With the world’s attention drawn to the coronavirus pandemic for the foreseeable future, this week’s post looks at the current impact of Covid-19 on education in Central Asia.
First, a few shout outs to others reporting on the spread of coronavirus in the region.
For general updates on what’s happening across Central Asia, check out EurasiaNet’s coronavirus dashboard, which is updated daily.
An early analysis has been provided in a brief open access policy memo by Marlene Laruelle and Madeline McCann for PONARS Eurasia. Published on March 27, it offers insights on the political and ideological responses of the post-Soviet states.
And on March 29, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published its latest Majlis podcast on the topic of coronavirus in Central Asia. Majlis is always worth a listen to so do subscribe to the podcast once you’ve downloaded the current episode.
For education not specific to Central Asia, four suggested resources:
1) track the astonishingly high percentage of the world’s out of school children (currently over 80%) with UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning;
2) read a thoughtful letter to Education Ministers around the world by Professor Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares;
4) Canada specific but this spreadsheet by Ken Steele is an incredibly detailed and up to date report on the responses of higher education institutions around the country.
OK, now back to Central Asia.
Covid-19 has officially made it to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan but somehow neither Tajikistan nor Turkmenistan has reported any cases as at March 31 when this post was written. On April 1, schoolchildren in Tajikistan went back to school after their spring holidays to classrooms that have been disinfected twice – but not because there has been any coronavirus, of course…
So Tajikistan and Turkmenistan join an illustrious if rather short list of countries that also includes North Korea which are yet to report any cases. On the contrary, as has been well commented upon on social media, Tajikistan’s erstwhile Leader of the Nation Emomali Rahmon has overseen numerous well attended public events in recent days. This includes the national Navruz celebrations that brought thousands of people together in defiance of the global trend for physical distancing.
So it is to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that we turn to see how they are responding in the sphere of education – it’s business as usual in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan’s schools and universities for now.
Kazakhstan closed all schools and has moved the spring holiday from March 16 to April 5. Teachers are working from home during that period and a government sanctioned group is working on making alternative teaching and learning arrangements in the likely event that schools will remain closed after April 5.
Pre-schools are working as usual but parents are asked to keep their children at home if at all possible; no child will lose their place at the pre-school if they are not attending.
Colleges and universities rapidly switched to distance learning with an array of technologies available for use. These include solutions common around the world such as Google Classroom, Moodle, Coursera, and Zoom as well as locally built programs. Although the government’s webpage says that universities and colleges should already be familiar with at least some of these forms of online learning, one enterprising news agency has published a list of universities where distance learning is well established.
Students who are unable to travel home are being allowed to stay in dorms but must stay in their rooms. Kazakh students who study abroad and international students in Kazakhstan have had varying fates. Some, such as a group of 54 Kazakh students studying in the Russian city of Samara, were sent home on a free bus on March 30. They will be able to continue their studies at a distance, something that will keep them busy as they complete a mandatory self-quarantine once they get home. Less lucky has been a group of 115 Indian students who are currently stranded at Almaty airport, unable either to leave for home or to get back into the locked down city.
The response in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where a state of emergency has also been declared, is similar to Kazakhstan’s (albeit with significantly less funding available from the state). Schools will be shut after a long vacation that runs until April 8. After that, they will continue learning using video lessons which will broadcast on two TV channels as well as YouTube.
To support distance learning, around 400 textbooks in four languages (Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek and Tajik) have been made freely available online. A fantastic looking website for school children, iBilim, has been released in two languages (Kyrgyz and Russian). The site is still being tested but kudos to the developers for getting it up so fast. A government hosted learning site is also being worked on but I couldn’t get into it when I tried today. As well as Zoom and Google Classroom, Kyrgyz teachers will also be communicating with their students using WhatsApp and Telegram.
Colleges and universities in Kyrgyzstan switched to distance learning on March 30 following a government directive. Students have also been granted a longer spring break during which time instructors and administrators were asked to develop plans to use technology to support distance learning and to supervise students’ independent work. Students have been advised to return to their family homes and remain there for the time being.
The University of Central Asia is making up to 90 beds available on its Naryn campus in Kyrgyzstan and is providing food and medical supplies to vulnerable members of the local community.
Looking a little further ahead, it’s not yet clear how higher education admissions will be managed. Students finishing high/secondary school this year may end up like their British counterparts i.e. with no final/university admission exams but graded based on their classwork. This has not yet been confirmed. Some universities that hold their own entrance exams (e.g. University of Central Asia) have postponed the exams that are scheduled for this time of year.
Mirroring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan closed all pre-schools, schools, colleges and universities for an early spring break on March 16. From March 30, during the holiday, lessons began to be shown on TV.
Disability rights researcher Dilmurad Yusupov noted approvingly that TV classes have been accompanied by sign language interpretation (except for English classes, where there is a lack of professional interpreters). This ‘Online-maktab‘, as online/TV school is being called, is being broadcast on a range of TV channels to ensure they reach as many people as possible.
The Minister of Higher and Specialized Secondary Education Imomjon Majidov recommended on March 31 that students use the newly available free time to study and do research (he’s clearly not one to waste a good crisis). He will even be using an official Telegram channel, ‘We will defeat Covid-19‘ to set up an online contest for which prizes will be offered by the Minister’s office.
No decision has been made about when students will be able to return to study. A government directive approved on March 27 on distance learning enables the introduction of relevant technologies and approaches to support undergraduate and Master’s students; these are still under development. At least two foreign branch campus universities (South Korea’s Inha U and India’s Amity U) have switched to accepting admissions documents electronically for those seeking admission in September this year.
Until then, the government has been extremely active about keeping people up to date, primarily using Telegram (which is extremely popular in Uzbekistan) and the Coronavirus Info channel, which already has 1.3m subscribers. For example, the Ministry of Pre-school Education issued a post with guidance for parents on how to support their kindergarten/nursery aged children to access and make the most of the new TV/online lessons.
That is where things stand for now, at the end of March. As we are seeing around the world, the situation is changing day by day. I’ll report again if anything major changes in Central Asia.
Catten the curve!
The one suitable way to end this round up is, of course, through the medium of feline:
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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