It was only a matter of time.
Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s accession to the Presidency of Uzbekistan, reforms in all spheres of life have been rapidly underway. I’ve written before about the wave of changes hitting higher education, which includes the publication of the country’s first domestic university ranking.
In the spirit of these reforms, the country has thrown itself eagerly into the worlds of ranking and competition in higher education. It is therefore unsurprising to see the publication of a new university ranking by Australian based company UniRank.
The ranking, which incorporates 65 of the country’s universities, gave points for licensing and accreditation, citations, and website visits [ru]. That’s an odd combination of indicators, not least the website hits metric for a country where internet access and use has historically been restricted and highly controlled.
Tashkent based institutions did best in the ranking, with Westminster International University (a long-running branch campus of British Westminster University) coming out on top.
The full ranking can be found on UniRank’s website.
The Bologna Process is a programme of reforms/policies co-opted by the European Union (EU) that are designed to harmonize higher education systems and facilitate greater mobility. Partnership and mobility programmes include Tempus and Erasmus (now Erasmus+) and a major cross-national research scheme, Horizon 2020. Reforms include aligning degree cycles to the Bologna Bachelor’s-Master’s-PhD cycle to ensure mutual recognition of qualifications (dealt with in the Lisbon Convention) and introducing/upgrading quality assurance processes. Taken together, all of these initiatives lead towards the Bologna Process’ main objective, the creation of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA).
First formalized in 1999, the influence of the Bologna Process has now spread well beyond the confines of the EU, from Australia to states in Latin America. Bologna has also reached the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Yet only countries with territories in Europe can ever be members of the EHEA. So, for Central Asia, this means that only Kazakhstan – which has a sliver of European land in the western part of the country – will ever be able to join the EHEA.
This raises an interesting question: Despite their inability to join the EHEA, why do policymakers outside the EU choose the Bologna Process as a means of implementing change in higher education?
Once the decision is made to adopt Bologna-compliant policies, this leads to another interesting question: How are these reforms received by those at the frontline of implementation, namely faculty members?
I’m tackling these two questions in a new study I am working on, and which I am presenting at the Canadian Political Science Assocation annual conference (if by chance you’re in Vancouver and free at 8.45am on June 6, please come!).
As you might expect, I’m looking at these issues in the context of Central Asia. Each of the five states has connections to the Bologna Process, from Turkmenistan’s minimalist approach to Kazakhstan’s full-on adoption of the Bologna Process in 2010. The image below, one of the slides from my conference presentation, sets out the Central Asian journey to implementing Bologna:
In the course of the interviews I undertook with faculty in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as part of my PhD research, I asked respondents what they felt had been the biggest change in higher education in their country since they had obtained independence in 1991.
Many – and an overwhelming majority in Tajikistan – brought up some aspect of the Bologna Process. Some thought Bologna was a really positive step for higher education in their country, particularly the opportunities for student/faculty mobility and the ability for their students’ qualifications to be recognized by other countries. Others were more critical in their attitudes. In Tajikistan, this was mainly in relation to teething issues as new reforms bed in. Across all three countries, some respondents were cynical about the necessity/appropriateness of Bologna for their national systems.
What was particularly interesting in these discussions was that regardless of whether or not faculty found the Bologna reforms to be useful or appropriate, everyone who brought up the Bologna Process did so in the broader context of changes to higher education.
In this way, I found that the Bologna Process has become – or is becoming – a metaphor that is deployed by faculty to help them make sense of and navigate the fluctuating environment in Central Asian higher education. Framing the Bologna Process in this way helps us better understand the worldviews of the faculty who are at the frontline of implementing reforms. Further, it also shines a light on the processes, strategies and behaviours that faculty use to bring meaning-making into action.
I hope that at some point in the future I’ll be able to find a home to publish the study as that will be an opportunity to bring forward the voices of faculty members whose views are rarely heard, not only within the domestic policymaking scene but in the Anglophone academic literature.
What are the challenges and opportunities in higher education in Central Asia and Afghanistan?
What kind of government policies can introduce innovation?
How can science and technology capacity be promoted?
For more on these important questions and some ideas about further developing science, technology and innovation in Central Asia and Afghanistan, please take a look at my newly published report for the University of Central Asia.
Currently available in English, I am told a Russian version will also be available soon.
Here’s a direct link to the report in pdf format: UCA-IPPA-Wp51 – ENG
I welcome your thoughts and feedback on the propositions in the report.
The votes have been counted and the results are in and… well, it turns out that Kazakhstan’s higher education is not as corrupt as you might have thought.
According to a report in Arna Press [ru], students in East Kazakhstan were generally pretty satisfied with their ability to progress through higher education without resorting to bribes.
Over 1,100 students at universities and technical/vocational training institutes in the region completed a survey organized by the East Kazakhstan Region State Agency for Civil Service and Anti-Corruption [ru]. Just 23 of that number – around 0.02% – said that they had bribed a professor, 40 reported using personal or family connections to get around the rules and only 72 admitted to cheating (e.g. using their mobile phone in exams, plagiarising others’ work).
When asked how effectively they thought their universities were dealing with corruption, over half of students said ‘extremely well’, the most positive response on the 5-point scale; only 6.5% gave an extremely negative answer. Fewer than 3% said they regularly encountered situations that could only be resolved through corrupt means whilst nearly 70% said this had never happened to them. And over 80% of those surveyed said they had not come across ‘unfair practices’ (giving bribes or gifts, use of personal connections etc).
Those are extremely pleasing reports for the government, which has committed itself to rooting out corruption from higher education. It has even developed a corruption ranking of universities to name and shame poor performers.
Perhaps the survey results are an indication of deep change in higher education in Kazakhstan, which since Soviet times has been plagued by various forms of corruption. It really would be something if a student could get through a degree without having to know the right people or come from the right family, or have to dig deep into their pockets where cash is not necessarily available in the first place – that is to say, to get a qualification based on what you know, not who you know or whether you can afford to do it.
But these results run counter to the opinion of almost every person in the country I’ve ever spoken to about higher education. I’ve been told and have read about countless stories of corruption from its mildest instances to troublingly deep problems.
It would be easy to reach the conclusion that these survey results [ru] are just as corrupt as the system continues to be. Yet the optimist in me dares to hope that even if there’s some skewing in the outcomes, the prospects for able students without money or connections might just be getting brighter in Kazakhstan.
Everyone’s at it these days – internationalization of higher education, that is. Internationalization is a loose enough term that it can encompass a wide range of activities, from attracting more international students to redesigning the curriculum to incorporate a broader array of global perspectives.
Higher education systems in the Central Asian countries have dutifully leaped onto the internationalization bandwagon since obtaining independence in 1991. The last decade has seen a particular uptick in activity, although in Kazakhstan this can be dated back even further to the late 1990s.
Prominent features of internationalization in Central Asia are similar to trends found in other countries that have been paying greater attention to global higher education in recent years. These include:
- Inviting foreign universities to open branch campuses – Russian institutions lead the way in Central Asia, but Uzbekistan has been incredibly open to invitations from all over the world of late;
- Joining the Bologna Process, the European Union led initiative seeking to harmonize systems and qualifications to enable greater transferability across Europe (and now beyond);
- Seeking to position a country as a regional education hub;
- Attracting international students and faculty members.
A recent conference in Kyrgyzstan [ru] sought to tease out some of the challenges and opportunities faced as the country continues its internationalizing path in higher education.
An interview [ru] with Rector of ADAM University and higher education expert Dr Svetlana Sirmbard revealed two interesting emerging trends for Kyrgyzstan. The first of these is the development of double degrees, degrees taught and certified equally by two universities in different countries. Sirmbard offers double degrees as a cost-effective alternative to studying for a degree abroad, noting that an increasing number are organized not by two universities but by a larger consortium, allowing each to draw on its strengths and tap into the resources already available elsewhere.
The second area for development noted by Sirmbard is digitalization. Thus, we should expect to see further expansion of online learning that will widen access to highier education (for those with good internet connections) – especially women at home with young children, Sirmbard suggests. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), which took off in a big way in English speaking countries a few years ago, will also be in the pipeline for Kyrgyzstan.
A challenge that remains as Kyrgyzstan – and indeed, other countries around the world – continue their drive to internationalize is how to ensure that the opportunities opened up internationalization are available to everyone. Online learning and MOOCs are two ways to open or extend access to higher education, but as Dr Sirmbard notes, challenges remain for students with additional needs, whether as a result of disabilities or other issues. Really emphasizing the importance of ensuring internationalization is maximally inclusive will be where value can really be added for higher education.
If you’re excited by internationalization and its possible futures, let me offer a quick plug for a conference I am co-organizing on exactly this topic. Being held at the University of Toronto on June 24-25, Shaping Sustainable Futures for Internationalization in Higher Education has an excellent line-up of no fewer than 36 workshops, roundtables, sharing circles and panels along with three exceptional keynote speakers. Registration for the conference is open and I hope you will consider joining us!
I’ve been meaning to repost an article from The Diplomat on civil society in Kazakhstan for a while. With news of more arrests today after activists have unfurled banners and quoted the constitution, the topic of civil society in Kazakhstan is becoming a hot one.
Tantalizingly entitled How can Kazakhstan revitalize its civil society?, author Sergey Marinin points to education as one key response to the question. Specifically, Marinin emphasizes the role that the growing number of Western educated Kazakhs can play in supporting the development of civil society, which has historically been more closely associated with the state in Kazakhstan than identifiable as a separate arena.
As Marinin says,
“Politically disenchanted youth lean toward civic activism because the state excludes them from official decision-making processes”
Thus, Marinin offers a ‘win-win solution’: employ graduates returning to Kazakhstan to teach in higher education institutions (HEIs)*, deploying the experience of living and studying in Western contexts to support the development of critical thinking among students and non-Soviet management practices among faculty and staff.
*Marinin does not mention that around half of Kazakhstan’s HEIs are now privately run or that there are ongoing waves of privatization in the sector, meaning that higher education is, on paper, no longer a state sector staffed by civil servants. However, in practice, the state still retains a high level of steering control over the sector.
With the historic changes at the top of the political order unfolding before our eyes after the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and until recently only President of Kazakhstan, this is a moment of hope for proponents of civil society. Could the forthcoming presidential election open up opportunities for the non-state sector to make its views heard?
It’s not only Marinin who thinks that citizens with study abroad experience might hold the key to unlocking civil society in the former Soviet space. University of Oxford academic Maia Chankseliani has found links between student mobility and democratic development when students from the former Soviet region head to Europe and the US (see also her summary of the article in The Conversation).
However, despite major investment by the Kazakh government and students’ families in study abroad to the West, Chankseliani finds that most students from Kazakhstan – along with the other Central Asian states – head to Russia if they study abroad. And the more students go to Russia, the stronger the (negative) effect is on democratization.
Moving beyond the study abroad destination, emerging research by Aliya Kuzhabekova and colleagues at Nazarbayev University has found that students returning from a spell abroad are finding it difficult to access local networks as they readjust to being back in Kazakhstan. Instead, study abroad returnees working in higher education are beginning to set up their own informal networks and alliances, coming together to help make their voices heard.
I reported on another type of grassroots movement being organized by those who are still abroad just recently: #scienceiamdoing – Kazakh women tell all about research and life abroad
Kuzhabekova et al’s study and movements like the PhD Girls’ Union add important nuance to the state/civil society (or authoritarian/democratic) debate. These examples demonstrate how people – well educated, with experience of living abroad, and often young – are attempting to advance civil society in Kazakhstan within the framework of a state that continues to be extremely powerful.
Despite these shoots of hope, it is clear that those advocating for civil society have a long road ahead. Overt attempts to propound democratic ideals such as hanging up banners with extracts from the constitution have not gone down well. At all.
Will the Kazakh state ever be open to civil society?
Well, it could be if Tokayev – Nazarbayev’s likely successor in this June’s presidential elections – turns out to be more like neighbouring Uzbekistan’s President Mirziyoyev who everyone thought would continue the repressive actions of his predecessor Karimov but appears to have taken a more radical reform path.
However, whilst Nazarbayev is still around (where Karimov was not), it looks like there won’t be any real change in direction in Kazakhstan. The space for civil society remains small. It is actions led by study abroad returnees within that space may be what hold the key to eventually leading change from within.