A summer of learning: Fieldwork, conferences, and more in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

It’s been rather quiet on the blog of late.

Kyrgyz State Technical University-2017-07-06 11.06.08
A sneak preview of a new addition to my Central Asian university photo gallery. This beauty is the Kyrgyz State Technical University, formerly the Polytechnic Institute.

Don’t worry – I haven’t run out of ideas to keep the blog going. On the contrary, I probably now have too many. I also have a LOT of new photos of universities to add to my photo gallery (see the bottom right part of the homepage). Bet you can’t wait for that!

The reason for the lower than usual level of activity is that I’ve been doing fieldwork for my PhD thesis over the last two months.

This has involved meeting with over 30 wonderful academics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and spending a time with each of them discussing their personal experiences of working in higher education since the late Soviet period.

I have learned so much from my respondents and am incredibly grateful to each of them, not just for their time, but also for their willingness to share their own stories with me. Once I am back in Canada next month, I will need to spend time reflecting on these interviews and making sure I do justice to the rich data I have been able to gather.

All the interviews have been anonymised so I can’t thank people publicly – but they know who they are. Thank you. Спасибо.

In addition to doing these interviews, I’ve also been selected to present at three conferences, one in each country.

At the joint ESCAS-CESS conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in June, I organized a panel on The shifting landscapes of post-Soviet higher education, presenting the paper Conceptualizing change in post-Soviet higher education. I also convened a roundtable on to discuss the future for higher education in the post-Soviet space. Read more about the conference here.

In July, I was invited to present at a conference on Tradition and change in a contemporary world in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This is a very fitting theme for my thesis work on change (and stability), although at the request of the conference organizer, the paper I presented drew on my earlier comparative work on the UK and Canada and was entitled Connecting history with contemporary identity in higher education. The article that this paper is based on can be found here.

2017-08-19 10.32.32
Presenting at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, August 2017

Finally, here in Astana, Kazakhstan, I am pleased to have presented today (19 August) at the first annual conference of the Graduate School of Public Policy at Nazarbayev University.

My paper was Public policy and higher education reform in Central Asia, which discusses how the world-class university has become a global public policy strategy for higher education.

Although this is an excellent example of policy convergence, I argue that Kazakhstan’s strategy in creating Nazarbayev University offers a creative shift to this world-class university model: one that embraces the dominant global university model whilst at the same time transforming it to be useful and applicable for other purposes. You can read my related article on this subject here.

2017-08-18 17.57.45
Nazarbayev University, impressive as heck.

The conference was themed around good governance and attracted a diverse array of international presenters. Each of the presentations I was able to see added something new to my understanding of governance and public policy, from thinking about the state as a supplier of institutions for economic diversification in Kazakhstan (by Zhanat Murzakulova) to learning more about the implications of informal institutions for post-Soviet education systems (by Dr Dina Sharipova), and a lot more in between.


And last but not least, in amongst all the interviews and conferences and photographing university buildings, it’s been absolutely wonderful to catch up with family and friends. Being dispersed so globally can have its downsides, so it makes the moments of being together even more special.

What a great summer.

9 thoughts on “A summer of learning: Fieldwork, conferences, and more in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

  1. I would like to share another comment on implementation that I made at the NU Conference on governance and it would be great to receive feedback on this issue from fellow readers of this blog.

    Implementation is one of the most difficult tasks in improving education in particular, and in making progress in public administration in general. There have been regular calls for research on implementation but as usual such calls are ignored. (I am almost certain that my current plea will meet the same fate.) See Aaron Wildavsky. We simply do not learn or do not wish to learn. If we can solve this intractable problem of implementation, then surely progress will be rapid.

    Research on implementation is not glamorous. However, real progress can only be achieved in implementation with the help of the street-level civil servants who are in the trenches in the front lines. Writing strategic plans is great. Even detailed outlines of PLANS for implementation are great. But finally, success must be measured by effective implementation. There is no shortage of ideas or new programs. Ten for a tenge. Also, there is no shortage of diagnostics, suggestions and recommendations on what to do. This is easy.

    At the conference, there was a suggestion that more analysis should be conducted, and in particular, there should be greater use of Monitoring and Evaluation.

    Please read the recent OECD 2017 report on higher education. There on page 68, Figure 2.1 of Chapter Two is an assessment of the implementation status of the 2007 OECD World Bank recommendations.

    Ten years ago, the World Bank recommended that the educational authorities should “rely on reliable data to make informed decisions and make reports on institutional performance available to the public.”

    Would anyone like to make a guess on the current status of this recommendation? To create some suspense, I will not give the answer here, and encourage you to read it in the report.

    However, most readers can probably guess that the answer is “no progress”. And if one were to make a prediction about the status in TEN years from now, a safe bet would be that the answer would still be no.

    The interesting fact is NOT that the answer is no. You guessed the answer.
    The interesting fact is trying to understand why the answer is no. We can already predict the answer ex ante!!!!!

    Again, the answer to my second question is easy and obvious. Surely the useless answer is that there is no political will.

    What does it mean that “there is no political will”? It is another cryptic answer with no real meaning, a catch-all phrase for failure, a place holder.

    How do we create “political will” to ensure there is successful implementation of all of the government programs, and schemes and programs?

    I am not looking for new theories from armchair urban educators on the lack of political will.
    I am looking for researchers who will provide guidance (recipes? algorithms?) to practitioners on how to get the job done. So that in ten years, we achieve all of the recommendations that we make today.

    As usual, hope springs eternal, and triumphs over experience. C’est la vie.
    Plus la change, plus c’est la meme chose.


  2. I wish to add a few caveats to my previous post. Due to my incompetence in the Russian and Kazakh languages, it is certainly possible that there is a lot of non-public literature in the non-English languages on implementation strategies, and monitoring and evaluation in Central Asian countries. I am simply not aware of it.

    I am delighted to confess my ignorance, and it would be great if other more knowledgeable people could enlighten me on such matters, and send me links. I will then read them with pleasure using Google translate.

    However, if all such analyses, evaluations, assessments are not in the public domain, then I have no access and have not seen them.


    1. State of Higher Education in Kazakhstan

      On pages 15 and 16 of a 2017 OECD Review of Higher Education, the authors state that:

      “the absence of good, reliable data on skills outputs and labour market outcomes remains a key challenge for Kazakhstan, as does a related over-reliance on the state grant system to steer student choices. Despite some positive measures, there is still comparatively little attention paid in Kazakhstan to equity of access to affordable higher education. The groups most affected in this respect include students from rural areas (despite a set-aside of study spaces), students with disabilities and students of lower socio-economic status (about whom Kazakhstan lacks good data)…

      Gaps in data hinder progress in many of these areas…

      Nevertheless, the country still has little capacity for high-quality research.”

      I invite informed and knowledgeable readers to provide some comments and feedback on the validity and accuracy of the assessment that is presented in the 2017 OECD report. What is the situation in other countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus? Is it better, worse, or similar? Are there efforts to deal with these issues?


  3. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty
    Dumpty said, in rather a scornful
    tone, ‘it means just what I choose it
    to mean – neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice,
    ‘whether you can make words mean
    so many different things.’ The
    question is,’ said Humpty
    Dumpty,’which is to be master –
    that’s all.’
    Quotation from Through the Looking Glass

    Words have meaning. And their
    meaning doesn’t change.
    Antonin Scalia

    “whatever words are said and meant are said and meant by particular men,..and that sometimes men, do not see what they mean…and when they are forced to recognize this they feel they do not, and perhaps cannot, mean anything, and they are struck dumb.”
    Stanley Cavell

    I cannot resist commenting on the careless use (dare I say liberal use) of the word neoliberalism in the papers by Emma and Smolentseva.

    In Emma’s paper, I find the following uses: tenets of neoliberalism, neoliberalism logic of efficiency, neoliberal development strategy, neoliberal discourse,

    In Smolentseva’s article, I find the following: neoliberal reforms, neoliberal course, neoliberal transformations.

    Neoliberalism is a value-laden and contested idea, and in these two papers, it is unclear that the word contributes anything of value to what the authors are trying to say. In other words, if the word were to be deleted, no meaning would be lost.

    Also, I think one would be hard-pressed to characterize the reforms exemplified by the KAUST project as something in the “neoliberal tradition”. Perhaps I just do not understand what neoliberalism could even mean in the contexts here.


    1. In 2004, in an article published in International Higher Education with the title “The costs and benefits of World-Class universities, Professor Altbach stated that: “The problem is that no one knows what a world-class university is, and no one has figured out how to get it.”

      Happily, his assessment was disregarded, and we do have many world class universities.
      With the hindsight of 13 years, it would seem that Professor Altbach, with due respect, was simply wrong.

      Please see the recent article by Shehatta and Mahmood in Scientometrics with the title “Correlation among top 100 universities in the major six global rankings: policy implications’, (2016) 109:1231-1254.

      In the spirit of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I would like to say that: “I have seen it, and I know it.”


      1. Governance may be a word that is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

        In a fascinating article in Constellations, 2009, with the title “Governance: An “empty signifier”?”, Offe states that: “While one can say of governments that their members govern and the governed are being governed, governance is apparently something that can be observed and experienced, but nobody can in fact do it.” (Italics in original)

        With regard to World-Class Universities, the word governance is thoughtlessly applied.

        Governance is a highly contested term. Which specific definition or conception do we have in mind?
        Are we referring to Fukuyama, Rothberg, Rothstein, or Mungiu-pippidi, to name just a few?

        For the sake of due diligence, one would do well to read the analysis of Offe.


      2. Last December, in the Astana Times, Professor Colin Knox of Nazabayev University presented his perspective on good governance in Kazakhstan.


        In a similar spirit, one could ask: What is good governance in a World-Class University? How will we know it when we see it?


      3. Khalid Mahmood

        Our article proves that there is a strong correlation among various university ranking systems in the world.


  4. What are the characteristics of a World-Class University?
    In a 2009 World Bank Report, titled “The challenge of establishing world-class universities”, Salmi identified three key characteristics of a World-Class University (WCU): abundant resources, concentration of talent, and favorable governance. These three key characteristics are probably necessary but not sufficient for creating a World-Class University.
    The first two characteristics are relatively uncontroversial. The problematic characteristic is the third one, namely, favorable governance. What would favorable governance look like? If we saw favorable governance, would we be able to recognize it? There is no explicit definition of governance. Perhaps it is such an obvious term that it does not require definition since we all know what it means.
    Favorable governance has features “that encourage strategic vision, innovation and flexibility and that enable institutions to make decisions and to manage resources without being encumbered by bureaucracy. (figure 2)” This sentence is also uncontroversial. However, figure 2 includes two extra terms that are not explicitly in the sentence: autonomy and academic freedom. Autonomy has a stronger, value-laden connotation than simply being unencumbered by bureaucracy. Academic freedom is undefined.
    To what extent are these two features required for a World-Class University? In other words, suppose there were limits on autonomy and academic freedom. Would these limits disqualify institutions as World-Class Universities? Ultimately, this is an empirical question.


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