With some borders tentatively re-opening and others staying firmly shut as the Covid-19 pandemic rumbles on, it’s inevitable that this has impacted student mobility to and from Central Asia. However, this isn’t always entirely due to Covid-19 and it isn’t always playing out in patterns that are more commonly associated with student mobility.
Let’s start in Tajikistan, which attracts around 2,200 international students a year, according to UNESCO. The top sending countries are Turkmenistan (sending around 850 students), India (sending around 600) and Afghanistan (250 students) – see what I mean about patterns of mobility that you tend not to hear about? So when the local branch of Sputnik News wrote about the early October return of around 90 Afghan students to Tajikistan with a further 100 or so on a waiting list, this was a cause for celebration for local universities.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education and Science in Tajikistan has been inviting students who were due to go abroad for study but who have not been able to leave the country to register with them. Quite what they’re going to do about it is unclear, and neither am I aware of any ramifications for students who choose not to send the Ministry their details. But with nearly 20,000 Tajik students studying abroad (most in Russia), that could be a fair amount of data processing work for the government to keep up with.
Over in Kyrgyzstan, it’s been more a question of who can’t come into the country. After Indian actor Sonu Sood successfully arranged for several thousand Indian students to leave the country earlier this year, other students from next door Pakistan recently found out that they’ll no longer be allowed to study medicine in Kyrgyzstan. This is a blow: around 1,500 students from Pakistan study in Kyrgyzstan and medicine is a popular choice of subject.
The new restriction is not virus related but to do with the perceived quality of education: Pakistani authorities say that 90% of students who studied medicine in Kyrgyzstan go on to fail a compulsory exam organized by the Pakistan Medical Council and their degrees are not recognized. The lack of international accreditation in Kyrgyz medical faculties is also seen as an indicator of low quality. It’s not an outright ban for medical students from Pakistan, but those wishing to practice their profession in their home country will now probably think twice before earning their degree in Kyrgyzstan.
This is not dissimilar to Uzbekistan, which withdrew many of its students from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan earlier this year over quality concerns. This prompted a furious response from Tajikistan’s Minister of Education, who said that the Uzbek report that led to students being called home was “based on unfair research and biased decisions“. Despite the Minister vouching for his country’s universities, the Uzbek policy has not been reversed.
Hopping a little west to Turkmenistan, students – already warned of the dangers of bars and brothels if studying abroad – have been coping with the high levels of ‘dust‘ in the country for some months now. And now, despite there still officially being no coronavirus, several universities have recently pivoted to distance learning. It looks like the chance of anyone wanting to go abroad to study have just been diminished a little further.
It’s a whole other ball game in Kazakhstan, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary of being part of the European Bologna Process. Thanks to a tiny sliver of the country being located in Europe, Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country that can become a member of the European Higher Education Area being created through the Bologna Process. (That geographical inconvenience has not stopped Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan from eagerly pursuing Bologna-style reforms, but that’s a story for another day).
For Kazakhstan, membership has opened to access to a much wider array of student mobility options, as this report lists. Indeed, just last year, 40,000 students headed to Kazakhstan for study and exchange. Not surprising, seeing as it’s actually Very Nice.