Starting from the top: Steps towards autonomy in Uzbekistan’s universities

One last reform to Uzbekistan’s higher education system rounds out another busy year of change in that country. New rules are coming in that will allow certain universities greater autonomy over who they choose to lead them and will also create a new supervisory board structure similar to a governing body.

From plans to create a homegrown Oxford-style university to joining a new regional higher education area, my prediction that Uzbekistan would continue its rapid education policy reforms has so far played out exactly as expected.

Under the new regulations, the 35 publicly funded universities which have moved to ‘self-financing‘ (i.e. less state money, more scope to charge fees and seek other sources of income) will be required to create a supervisory board in place of the now abolished board of trustees.

The board will then have the power to hire – and fire – Rectors, thus opening the potential for more self-direction in how these universities are governed and led. There will also be new provisions for candidates for the top position to pursue professional development training in areas such as management and quality enhancement.

These moves should be seen more as baby steps in the journey of granting more autonomy to universities. First, at least 70% of members of the new supervisory boards have to be from relevant ministries (not only education but others depending on the remit of the university), departments, employers and civil society. How ‘relevant’ is defined and how the 70% breaks down by these constituent groups is unclear.

Second, the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education is tasked with creating the list of candidates for the Rector position. While this is a change from the current practice of the Cabinet of Ministers appointing and removing university leaders, it still keeps decision making largely in the hands of government, even if the final decision is made by a board.

Once again the reform trajectory in Uzbekistan closely follows what has been taking place in Kazakhstan, where changes to how Rectors were appointed were brought in some time ago and, unless things have changed there again, the same model is still in place.

And with that update, it’s time to head into 2022. I hope you’ve had a good 2021 – mine has had some amazing highlights, but I’m seeing it out with my second bout of Covid in 11 months (neither serious, fortunately – and thank you science for the two vaccines + one booster I’ve received in between) so to paraphrase something my beautiful and whip-smart 4 year old niece used to say when very young, “All done 2021, no more 2021.”

Let’s see what the year ahead brings. For 2022, here’s my wish as put forward by my wonderful employer:

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