Ranking corruption in Kazakh universities

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No corruption in this department to report…

A recurring theme for higher education in Central Asia is corruption. A quick search of my blog turns up story after story that I’ve written on this topic and that would only be scratching the surface.

I know this is not only a problem for Central Asia, or even the broader former Soviet space. Just this week I was talking to a friend who’s doing amazing fieldwork in Iraq on the possible future for higher education there, but she too has found that corruption is a significant hindrance to positive change.

It’s not a new problem for Central Asia/former Soviet space either. Despite the ostensible equality of the Soviet period, the hierarchy of universities was well known (Moscow State at the narrow top of a pyramid) and well-connected / politically regime-friendly parents had a much greater chance of getting their child into a ‘top’ university than your everyday farmer or labourer.

This deeply embedded legacy hasn’t stopped Kazakhstan from attempting to claw away at some of the corrupt practices still found in its higher education system. Presumably the policy rationale here is part of the government’s push to ‘modernize’ the country to the point that it becomes a top 30 world economy.

Earlier this year, the State Service and Anti-Corruption Agency in Kazakhstan opened an office embedded in the country’s leading university, Al Farabi Kazakh National University. The office is leading a project called Sanaly Urpaq, which amongst other things is developing a corruption index [ru] for the country’s higher education institutions.

A trial at the National University surveyed students and academics on topics like the extent to which profs embody professional values and the transparency of the educational process.

After analysing all the data, Sanaly Urpaq produced an anti-corruption rating of the departments at the National University which was ‘widely discussed’ at the university’s Academic Board, according to Liter News Agency [ru].

This format of surveys followed by a departmental ranking (the Kazakhs do love their rankings) will now be rolled out across the country. The idea is that this ‘name and shame’ exercise will nudge the country’s higher education institutions into taking concrete measures to combat corruption.

I think this latest ranking exercise is significant because it’s a sign that not only does the government recognize that corruption exists, but that it understands that this is a persistent problem in higher education. The idea of embedding the project office in the country’s leading university is also novel and hopefully will encourage a shared sense of ownership of the need to combat corruption.

I would love to hear from colleagues working in Kazakh universities and institutes to know whether this project is being taken seriously by professors and university management. Both groups absolutely have to be on board for any real change to take place.

I’ve been blogging about higher education in Central Asia for nearly seven years, and it would be great not to have to write about corruption so much! So on this flimsy basis alone, I hope that this project paves the way for reform in Kazakhstan.

Hunger And Eviction: Money Woes Send Turkmen Students Abroad Scrambling (Repost from RFE/RL)

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Not much is written about higher education in Turkmenistan. Its education system, like much else in the country, is generally closed off to the outside world. The only news that tends to get out is when some high cost project is launched (see e.g. British tabloid The Express on the opening of a new airport in the capital Ashgabat or the Majlis podcast on the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games).

Sadly, the rare story that has surfaced from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service about higher education in Turkmenistan is not a positive one. There’s no new glitzy university building or major scholarship programme in the works. On the contrary, the story tells of how many Turkmen students pursuing studies abroad are being cut off from finances in their home banks and the negative consequences this is having not only on their studies but their physical and mental health.

This seems to me to epitomize the clash between contemporary globalization and the persistence (persisting importance) of nation states. So, for example, the international finance system is unable to control the machinations of national banks employing global services (in this case, VISA cards). And whilst students have many more opportunities to study outside their home country than in the past, they are still curtailed by the legislative framework of the host countries (in this case, the rules of their host universities about debts and the visa regime that doesn’t allow them to work).

I’ve reposted the story below, which is (c) RFE/RL’s Turkmen service and available on their website at https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-debit-cards-financial-cutoff-students-hunger-eviction/29252238.html.

Hunger And Eviction: Money Woes Send Turkmen Students Abroad Scrambling

A Russian ATM machine’s repeated rejection of his efforts to withdraw cash from his Turkmen bank led one student to cut up his bank card and try to cook it for a meal.

Video of the culinary first (he did add salt) that was sent to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service was a humorous attempt to express the utter frustration felt by many of the thousands of Turkmen students studying around the world who are unable to get money from their bank accounts back home.

But the problem is no laughing matter. It’s left many students unable to pay rent or tuition, and some of those who spoke to RFE/RL this month said they were often even going hungry because they had no money.

“In December I was still pretty well fed, but then the [bank] cards stopped working and, as a result, I’ve lost 15 kilograms,” said Merdan, a Turkmen studying in Ukraine who asked that we not publish his surname.

“Very often we do not have money — I have to borrow from friends and acquaintances,” he added. “We all understand each other’s situations. Sometimes I ask for a slice of bread — but they also need to eat. And besides, a hungry person will not be satisfied with a couple of slices of bread.”

WATCH: Student ‘Cooks’ His Bank Card (in Turkmen, no subtitles)

Turkmen debit-cardholders living abroad were previously limited to taking out the equivalent of $15 per day, but that amount became insignificant once virtually any attempt to extract money — whether at ATMs in Turkey, Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia, among others — ended in failure.

“When I went abroad, I could not use my bank card, even though I had about 4,000 manats in my account,” said a student named Gulrukh, citing the equivalent of around $1,143 at the official exchange rate. “When I went to Vnesheconombank, they told me that my card was blocked.”

Many students in a number of countries told RFE/RL that occasionally their card would inexplicably work and they could retrieve $15 but those were unreliable exceptions.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has received dozens of messages and phone calls each day in recent months from Turkmen abroad complaining about the debit-card problem.

No Official Announcements

The cards, issued by various state-owned Turkmen banks, are most often embossed with the VISA logo, the complainants said, but others that have failed are MasterCard.

Banks in Turkmenistan have given no official indication as to why the debit cards often don't work. (illustrative photo)
Banks in Turkmenistan have given no official indication as to why the debit cards often don’t work. (illustrative photo)

VISA told RFE/RL in a March statement that it had not cut off any services to owners of its cards in Turkmenistan.

“In the Republic of Turkmenistan, VISA continues to process and provide services to all partner banks as usual, we have not suspended the provision of services to banks in Turkmenistan and are working closely with banks with partners, trade and service companies and other market participants to ensure the stable operation of the payment system as a whole,” Galym Tabyldiev, VISA’s general manager for Central Asia, wrote.

VISA said anyone experiencing difficulty using the cards should “contact the issuing bank.”

Banks in Turkmenistan have made no official announcements on the reason for the failure of the debit cards to work reliably, although some bank representatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that VISA cards used abroad were being “completely suspended.” The officials — from Bank Senagat and the Vnesheconombank — added that they did not know how long any purported suspension might last.

Chaotic Scenes

The dire situation has forced some parents with children studying abroad to rely on MoneyGram and Western Union to wire money to their loved ones.

But such transfers from Turkmenistan were limited to $300 and unusual conditions were placed on senders that included visiting certain central-bank offices to get a “service coupon.”

The migration to money-wiring services led to chaotic scenes at some of the few MoneyGram and Western Union outlets in Turkmenistan, with crushes as lines sometimes ballooned into the hundreds, as in the Lebap region in February.

It’s not clear why the banks might be blocking such withdrawal requests from abroad.

Some analysts speculate that it might be connected to the gap between the official exchange rate (3.5 manats to the dollar) and the black-market rate (22 manats to the dollar). They say paying out money at the official rate could expose banks to significant losses.

Others point to Turkmenistan’s dire economic situation, which has caused shortages of many staple and consumer goods, including bread and sugar.

Ashgabat residents queue for food earlier this month.
Ashgabat residents queue for food earlier this month.

Those woes appear to extend to the government’s coffers as well, as the state has reportedly fallen behind on some workers’ salaries and pensions.

There have also been government efforts to encourage the return of Turkmen migrant workers and students abroad by pressuring parents and other relatives. In such circumstances, cutting access to money for Turkmen abroad could make the decision to return home much easier.

Regardless of the reason for the cash cutoffs, they continue to cause big problems for Turkmen abroad.

“I would like to make a big request of officials in Turkmenistan,” wrote one student to RFE/RL. “Unlock our cards. We are in a foreign country, we do not have our own housing, we live in a hostel, we cannot even pay for it. We soon will be evicted. We cannot leave for Turkmenistan because we will not be released if we do not pay debts for the hostel.”

Expulsions, Manual Labor

There have already been cases of Turkmen students being expelled from their university over unpaid tuition.

“We paid for our studies on February 20 by transferring money from banks in Turkmenistan, but the Turkmen banks have not yet transferred money to the university account in Belarus, and the university demanded that the money be transferred by April 1,” one university student told RFE/RL in April.

He claimed that 42 students from Turkmenistan who had similar problems with their home banks had already been expelled for nonpayment of their tuition.

Hundreds of Turkmen students in southern Russia have reportedly taken to doing farm work in a bid to make ends meet. (illustrative photo)
Hundreds of Turkmen students in southern Russia have reportedly taken to doing farm work in a bid to make ends meet. (illustrative photo)

Other students have taken to doing manual labor to pay the bills, potentially risking legal problems.

An RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent in Russia’s Astrakhan region reportedon May 15 that hundreds of Turkmen students were working on farms in their spare time harvesting fruits and vegetables.

He reported that some were working eight hours a day for 600 rubles (about $10) planting crops on the weekends.

“Students are forced to agree [to the low wage] because they have no choice,” he said.

The activity is technically illegal because in Russia workers need to have a work permit, which costs 3,200 rubles per month (about $50), and most students do not have one.

“Because of the crisis in Turkmenistan, we are trying not to disturb our parents and relatives, we try to take care of ourselves somehow, pay at least part of our expenses,” said one student in Astrakhan. “We do not know when the situation in [Turkmenistan] will stabilize, because we still cannot withdraw money from our VISA cards because of the blockage.”

He added: “Many of us are in despair.”

And the debit-card problem has hit more than just Turkmen students.

A Turkmen official who requested anonymity told RFE/RL that, while part of a high-level government delegation in Europe earlier this year for a meeting with a prominent international organization, he was unable to withdraw the money he needed from an ATM machine to pay his hotel bill.

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service

Uzbek university leader makes fresh appeal for civil rights to be restored after fighting unjust dismissal for over a decade

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Professor Khidinizar Allakulov, former Rector of Termez State University and victim of human rights violations. Photo (c) Sputnik Uzbekistan

Imagine you were unjustly accused of massive corruption and fired from your job. It’s an indignity. But then imagine that you’ve been fighting for well over a decade in no fewer than 14 courts to clear your name, each time with an unsatisfactory ending – or simply no real conclusion at all.

During that time, you haven’t been able to find work in your area of expertise, you’ve been prevented from joining professional associations, and your family have been affected.

This is the incredible situation that Professor Khidirnazar Allakulov, former Rector of Termez State University in Uzbekistan, has found himself in since being fired in 2004.

It also represents a blatant and prolonged abrogation of his human rights. The United Nations Human Rights Committee which reviewed his case in late 2017 held that:

 

Uzbekistan failed to implement domestic judgments upholding Professor Allakulov’s right to retraction. This failure deprived him of the possibility to rehabilitate his reputation, honour and dignity, violating his rights under article 17 of the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

This is from UN Human Rights on Facebook – not a source I would normally use, but it’s a very clear and compellling summary of the full UN Human Rights Committee findings available in five languages including Russian and English.

The story begins in 2002 when Allakulov was appointed as Rector of Termez State University. Within three years he was fired on the basis of allegations made in a national newspaper branding him a criminal and accusing him of defraduing the university [ru].

Professor Allakulov claims that during his short tenure as Rector, he actually rooted out some of the corrupt activity at his institution. He provided evidence to local authorities on nearly 1,000 students who had somehow managed to enrol at Termez State despite not having achieved the required entrance exam grade (some had not even taken the exam at all). Furthermore, he says he made the admissions requirements fairer and ensured that entry to the university was strictly on the basis of the entrance exam results. He also managed to return $600,000 of university money that had been ciphoned off or stolen by officials at the institution.

And these actions, he suspects, are what led to his rapid downfall.

Although he was acquitted in every single one of the 14 court cases held at district, regional and national levels, Allakulov has been unable to satisfactorily clear his name. His aim remains to have his honour, dignity, and professional reptuation restored, according to an article published this week in Sputnik Uzbekistan [ru].

Allakulov states in the Sputnik article that he has written to the President and state officials 12 times since 2006, but is uncertain that his appeals have reached the head of state.

He is counting on a recent fresh appeal to President Mirziyoyev, who took over from long-time post-Soviet leader Islam Karimov in December 2016, and hopes that it will fall on more sympathetic ears.

This does seem to be a time of renewed optimism for Uzbekistan, and I reported last week on the prospects for higher education following the state visit of the Uzbek President to the US, the first since 2002. Earlier this week, human rights supporters celebrated the visit of the first delegation of Amnesty International into Uzbekistan since 2004.

In this case, I truly hope that Mirziyoyev lives up to the nascent reputation he is building for greater openness and tolerance in Uzbekistan and agrees to the long overdue restoration of Professor Allakulov’s civil and political rights.

A new era of international relations for Uzbek higher education

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My cats Maple and Simba welcome the new era of closer (US-Uzbek bilateral) relations

In a series of moves that have been tentatively welcomed by Central Asia-watchers, Uzbekistan has been enjoying a resurgence of international support under the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Mirziyoyev’s highest profile international visit so far was a trip this week to the United States. Covered in good detail by English language outlets including the latest excellent Majlis podcast, an exclusive interview in The Diplomat with Uzbekistan’s Minister of Justice, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, his three day visit led to a wealth of pronouncements and new bilateral agreements being signed. Concluding the visit, there has been general agreement – as you might expect from any good diplomatic visit – that things are looking optimistic for the future of Uzbek-US relations (even if parts of the American press is still struggling to pronounce the Uzbek leader’s name).

Of interest for international academic relations are two agreements, both signed at state level. The first will launch an Uzbekistan-based programme to “support partnerships between U.S. universities and higher education institutions across Central Asia”; the second provides for financial support to expand English language teaching in Uzbekistan. The English programmes will be targeted at teachers and students at school and university level, journalists and professionals.

The Memorandum of Understanding on institutional partnerships provides several points for discussion and reflection. Partnerships in higher education are normally signed on an institution-to-institution basis either as a very general agreement to cooperate or with specific aims in mind (e.g. to run a joint degree programme). It is less common to see agreements signed at bi-national level; in this case, it looks like the two governments have a specific programme in mind that will facilitate the entry of American higher education institutions into Central Asia.

This links to another observation: that the partnership here extends beyond Uzbekistan, even though the visit of Mirziyoyev has otherwise had an exclusively bilateral nature. The press release on the two agreements does not go into further detail so we will have to wait and see how this programme pans out once we have more information.

With all the fanfare surrounding this overseas trip and the enthusiastic proclamation of the US government’s press release that these are “landmark” agreements, it would be easy to think that Uzbekistan’s education system has been isolated from the international academic community. To some extent, this is true, as was the case for other sectors of society under the rule of previous President Islam Karimov. For example, the European Union’s Bologna Process of degree harmonization and partnerships has had less impact in Uzbekistan than its Central Asian neighbours. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector has actually been relatively international since the country became independent in 1991.

One of the region’s longest running international universities, the British Westminster International University in Tashkent, has been operating since 2002, offering teaching solely in the medium of English. A suprisingly wide range of other partnerships are also in operation, from Italy’s Turin Polytechnic University (opened in 2009) to recent (2014) South Korean entrant Inha University. Thus far, international academic relations such as these congregate in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. It is noteworthy that all of these were set up under inter-governmental agreements during the reign of Karimov.

I’d suggest two conclusions from all of this.

Firstly, this week’s visit by Mirziyoyev is a sure sign of the further reintegration of Uzbekistan into the global community, and it will be interesting to observe how these connections are (re)formed in similar and different ways to his predecessor Karimov. Such international relations are not new for Uzbekistan, but represent a new wave of outreach and partnerships.

Secondly, in terms of higher education, I think we are about to witness Uzbekistan building on its existing international ties and seeking greater convergence with the so-called “global academic community”, a phrase beloved of the Kazakhstans of this world. Thus, Kazakhstan now brings out its own university rankings and seeks to establish world-class universities in order to try and become more competitive with a model of higher education it observes globally.

Based on the country’s 2017-2021 Development Strategy [ru], it does indeed look like the current plan for Uzbekistan is towards this type of convergence. On higher education, the strategy callls for:

повышение качества и эффективности деятельности высших образовательных учреждений на основе внедрения международных стандартов обучения и оценки качества преподавания, поэтапное увеличение квоты приема в высшие образовательные учреждения

enhancement of the quality and effectiveness of higher education institutions based on international education standards and assessment of teaching quality, gradual increase in the admission quotas to higher education institutions

This raises much deeper questions about the nature of higher education worldwide. Is there such a thing as a globalized idea of the university? If there is, what are the implications for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the many other countries seeking to emulate it? And for international academic relations, what is the future of partnerships such as those signed this week between the US and Uzbekistan if countries can produce their own globalized university?

New article: Fake dissertation scandal in Tajikistan

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My new article is now out in University World News, in which I investigate a growing scandal in Tajikistan with a rash of plagiarised doctoral dissertations exposed. Vindicated in this highly embarrassing scandal include high level government officials and senior academics.

Read the full story at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20180428053554356.

Kazakh medical students expelled for doctoring documents

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Unfortunately, Dr Cat does not speak English

Just when you think the cool-headed forward-looking Kazakh government has higher education under control, another scandal erupts and throws things off kilter.

On April 24, a report emerged that the Astana Medical University had been forced to expel over 100 of its students [ru] for doctoring their language test documentation.

All (post)graduate students studying medicine/allied subjects are now required to produce proof of their English language abilities upon admission to a Master’s or PhD course or in applying for a residency.

Following complaints last year from other students that something was afoot with the language skills of certain of their coursemates, an investigation was opened, eventually finding that the IELTS (International English Language Testing System, one of the two most widely used tests of English language ability for non-native speakers) certificates of 117 students had been faked.

Not only have all the students been expelled, but they must now repay the state funding that went towards their tuition fees and living costs. All bar a handful of the accused students had been in receipt of a much sought after government grant.

There is also a possibility of legal action, which can range from a monetary fine to imprisonment in line with Kazakh law.

For Astana Medical University, this is a highly embarrassing and unwanted piece of negative publicity. But it lost the chance to come out cleaner than it has by slowing down the government’s investigation, insisting that it was not fully responsible for taking action. As a result of what has been seen as deliberate interference, it may lose its licence to offer educational courses.

The TV news report that accompanies the written article ends by asking whether those who were responsible for offering the falsified IELTS test certificates will also face any punishment for their role in this messy affair. After all, the report notes, there is a huge demand for English language testing in Kazakhstan, and it seems that some companies may be taking advantage of this.

The higher education system in Kazakhstan has for the most part changed dramatically since its most recent inception as an arm of the Soviet state. Yet there are some elements that stubbornly persist, despite what I consider to be genuine efforts by the current leadership to clean up the system.

One of those elements is corruption in admission to higher education. Whereas nepotism was commonplace in Soviet times – who you knew and what political or social position you held could make a huge difference to where you could get your children in to university, for example – these days, bribery usually takes on a financial character.

The fake IELTS certificates scandal at Astana Medical University is the latest in a contemporary and sophisticated embodiment of what is sadly becoming a longstanding tradition in Kazakhstan’s higher education system.

Mapping change in former Soviet higher education systems

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Me in action presenting at the Comparative and International Education Society’s 2018 conference in Mexico City. My ‘presenter hands’ are marginally more controlled than usual!

I recently presented at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Annual Conference and this blog post is about my presentation called Mapping change in former Soviet higher education systems: A view from the Russophone space.

I also presented with my colleague Hayfa Jafar on our new joint research on how faculty in post-conflict societies are experiencing internationalization in higher education – watch out for more on this to follow in the future.

As part of my PhD thesis on how higher education in the former Soviet space has responded to the fall of the Soviet Union, I want to include some analysis of how academics who have published about this regional space and time have conceptualized change.

In planning that analysis, I noticed that we know a lot about how authors writing in English conceptualize change in the former Soviet space – whether we like it or not, English is the dominant language of academic publication and there are quantitatively more articles and books available in English.

Yet my research is about a space where Russian has been the dominant language of the academic community. So this led me to wonder: do authors writing in Russian and publishing in Russian academic journals think about and write about change in similar or different ways? And how much do we know about this in the English language space?

(Spoiler alert. The brief answers are a) that there are both important similarities and marked differences, and b) not very much at all)

That explains the context to the analysis I then undertook of 23 articles written in Russian published in Russian language peer-reviewed journals published since 1991 (a list of the articles and journals can be found in my presentation). All the authors write about Russian higher education and were based at Russian institutions at the time of writing.

There are many possible ways to present what I found in this analysis (and I thank my supervisor and his research group for their feedback as I went through this process) but I decided to summarize my findings using a chronological but non-linear map. You can see it in the background of the photo above, and in full below.

The purpose of the map, which is designed like a Venn diagram, was not only to highlight some of the key themes that emerged from my analysis, but to show how these themes changed or overlapped over time.

The three phases shown are based on a framework adapted from Semyonov and Platonova’s work on policy change in higher education in Russia since 1991. They explain the three phases as:

  • Laissez-faire, from 1991 to around 2003. Although there were legislative changes, on the whole this period is considered to be one less government intervention in higher education, not least because of widespread economic crisis;
  • A period of major reform, from around 2004 to 2011. State investment in higher education led to the introduction of the Bologna Process and a unified higher education entrance exam, plus reforms to create merged and enlarged ‘super-institutions’ – the federal universities, plus the new designation of national research university;
  • Since 2012, a period epitomized by reforms aiming to improve the effectiveness of higher education through e.g. performance evaluations, competitive funding schemes, and more mergers/new institutional types emerging.

Sabzalieva_Mapping-change_Venn_Phases-of-change

My analysis showed broad convergence with Semyonov and Platonova’s findings with several notable differences. I discussed four of these in my presentation. Here’s a very brief summary:

  1. Whereas for the state, the first period might have been laissez-faire, for the people living in Russia and working in the higher education system, their response was more connected to a discourse of crisis and survival.
  2. A number of articles in the first two time periods talked about how change wasn’t happening, and in fact there was more continuity with the Soviet system. Higher education is shown in many articles as being on the sidelines of the social change happening around it.
  3. In the crossover between the two later periods, I noted that some of the articles observed contradictions in the reform process, particularly in relation to the introduction of the Bologna Process
  4. Across all three phases, there is a lot of discussion about faculty: what is their role, how should they and are they responding to change, and so on. It wasn’t surprising to find more coverage of faculty matters in the Russian articles as most are written by practising academics who are or have been in some way involved in what’s been happening in Russian higher education.

This analysis will eventually form part of my PhD thesis so I don’t have a standalone paper to share. However, if you’re interested in finding out more, I’ve uploaded my presentation to Research Gate – although do note that my presentations are highly visual, so there are not many words to read! The presentation also has a few bonus slides that I didn’t share during the conference. Also, please do leave comments after this post if there are things you’d like to say in response.