Central Asian faculty and friends I know are fond of observing that higher education in the region is not as good as it used to be, and/or is facing a ‘crisis’ because of a lack of quality, corruption, outflow of good teachers and so on.
All of these points are valid. Yet at the same time, a university degree continues to be in high demand. Two recent stories from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that happened to pop up in my newsfeed on the same day show the lengths that some are prepared to go in the clamour for admission to university.
In Kazakhstan, it has been reported that five higher education institutions (HEI) have had their licenses taken away, and a further 12 have been fined, with one being taken to court. Given that the state-issued license gives an HEI the right to operate legally, its removal effectively closes down operations, at least temporarily.
This particular crackdown is a response to what some might see as actually a pretty canny move by students. Kazakhstan, like most (if not all) of the former Soviet states, has a national admissions entrance testing system, an exam taken by domestic high/secondary school graduates to determine which courses and universities they are eligible for.
To get around this barrier, it seems that some students – as many as 37,000, according to the news story on MK Kazakhstan – had enrolled at universities in neighbouring (ex-Soviet) countries as international students i.e. without having to sit that country’s entrance exam. Then, after a semester or a year, they transferred to an HEI in Kazakhstan, typically a smaller institution based outside of one of the bigger cities in the country. Whether or not these students ever even went to the foreign university to study before transferring is questionable; it seems likely that this is purely a paper shuffling exercise.
Not only a strategy deployed by students, the HEIs are also benefiting from this ‘market’: students who for whatever reason did not want to take the national entrance exam, as well as recruiting those who were thrown out of other universities for poor results. But with this latest crackdown, it looks like it’s 1-0 to the government for now.
Over in Uzbekistan, it’s Russian HEIs getting into hot water. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, five HEIs have been accused of recruiting Uzbek students without the proper authorization.
The HEIs – a mix of state funded universities and smaller private institutions – have allegedly been signing contracts with students for 2019/20, even though the academic year is already well underway. This would be OK if the HEIs were properly accredited in Uzbekistan (as over 20 Russian universities are), but in this case the paperwork wasn’t in order.
So, the State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control has put its foot down, issuing a stern warning to the institutions concerned. They’ve even put out a reminder that it now only takes ten days to get the right documents, down from one month. These Russian HEIs have been named and shamed, but whether this step or the Kazakh government’s legal actions make any significant difference to students’ and institutional behaviour when it comes to higher education admissions remains doubtful.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has called on citizens to ensure that education in the country remains secular, citing the constitutional principle of compulsory basic education.
At present, Kyrgyzstan has over 110 religious institutions – mostly medressas and Islamic colleges plus one Islamic university, but there are also 13 recorded Christian schools. This is a tiny fraction of the total number of public schools and universities in the country: there are over 2,000 schools, more than 200 colleges and 34 state universities for Kyrgyzstan’s six million strong population.
So why the concern? There are clearly enough secular schools and universities to go around.
The worry expressed by the head of state stems from the revival of Islam in Kyrgyzstan since the country obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the concern that this could lead to extremism.
Professor Almazbek Akmataliyev has observed that the rapid expansion of Islamic education in the country is not only connected to the ending of communist-era clampdowns on religion but also results from an influx of foreign funding. Coming from other Muslim states – mainly the rich Arab region nations – this cash has been used to build mosques and support education. This is something I have also heard reflected in comments made to me by people I know in the country.
Professor Akmataliyev also points to the lack of state intervention in religion in the early years of independence in the 1990s as a factor that allowed Islam to spread through the country. His views are backed up by fellow academics Emil Nasritdinov and Nurgul Esenamanova. Writing in the journal Central Asian Affairs, they found that the revival of Islam in the 1990s was marked among women, and this identity is increasingly commonly visually asserted through the number of women in the capital city who now choose to wear a hijab.
After recovering from a hiatus in control in the 1990s, the government of Kyrgyzstan has been more active in responding to the growth of religion and its impact on education. However, as an OSCE report on religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan published in 2013 found:
Educational programs and training programs do not pay enough attention to nurturing of respect for religious diversity and tolerance. Publication of religious studies materials and textbooks should remain neutral and give equal treatment to different religious groups operating in the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic in accordance with national legislation. (Source: OSCE 2013, p. 28)
By the time Jeenbekov came to power in late 2017, Human Rights Without Frontiers observed that:
The Kyrgyz Republic, led by a new President, is at a cross-road, either to restrict the religious freedom of all faiths in the name of security and the fight against violent Islamic groups, or to open the space of religious freedom for all peaceful movements whilst educating their youth about religion in a spirit of tolerance and fighting any initiative inciting to violence. (Source: HRWF)
Speaking at the 2018 ‘Islam in a Modern Secular State‘ conference (launched by Jeenbekov’s predecessor as an annual conference in 2017), Jeenbekov called on the one hand for tolerance towards all religions but on the other hand, pointed to the need for the state to get involved:
We need to create new forms of relationship between religion and the state to ensure peace, order in society and inter-ethnic harmony. (Source: 24.kg)
This was connected to religious education which, according to the President, should ‘correspond to the future development of our society’ (Source: 24.kg).
And that brings us back to the President’s recent call for secularism in the classroom. Since the 2000s (if not the late 1990s), the Kyrgyz state has decided that religion is not something to be left alone – tolerance of all faiths and none is to be aided and abetted by the government. By extending this to the state education system, the government runs the risk of marginalizing those who choose to follow a religious faith and politicizing religion, which is surely a shortcut to the very intolerance the President would like to prevent…
Hot off the online press!
International research collaborations – whether these are informal groupings of researchers working together on a scientific problem of common interest or more formal arrangements (often with a budget and fixed timelines) – have increased so rapidly in number that one expert has called this growth “one of the most dramatic social changes of the twenty-first century”.
On the one hand, this suggests tremendous possibilities for researchers in countries with open borders and technological connectivity to not only be part of knowledge generation but also to enhance the quality of knowledge through interconnectedness. Yet on the other, while global science may have shifted the ways in which knowledge is produced (just look, for example, at the dramatic growth in co-authored publications and the rise of scientific producers such as China), it has not flattened or as yet significantly altered existing knowledge hierarchies.
In my new article, published online today, I get under the skin of these international research collaborations from the perspectives of Tajikistani researchers. Such collaborations in Tajikistan are more likely to be formal and initiated by outside funders, who are commonly development agencies rather than other universities or scientifically minded alliances. Not only having to deal with the trade-offs involved in so-called partnerships where the agenda is set from the outside, Tajikistani researchers face constraints on their academic freedom from the domestic political environment.
Based on a small-scale study in which I interviewed nine Tajikistani researchers in depth about their experiences of engaging in international research collaborations, the article aims to move beyond the more usual conceptualization of the dynamics of international research collaborations from a (Global) North/ (Global) South perspective and instead bring forward voices and ideas that have not to date been sufficiently heard or heeded.
The article forms part of a special issue I have co-edited that explicitly takes up this idea of moving beyond North and South. The eight papers examine an array of ways in which we could examine international research collaborations and think about power and science differently. I’ll add a post when the entire special issue is out.
You can find the article at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1028315319889345 – please contact me if you don’t have access to the journal.
To close, I would like to repeat the dedication in my paper, a very small token of affection to mark the passing of a very wonderful person:
This paper is dedicated to my dear friend Ulrika Punjabi, whose untimely passing as this study was being completed in 2019 came as an enormous and unwelcome shock. This paper’s investigation of the possibilities for a better global future presents an apt way to commemorate Ulrika, who dedicated her life to making the world a more equitable place, striving for justice, and bringing joy to many.
Following the firing of the Rector of Tashkent’s ‘most corrupt university’ in August 2019, another university leader has been shown the door.
Rector Bahodyr Khodiev of Tashkent State University of Economics (TSUE) was suspended in November 2019 on the grounds of corruption. Details of Khodiev’s alleged activities have not been made public, but this very high profile removal comes as part of the Uzbekistan government’s drive for greater transparency during the university admissions process, which now carries ‘severe penalties’ for those who violate the process.
Khodiev had been at TSUE since May 2016, although this was not his first stint there as Rector. He had previously also been in charge prior to moving over to several senior government positions in 2010.
Khodiev has been replaced by Kongratbay Sharipov who has come over from the Ministry of Higher and Professional Education to take charge at TSUE. Sharipov left school at 15 to work as a mechanic, turning to teaching in the late 1980s and turning fully to academia as Uzbekistan became independent in the 1990s. In the 2000s he appears to have combined academic work with business operations – in 2009 alone he had positions as both the general manager of new projects at GM Uzbekistan and was briefly the rector of Turin Polytechnic University!
Watch this space to see who’s next to go in the anti-corruption drive in Uzbekistan.
On the back of recent news that a number of universities in Kazakhstan are to be reorganized and some merged, rumours are now spreading that at least one of the proposed mergers will not in fact go ahead.
According to Dilara Aronova, a journalist for northern Kazakhstan’s regional news outlet Kostanay News, social media has been abuzz (well, perhaps not exactly ‘buzzing’, unless you share my all-encompassing love for higher education gossip) with rumours that a politician has opposed the move for the State Universities of Kostanay in the north and Taraz in the south to join with their local State Pedagogical University counterparts.
Senator Edil Mamytbekov, a native of Taraz, spoke out at the time of the October 2019 government announcement on the reorganizations and his words have been widely interpreted to understand that the underlying aim of the two mergers was to close the pedagogical universities.
The Ministry of Education was quick to respond that there were no plans to close either university and that the mergers are designed to pool financial resources and enlarge the two newly created regional universities.
Putting the matter firmly to rest, a working group at Kostanay State has already started planning the merger, and the university’s Rector issued a statement saying that any discussions about the cancellation of the merger were simply rumours.
So that’s that then. The government reforms steamroller on…
The Kazakh government has typically paid a very active role in the organization and governance of higher education in the country. Over time the particular policy instruments du jour have changed depending on the main aim being pursued by the state. Of late, there has been an uptick in the number of university mergers as well as the (pseudo-)privatization of the many state funded universities and specialized institutes.
In the most recent round of reorganization in October 2019, 25 universities have been affected. The top-down directive switches their status from ‘republican state enterprise*’ (i.e. state funded) to ‘non-profit joint stock company’. This isn’t quite an act of privatization as the new status transfers all shares in the new company to the Ministry of Education and Science!
This status of non-profit joint stock company (NPJSC) is unusual: joint stock companies tend to be profit-making, which make sense given their ability to make the company’s stocks available to buy and sell. According to the Kazakhstani Law on Non-Profit Organizations (2001), a non-profit organization may be created as a joint stock company or in several other formats (e.g. religious association, public association, foundation).
NPJSCs are described in article 16 of the law as ‘a legal entity that issues shares with the aim of attracting funds to conduct its activities whose income used exclusively for the development of this company’. It may not issue preference shares, derivative and converted securities and it cannot later become a profit-making organization.
The economic aim of the status change appears to be to move the burden of funding these universities away from the state, although if as suggested the only shareholder so far is the Ministry of Education, this must be a long-term goal. It appears there is a secondary (also longer term) mission to diversify ownership of these universities through the transition to a shareholding organization, but without the ability to make profit from the shares, it’s not clear to me which individuals or companies might like to part-own a university.
The October reorganization also envisages the merger of a number of universities – Taraz State Pedagogical University is to be brought together with Taraz State University to become Taraz Regional University; the same fate awaits the State and State Pedagogical universities of Kostanay. In addition, various so-called ‘daughter state enterprises’ – research institutes and laboratories – of the Al-Farabi National University are to be folded into the university.
As usual, it’s a blur of activity in Kazakhstan, with the latest changes reflecting the state’s continued interest in higher education and its creativity in applying new legal and organizational statuses to universities. For more background, check out other posts I’ve written on this topic at Universities for sale in Kazakhstan, Privatizing Kazakhstan’s universities, Mergers and acquisitions in Kazakhstan’s universities and I’d close some universities if I could – Kazakh Ambassador to Canada.
*In Russian, this is республиканское государственное предприятие на праве хозяйственного ведения, often shortened to РГП на ПХВ which translates more specifically as ‘republican state enterprise on the right of economic management’ – can any legal experts out there help explain this in lay terms?
My latest piece for University World News, a global online publication for anyone with a passing interest in higher education, was published on October 19. I wanted to bring UWN’s readership up to date with recent developments in Uzbekistan, which have been taking place at breakneck speed over the past couple of years.
Please find the article at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20191017104759957; a copy of the text is below:
A breathtaking shift from autocracy to an open HE system
The higher education landscape in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, has been changing rapidly over the past three years. Since the passing of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, who had been in power since 1991, the country has seen an about-face under the leadership of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Under Mirziyoyev, a swathe of policies aim to transform higher education into what one government minister has called ‘Universities 3.0’.
These policies will give universities more autonomy to choose their own leaders and to manage their own affairs through their governing bodies, will give universities greater control over student numbers and course offerings and will liberalise price controls on tuition fees and increase the number of public-private partnerships.
In October 2019, these and other ideas were formalised through the ratification of the Higher Education Development Plan to 2030.
Although Uzbekistan was the first of the Central Asian states to permit international branch campuses, having hosted the United Kingdom’s University of Westminster and Russia’s Plekhanov Russian University of Economics since 2001-02, the number of foreign higher education institutions remained very limited at just five.
However, under Mirziyoyev, regulation was introduced in late 2017 offering tax breaks and other financial incentives. Since then, international branch campuses have spread ‘like mushrooms’, according to Yekaterina Kazachenko, a journalist with the independent Russian agency Fergana News.
Much fanfare accompanied the opening of the American Webster University, where bilateral talks on opening campuses in Tashkent and Samarkand had apparently begun under the previous leadership in 2012. However, it was not until the 2019-20 academic year that the campuses were inaugurated, with just under 500 students.
According to the university, this makes the Uzbekistan branches the largest population of Webster students outside of the university’s St Louis, Missouri, main campus.
Interest from Russia and Asia
It’s not just English-speaking countries that are getting in on the branch campus act. Russia, which is the largest provider of branch campuses to the countries of the former Soviet Union, has also been increasing its efforts to expand the presence of its universities in Uzbekistan.
Campuses linked to six Russian universities opened in 2019 alone and talks are ongoing to create other branches.
With the country’s strategic location between Europe and Asia, it is unsurprising that interest in opening branch campuses in Uzbekistan is also emanating from the south and east.
The relatively well established presence of Singapore (Management Development Institute of Singapore) and South Korea (Inha University) is being joined by Malaysia’s University of Technology and India’s Amity University, among others.
There are also rumours that China will be creating not just a branch campus but a fully-fledged university in the capital Tashkent.
The flourishing of branch campuses is one obvious area of change for the size and shape of the higher education system in Uzbekistan. Other reforms have also had a demonstrable impact, such as the resumption of the teaching of political science in 2019 after it was banned under Karimov, ostensibly because it did not represent the then president’s ideological leanings.
The speed of reform
Many of the plans being put forward adhere to what we might think of as a ‘standard operating procedure’ global template for higher education reform. It’s not only Uzbekistan that is welcoming international branch campuses, creating university rankings, opening science parks and pushing for publications in ranked international journals, as readers of University World News will be well aware.
Arguably, however, there are two things that make the reforms in Uzbekistan stand out. The first is the sheer speed with which a systemic overhaul is being introduced. Mirziyoyev has been at the helm for less than three years, but he has already made a significant impact, not only in higher education but in the media, economy, social policy and other areas.
The second is the distance that these reforms are taking Uzbekistan from the previous authoritarian regime.
In September 2019, academics in Uzbekistan and around the world rejoiced at the wonderful news that the scholar Andrei Kubatin had been acquitted of all charges and released from jail. Kubatin, a well-known Turkic studies expert and historian, had been imprisoned in 2017 and subjected to torture after being sentenced to an 11-year term on false charges of treason.
Human rights watchers and academics alike are hopeful that the reversal of Kubatin’s charges could lead to the re-examination of other politically motivated cases.
Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector continues to experience significant challenges. One is systemic corruption, which ranges from bribing professors for grades to using connections to obtain places on popular courses.
Another challenge is the limitation on who can access a degree. Although a record number of students applied to get into university in 2019, participation rates in higher education are still low at 10% (the gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education for 2018).
This figure is even less encouraging for women (8%), who continue to experience gender discrimination and inequality. It is also known that students from rural areas find it more difficult to get into higher education.
A third barrier comes from the top-heavy governance of the system, where university leaders are appointed (and removed) at the state’s behest.
Yet, as experienced journalist Navbahor Imamova has recently pointed out, despite continuing curtailments on citizens’ liberties and low trust in government, the reforms in Uzbekistan to date nevertheless reflect a “remarkable shift, one that stands in sharp contrast to what often seems like a relentless international trend toward greater repression, increasing autocracy, and eroding liberties”.