Nine years of blogging later…

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blogger cat
Cat memes are now an integral part of the blog. I started to include them after a friend suggested (jokingly??) that I should add cat pics to increase readership…

I started this blog back in September 2011 after completing my Master’s degree and having had the chance to write my final report about a subject you all now know I hold dear: higher education in Central Asia.

To begin with, the blog served partly as a personal library, a place to store interesting stories about education, society and politics in Central Asia (and sometimes other parts of the ex-Soviet space) and to monitor developments in the region.

Over time, I started to add my own analysis to stories I read about elsewhere, sometimes bringing together multiple sources to create a blog post. I also decided to provide translations or summaries of Russian language stories for an English reading audience.

In nearly a decade of running the blog, I’ve published 325 posts (around three a month) and there have been over 60,000 views and over 32,000 visitors to the site. The blog has nearly 2,000 followers. Not bad at all for a site that has a very specific focus and which I started out of personal curiosity!

Writing for the blog has been a vehicle for turning my personal interest in higher education and in the former Soviet space into a career choice. As you may know, I moved to Canada in 2015 to start a PhD on – you guessed it – higher education in Central Asia. Alongside my doctoral studies, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in academic and policy research on a wide range of higher education related issues as I sought to shift from a career in university administration to one more focussed on research and teaching.

On September 1, 2020 – the Day of Knowledge in many ex-Soviet countries – I successfully defended my PhD and am now looking forward to what lies ahead. I’ll be giving a public webinar about my thesis research on October 1 through the Centre for Global Higher Education. I warmly invite you to join. Here’s the link: https://www.researchcghe.org/events/cghe-seminar/surviving-a-crisis-resilience-adaptation-and-transformation-in-higher-education-after-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union/.

I plan to keep blogging about Central Asian education, and hope you will keep reading. Let’s see where the next nine years takes us!

Making it easier for international students to work in Russia

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International cats are now able to seek important office work during term time in Russia

Good news for international students in Russia: updated regulations that came into force earlier in August 2020 make it easier for them to work whilst they are studying.

Previously, international students had to obtain what one Uzbek student calls “an enormous pile of documents” before seeking term-time employment, which was enough to deter that student from looking for a part-time job.

With the change to the law, international students may now look for work during term time with just written confirmation from their university or college that they are a registered student. Neither they nor the employer needs to seek special permission or undertake a large paperwork exercise, and there are no limits on how many hours a week can be worked (as long as the work doesn’t place during a scheduled class). This mirrors the regulations already in place for breaks between semesters.

The thinking behind this policy change is to encourage students who need or want to find work to look for a job that’s more related to the area they are studying. More importantly, this move aims to reduce the cash (i.e. illegal) jobs that everyone knows students are doing.

This is hopefully a win-win for everyone. And what’s not to like about a regulation that reduces, rather than increases, red tape?

Russia’s international students

According to UNESCO, there are 250,658 international students in Russia. This means that just under 5% of the total student population is international – which may not sound much, but it’s on a par with the USA. The top sending countries to Russia are, unsurprisingly, from the former Soviet space with Central Asian countries leading the way: Kazakhstan (65,237 students), Uzbekistan (20,862), Turkmenistan (17,457), Ukraine (15,263), Tajikistan (14,204) and China turning up next with 11,950 students.

Here’s an infographic from RFE/RL showing the growth in international student numbers in Russia in recent years:

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/foreign-students-in-russia/29600284.html

Back to school in Central Asia

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Covid-cat is ready to go back to school (if it’s open)

The impending start of the 2020/21 school year is presenting challenges for teachers, students, parents, and governments around the world. Although some countries have managed to come up with a plan, many are still fumbling in the COVID-19 induced darkness, even with September just around the corner. Here’s a round up of where things stand in Central Asia (with updates as applicable after this was originally posted):

Kazakhstan is one of the countries with a clearly laid out plan of action, which was published in July (so organized!) and which I discussed in an earlier post.

Kyrgyzstan announced on August 18 that universities and colleges would begin the academic year online. There are no plans yet to return to face-to-face learning, which is not surprising given the very difficult time the country is currently having in managing COVID-19. Schools will also be online with the exception of first graders, who will study in person.

Tajikistan has finally admitted that COVID-19 exists, but this has had little impact on regular activities. However, schools did finish the previous school year early (in April) and as a result started back on August 17 – ahead of the traditional September 1 timeline. The additional two weeks will be an adaptation period, according to the Minister of Education, not least to catch up on the time lost because there was no switch to remote learning.

Students will have to follow fairly strict measures such as maintaining physical distancing in the school yard, wearing a mask, and regularly washing hands. As far as possible, lessons are to take place outdoors or in larger indoor spaces to help teachers keep a 2m distance from students and to ensure the minimum 1m space between students.

The August 5 directive from the Ministry regarding the return to school also mentions enhancements to cleaning and sanitary measures, although is silent on how this will be funded and who will do this additional work.

Turkmenistan apparently has a dust problem but does not have a COVID-19 problem. So presumably schools and universities will operate as usual come September.

Update August 21: The Ministry of Education issued directives on the new school year on August 14 (but these were not reported immediately). School will return on September 1 as is traditional, but with some changes to the health and safety regime. These include mandatory deep cleaning before the start of the school year, disinfection after every lesson, daily temperature checking for students, class sizes limited to 10-15 students, shorter lesson times, mask wearing, physical distancing in class (2 metres) and use of larger spaces for classes.

As with Tajikistan’s plans, there is no mention of how this will be paid for or who will do the additional cleaning etc.

Uzbekistan, which did a pretty good job of pivoting to distance learning earlier this year, has not yet decided on the format for the new school year. As at at last week, the Ministry was preparing for both face-to-face and online delivery. New TV lessons were being filmed from mid-August in preparation for online learning – by ‘online’, the government means both internet and TV based delivery.

I checked the Ministry of Education’s website and Telegram channel today (August 18) but there’s no update yet. An August 18 meeting of central and local officials noted that three options are still under consideration (as well as the two above, presumably the third is a hybrid mode) and stressed the importance of ensuring clean drinking water in all schools.

Update August 25: School may return in online and face-to-face format from September 14, confirms the Ministry of Education. A poll held by the Ministry showed that 70% of parents opted for online schooling.

Watch/listen again: My SCOLAR Talk on higher education in Central Asia

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Screenshot from my SCOLAR Talk on August 13, 2020 with Olesya Dovgalyuk

Thanks to everyone who tuned in live last week to watch my SCOLAR Talk with the talented Olesya Dovgalyuk. We had a great time chatting about everything from Ibn Sino (Avicenna) to the 400+% growth in the higher education system in contemporary Kyrgyzstan!

You can now watch a recording of the event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNEwTwKc0X0

Or download the podcast and take me with you on your next run/walk/drive/wheel! While you’re about it, feel free to subscribe to SCOLAR Podcast to hear more episodes too:

https://scolaronthebeltroad.podiant.co/e/unpacking-the-state-of-higher-education-in-central-asia-with-emma-sabzalieva-38c2639ae8640a/

Thanks again to Olesya and the SCOLAR team for the invite to chat.

SCOLAR Network: we are a Beijing-based non-profit youth network, affiliated with but independent from the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. We have several projects under our umbrella, through which we aim to:

  • connect young people from the SCO region, including (primarily) Russia, Central Asia, China, India and Pakistan, with each other; 
  • bridge the gap between university graduates and professionals for career development; and, broadly, 
  • foster innovative collaborations for regional development and popularization of local cultural and historic heritage

Our projects include including Model SCO educational simulation game; Discussion Club, where we meet with experts and diplomats in Beijing; Ladies Circle, where we host talks with the female role figures from the region; Deep Dive, where we visit companies and institutions (including in different cities and countries) to learn about their cultures; and some others.  SCOLAR on Facebook / LinkedIn / WeChat

Join me live: Thurs Aug 13 on SCOLAR Talk

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This coming Thursday August 13 at 9.30am EST / 9.30pm CST, I will make my live streaming/podcast debut on SCOLAR Talk talking about all things higher education in Central Asia. Catch the chat live on Facebook or watch/listen later on YouTube and SCOLAR Podcast.

SCOLAR Network’s poster for our talk on Thursday August 13 – click/tap the image to go to their Facebook page and watch/listen live

SCOLAR Talk is organized by the SCOLAR Network, a dynamic group based in Beijing whose aim is to connect young people in Russia, Central Asia, China, India and Pakistan (and beyond). You can read more about the network below, written in the team’s own words.

I’m really looking forward to talking with Olesya Dovgalyuk from SCOLAR on Thursday and to supporting their excellent initiative. Please join us live or subscribe to their YouTube channel/podcast to hear this and many other interesting episodes.

SCOLAR Network: we are a Beijing-based non-profit youth network, affiliated with but independent from the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. We have several projects under our umbrella, through which we aim to:

  • connect young people from the SCO region, including (primarily) Russia, Central Asia, China, India and Pakistan, with each other; 
  • bridge the gap between university graduates and professionals for career development; and, broadly, 
  • foster innovative collaborations for regional development and popularization of local cultural and historic heritage

Our projects include including Model SCO educational simulation game; Discussion Club, where we meet with experts and diplomats in Beijing; Ladies Circle, where we host talks with the female role figures from the region; Deep Dive, where we visit companies and institutions (including in different cities and countries) to learn about their cultures; and some others.  SCOLAR on Facebook / LinkedIn / WeChat

Kazakhstan publishes its back-to-school plan

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While many countries are still pondering what to do with students come the new school year in September 2020, Kazakhstan – currently under a state imposed quarantine for a second time – has announced its back-to-school plan.

If you’re ready, open your laptop… most students
in Kazakhstan aren’t yet leaving their house
to go back to school in September

The academic year will start in distance learning format for almost all students. Exceptions will be made for the 4% of students who live in remote rural areas and go to small schools with composite (multi-age) classes.

It may also be possible to have some of the younger primary age children back in school if strict sanitary measures can be maintained. These include limits on movement within the school building, better ventilation and cleaning, limited class sizes, and attending school in shifts.

The government recognizes that the learning needs of these children may make it harder and/or less accessible to attempt remote learning – not only does online learning assume a level of technological capacity that these kids may not yet have mastered, but as any parent who’s been through the last months will tell you, it requires much greater input from an adult to help with the learning process.

However, even if younger children do get back to school, it will not be full-time; some subjects will be offered by distance.

This also informs the medium-term strategy, which is for a hybrid of face-to-face and distance learning as the health situation improves.

For primary aged vulnerable students with additional learning needs or from low-income families, measures will be taken to ensure inclusive and accessible learning. These measures are not specified.

Over the summer, the Ministry of Education has been taking on board feedback from teachers and students to improve the national online learning management system (LMS) and preparing materials for teachers to use in the next academic year. For example, online courses have been prepared to support teachers in IT, cyber pedagogy and teaching methods.

Colleges and universities will also start the new academic year in distance format. At colleges, there will be limited face-to-face provision for students on industry-related courses, those who need to do internships, and students in smaller remote colleges. At universities, there may be some face-to-face provision for lab work and courses requiring internships.

Celebrity calling: Supporting Indian students stuck in Kyrgyzstan

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Around 4,000 Indian international students are still stuck in Kyrgyzstan after COVID-19 measures have led to closed borders and calls to return home. This represents almost half of the total number of Indian students in the country – India is the top sending country of international students to Kyrgyzstan (see my 2019 post on this).

Where some governments have provided financial support and chartered flights to help their citizens get home, this has by no means been universal. Individual circumstances and the place where you are stranded may further complicate the options for getting home in the midst of a global pandemic.

Step in Indian film actor/producer and former engineer Sonu Sood, who since COVID-19 began to spread its tentacles has been stepping up and helping out where governments and other organizations have not. From giving out 25,000 face shields to police to distributing food, Sood has become a very modern-day kind of superhero.

He has since turned his attention to helping migrants, arranging buses to get people home to other parts of India. It looks like Sood’s next campaign may be international, trying to bring home Indian students from Kyrgyzstan. In a tweet on July 13, Sood said it was his “next mission” to get them home.

As the COVID-19 situation in Kyrgyzstan intensifies, and with the university summer break now in full swing, let’s hope Sood can do what others have not been able to and help his compatriots return home and stay safe.

On what may lie ahead for Tajik higher education

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A recent radio interview with Umed Mansurov, Vice-Rector (President) for International Affairs of Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, shed interesting light on what the future may hold for the country’s higher education sector.

Couldn’t resist this one, even if the link to the topic is tangential…

Mansurov points to a number of reforms that have been introduced over the past 20 years. For Tajikistan, the most significant has been the decision to introduce ‘European standards’ (this means implementing the Bologna Process programme of reforms), which in turn requires the introduction of quality assurance measures such as having degree programs accredited by international bodies.

Mansurov praises the country’s inherited Soviet system of education as having provided a ‘more fundamental and deeper’ level of training, but also critiques both the old system and the Soviet-trained teachers still embracing that era’s pedagogical and scientific norms as outdated and no longer fit for the country’s economy.

The Bologna system is deemed to be more suitable, for example by providing greater opportunities to specialize later by studying for a Master’s degree. The big shift for ex-Soviet countries has been from a typically five year Specialist undergraduate degree – which in the West is often seen as comparable to a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s – to the European model of a three year Bachelor’s followed by a two year Master’s degree. The introduction of a new Master’s degree has been slow to embed in Tajikistan, and many employers, parents, faculty members and students themselves are sceptical about the value of a Bachelor’s degree.

Although Mansurov thinks the opportunities for greater academic mobility offered by the Bologna system are positive for Tajikistan, he realistically notes that “academic mobility is an expensive pleasure”. Mansurov mentions costs such as transport and living expenses, but his analogy could be extended to access to mobility – it remains the case that the small number of Tajik students who get to study abroad tend to be from wealthier families.

In response, Mansurov believes that there should be more inter-regional cooperation among Central Asian universities. However, “coordination [between them] is very weak”. As a result, his university tends to send students to Russia and Belarus for exchange and he says there aren’t many international students studying in Central Asia at all.

As Mansurov, says “much still needs to be done”. For the time being, that’s a comment that could easily apply to almost all efforts to make substantive changes to Tajikistan’s higher education.

You can study abroad, except where you can’t: Uzbekistan restricts students from some Kyrgyz and Tajik universities

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After a minor uproar over Uzbekistan’s February 2020 announcement that its students abroad should return home, the country’s latest announcement about where its citizens may (and may not) study abroad was unlikely to go unnoticed – even as regional travel remains restricted as a result of Covid-19.

A total of 16 universities – 8 each in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – have been identified by the Uzbek government as not providing a sufficient quality education for the ‘level of demand in the Uzbek labour market’.

This recommendation was made on the basis of reseaarch commissioned by the Uzbek State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control of the government as well as on the universities’ test results.

The universities that Uzbek students are no longer to study at are:

Is it time for the Uzbek study abroad cats to head home?

Kyrgyzstan

  • International University of Central Asia
  • Kyrgyz-Uzbek University
  • International Medical Higher School
  • Kyzyl-Kia Pedagogical Institute at Batken State University
  • Osh Humanities and Pedagogical Institute
  • Jalalabad State University
  • Osh State Law University
  • Maylu-Suu Institute of Law and Government

Tajikistan

  • Tajik Open University
  • Khujand State University
  • Tajik State Pedagogical University
  • Tajik Institute of Enterprise and Service
  • Tajik Tax and Law Institute
  • Tajik State University of Languages
  • Kurgan Tyube State University
  • Tajik State University of Law, Business and Politics

Some of the inferior institutions listed above are not a surprise (although this is the first I’ve heard of an Open University in Tajikistan, and I thought I had a pretty decent grasp of the country’s higher education sector) but others do raise eyebrows – Tajikistan’s teacher training (pedagogical) university certainly used to be among the best in the country. Perhaps – let’s hope – it is more a case of Uzbek teachers planning to teach the Uzbek curriculum in Uzbekistan needing to be trained in Uzbek universitires rather than their Tajik counterparts.

There weren’t any universities in Kazakhstan in the list, although some dissatisfaction was raised with the institutions that allow students to enrol without admissions exams and which are fully distance learning (i.e. beyond the current Covid-19 shift to remote higher education).

Overall, this is a rather dismal end of year report for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s higher education institutions, despite the diplomatic language the recommendations are couched in.

It also highlights again the pivot Uzbekistan has been making away from its common Soviet past with its neighbours and towards a more global position in a seemingly relentlessly competitive world. As the report pointedly recommends, ‘it would be better for Uzbekistanis to study at universities in countries that are ranked higher in important university rankings’…

Fighting fake news in Kazakhstan: The case of the university rankings

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FactCheck.kz is on a mission to prove it

In an age of rumours, fake news, and downright lies, the actions of organizations like Kazakhstan’s FactCheck.kz (on Twitter) are a welcome addition to our daily struggle for the truth. With a mission for ‘the right to the truth’ (which works beautifully in Russian as pravo na pravdu – право на правду), they are the first Central Asian based fact-checking resource.

Run by professional and experienced journalists, FactCheck.kz aims to provide the public with reliable independent information from trustworthy sources and, as they say oh so politely, ‘provide an incentive to those who make big claims to be more attentive to the information they provide’.

I came across their work after they ran a fact check on a claim made by the country’s leading university, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KNU), that they had been listed as ‘one of Europe’s leading universities’ after receiving a high ‘AA+’ score on a ranking exercise by the Academic Ranking of World Universities – European Standard (ARES).

FactCheck.kz’s verdict?

Manipulation

Firstly, FactCheck.kz points out that this particular university ranking does not compare Kazakh universities with their European counterparts. The ranking uses a ‘European system of assessment’, although as FactCheck.kz notes, their methodology isn’t entirely transparent to begin with, and is geographically incomplete.

Secondly, FactCheck.kz records that the ranking lists each country’s results separately – it covers Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. While KNU comes out top in the Kazakhstan ranking, there is no comparison either with the other countries, or with leading European universities.

There you have it: clear, simple and to the point. It’s exactly this kind of evidence informed reporting that can help inform and engage a sceptical public to find truth among the headlines.

However, the misleading text is still on the KNU website as of June 10, some two weeks after the FactCheck.kz story was published.

KNU is unarguably an excellent university – indeed, a news release on their site published on June 10 loudly proclaims that they are now among the 200 top universities in the world. Let us see what FactCheck.kz has to say about that.