to the internet is limited to around 20% of the overall population, there remain significant challenges to rolling out web-based technologies that could also be used in higher education.

Until internet access becomes more reliable and widely available in Tajikistan, those of us who have the luxury of being able to access academic sources and online teaching/learning resources at the click of a mouse might do well to think about ways we can redistribute those resources to promote broad, open access to the world’s vast repository of knowledge.

Today at CESS 2018: Roundtable on Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area

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The wonderfully named Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh

If you should find yourself in Pittsburgh, PA, today – October 27, 2018 – please join us at the Central Eurasian Studies Society’s 2018 Annual Conference for our roundable on Global Bolognaization: Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area.

Followers of my blog may remember the call for proposals that co-convenor Aliya Akatayeva and I put out at the end of last year when we first started planning the roundtable. We had an excellent response and our original line-up of panellists included colleagues from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (and me!) all ready to share experiences and analyses of the impact of the European Union inspired Bologna Process reforms on higher education in Central Asia.

Fast forward several months and here we are at an excellent CESS conference in Pittsburgh (check out conference activity on Twitter: #CESS2018atPitt).

At our roundtable today, we will be taking three directions of travel to reflect the research and experiences of the three panellists who will be present:

Professor Gulnara Mendikulova, a distinguished scholar of Kazakh and world history, will set the general scene for the roundtable, considering questions such as: what is the history of the Bologna Process across Central Asia? What were the drivers for Kazakhstan to adopt the Bologna Process? What have been the challenges and opportunities presented by the reforms?

Aliya Akatayeva, Head of the Social Studies Department at Satbayev University (Kazakhstan), will focus on the knotty issue of academic freedom. Whilst academic freedom – including autonomy for universities – is a core value of the European Union higher education ‘package’, there are a number of tensions and challenges in embedding this broad principle in Kazakhstan. As one of the universities in the country that has been given some degree of autonomy under a 2017 law, she will offer a case study of the journey of Satbayev University towards academic freedom.

I will discuss Tajikistan, not (yet) a signatory to the Bologna Process but aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Kazakhstan and become one. By highlighting findings from in-depth interviews in two cities in the country, I will draw out the experiences of some of the faculty members who are on the front line in living with the new higher education reforms. Whilst many are positive about the potential of related changes to the curriculum on the quality of the learning experience, others expressed resistance and resentment towards a series of changes they felt they were not consulted on or given time to adapt to.

We’d love to see you at the roundtable – 11am today in Posvar 4217!

Nazarbayev University Number 2?

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Could a new sibling for Nazarbayev University be on the way?

No stranger to creating new universities, Kazakhstan’s longstanding (and thus far only) president Nursultan Nazarbayev has already set up or led initiatives since founding KIMEP University in 1992.

Now, building on the investment and early successes of the eponymous Nazarbayev University – which the president apparently did not ask to be named after himself – Nazarbayev proclaimed recently that it is time for another institute. In a recent public statement, the president is quoted as saying

Based on the educational resource infrastructure we already have in place, I believe we need another regional university like Nazarbayev University. It will probably be a polytechnic university.

In his statement, the president also underlined the importance of what he called ‘high quality education’. Only higher education institutions that can deliver on quality should be allowed, he noted. Nazarbayev also talked about the need to partner with global universities – as Nazarbayev University has done so successfully both at institutional level and in attracting foreign faculty and senior administrators.

All that sounds like fighting talk – and in Kazakhstan, this kind of statement is usually an indication that action will follow, and will follow soon.

So, watch this space. Nazarbayev Polytechnic University, coming to a Kazakh city near you, soon.

 

Resit required: Uzbekistan university rankings declared invalid

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Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Justice says no to the first national university rankings

Just weeks after the release of Uzbekistan’s first national university rankings, it has emerged that the country’s Ministry of Justice has demanded the rankings be annulled.

This is almost unheard of: one state department publicly admonishing another. The Ministry of Justice must have serious concerns to go public with its beef against the Ministry of Higher and Vocational Education and the State Inspection agency that together compiled the rankings.

From the limited information [ru] I have been able to find, the Ministry of Justice has voided the rankings on three main grounds: legal-technical reasons, incorrect use and application of data, and lack of communication.

On the first factor, the Ministry claims that the rankings were not registered with them, nor were they subject to legal review, thus violating the requirements for the adoption of regulations. As such, the rankings cannot have any legal force or be legally binding.

On the second factor, there are claims that data presented in the rankings was either incorrect or misleading:

  • The number of international faculty in the rankings are alleged to be incorrect: some universities included what the Australians call FIFO professors (fly-in fly-out i.e. there to teach a particular subject or class rather than based at the institution longer-term) – the implication being that this massaged their rating upwards;
  • The rankings are not proportional and value quantity over quality. The use of quantitative indicators favours larger universities, who appear to be doing ‘better’ when measured against e.g. number of faculty members or degree programmes;
  • The focus of the rankings was apparently ‘one-sided’, focussing only on research activities (this does not seem to correspond with the indicators I am aware of, which also include items such as ICT resources).

On the point about lack of communication, the Ministry complains that the rankings were not shared with universities before they were published, nor were universities informed that the rankings were going ahead. This is apparently out of line with ‘international standards’ as developed by the Berlin principles on rankings of higher education institutions and the International Ranking Expert Group.

What happens next is unclear. I don’t see any response from the Ministry of Higher & Vocational Education, though that may be forthcoming. It is not evident that the rankings have been officially withdrawn, or whether there is any prospect of resolving the issues flagged by the Ministry of Justice and coming up with a revised version.

This bizarre case raises a larger issue about inter-governmental policy coordination, which in this case appears non-existent. Are departments talking with each other; are there forums for them to do so? This is not an Uzbekistan-specific issue, as some of my other research has shown.

The story also demonstrates that rankings are being taken seriously as a policy solution in Uzbekistan. This is shown by the Ministry of Justice taking such interest in the detail of the ranking and in the fact that it is connected to the work of international bodies dealing with rankings.

It would be fascinating to be behind the scenes at the Ministry of Higher & Vocational Education right now to see how (if) they are going to take this forward, but unless any reader has inside information to share, we will be limited to what our imaginations might suggest about the current machinations of Uzbek policymaking.

New(ish) publication: The politics of the great brain race

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Going for a literal image rather than a cat meme on this one

I realized I didn’t blog about a recently published article I co-authored with Prof Creso Sá, my supervisor at the University of Toronto. How remiss of me! (?!)

So, let me tell you about our article, The politics of the great brain race: Public policy and international student recruitment in Australia, Canada, England and the USA, which was published in leading journal Higher Education in February 2018.

For regular readers of the blog, the first thing you may notice is that this is not about Central Asia or indeed anywhere in the former Soviet space. Keep breathing!

The rationale for looking in depth at Australia, England, Canada and the US, four majority Anglophone jurisdictions, was based on their historic ability to attract significant numbers of international students – just under 40% of the world’s total in 2015. The fact that all have similar linguistic and cultural characteristics in their higher education systems was a deliberate choice to compare similar cases (take a look at this article by Chris Pickvance for more on types of comparative analysis).

We wanted to find out how governments in these four jurisdictions have used public policy to deal with (I wouldn’t go as far as to say ‘manage’) international students in the period 2000-2016. To do this, we looked at legislation that had been passed, new programmes, and other policy changes. Overall, I read somewhere around 200 articles, books, reports and other publications to learn more about student mobility in the four case study jurisdictions.

A nice addition to this was a comprehensive table I compiled that gives you a side-by-side comparison across the four jurisdictions in the policy areas of immigration, labour market, family and health, finance, education and quality assurance, and promotion/marketing. So if you want to know, for example, which is the only jurisdiction that has legislation protecting the (financial) rights of international students, check it out!

Creso has written up a very nice summary of our findings in the most recent issue of International Higher Education. This is open access and the article, with the excellent title, Forget the Competition Trope, can be downloaded here.

The title of his piece makes the key idea pretty clear. As he notes in the article (page 11):

we argue that none of these major countries have dealt coherently with international student attraction and retention. Furthermore, the long-term outlook required to cope with the assumed global competition for students is glaringly absent.

International student growth has been fairly consistent over the 16 years we studied (despite the odd dip e.g. after violence against a small number of students from South Asia studying in Australia).

That was a real surprise to us.

Not only is policy towards international students fragmented across a range of goverment ministries and agencies, but there were no clear patterns of governments facilitating international student mobility. This is not the kind of behaviour you would expect to see of a truly competitive jurisidiction engaging in the so-called ‘great brain race’.

This led us to the conclusion that international student enrolments are likely to continue to grow and that this happens despite not because of political and policy changes.

This article was the result of a nine month long project funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities under their OHCRIF scheme. Miigwetch Thanks / Merci!

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References

Sá, Creso M., and Emma Sabzalieva. 2018. “The Politics of the Great Brain Race: Public Policy and International Student Recruitment in Australia, Canada, England and the USA.” Higher Education 75 (2): 231–53. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-017-0133-1.

Sá, Creso M. 2018. “Forget the Competition Trope.” International Higher Education 0 (95): 11–12.