What’s next for the Bologna Process in Central Asia?

While Russia and other countries of the ex-Soviet space are not covered by this blog, external events influence what’s happening in Central Asia. And, when it comes to higher education, Russia is unavoidable. It’s the largest host of international students from Central Asian countries and there are several Russian bi-national universities and Russian branch campuses in the region. There are broader political and economic reasons that also tie the higher education systems of these countries together.

So, when Russia withdrew / was withdrawn* from the Bologna Process recently, it was unsurprising to see the ripples of this decision spreading. In Kyrgyzstan, this led fairly rapidly to an expert discussion in June 2022 with the title ‘From Bologna to a Eurasian system of education: issues and future developments‘.

The forum was directly linked to Russia’s exit from the Bologna Process and was set up by a local organization called ‘Eurasians’ Foundation – New Wave‘. The name of the organization offers a good indication of the kind of points that were raised at the event. The speakers, who included MPs, Ministry of Education representatives, academic leaders, and commentators, made comments that ranged from being outwardly pro-Russian to those that were somewhat more diplomatic or balanced.

Russia’s decision to leave the European Commission-led initiative to harmonize higher education systems/qualifications and promote academic mobility may lead to the country reverting back to the pre-Bologna era (i.e. Soviet-era) system of qualifications. Rather than the European Bachelor-Master-PhD route (typically 3+2+3 years), this would mean Russia re-adopting the Specialist-Candidate of Sciences (5+3/4 years) option. In other words, a move back from the shorter Bachelor’s degree to the longer Specialist degree, with a few students choosing further study at Candidate (PhD) level**.

The possible reversion to the Specialist degree got several of the speakers at the Kyrgyzstan event very excited – not so much because of the certification but rather what it represents: a return to something that is better known and better trusted, despite more than 30 years having passed since the Soviet education system fell away.

Concerns were also raised about the perceived drop in the quality that has come from rapidly widened access to higher education and the concurrent expansion of the number of universities and courses in the country. The delinking of education and the labour market also seems problematic for some, even thought the days when graduates were guaranteed a job by the state are long over.

Another interesting theme that emerged from the forum was whether Kyrgyzstan’s future lies more with Europe – which some felt to be far away and/or less relevant for the country – or with Eurasia, which by association means Russia. It’s important to note that Kyrgyzstan is not a full member of the Bologna Process and it can’t be because it doesn’t have territory within Europe. Kazakhstan is the only country in Central Asia that has been able to join in full, although that hasn’t stopped the others from adopting many of the reforms involved in Bologna-ization.

However, that technicality plus the obvious bias of the forum aside, it’s clear that the current path of higher education in Kyrgyzstan is far from settled. Although there have been a series of efforts over the past three decades, many people – perhaps even most – in the country would agree that the higher education system remains in need of directed reforms.

*The European Commission suspended Russia and Belarus over the war in Ukraine in April 2022. In the same month, Russia announced that it would consider withdrawing and in May declared that the country would quit the Bologna Process altogether.

**I’m speculating about the second phase (scrapping the PhD and reverting to the Candidate of Sciences) because at the moment, both options are possible in Russia and there isn’t a great deal to differentiate them these days. That said, there had been a trend towards the PhD and away from the Candidate of Sciences. And I’m not mentioning at all the higher level Doctor of Sciences qualification (closest to the ‘habilitation’ some countries use), which I assume would be untouched.

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