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.
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?
Recommended article – “Educational research in Central Asia: methodological and ethical dilemmas in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan” by Dilrabo Jonbekova
Published in well rated peer-reviewed journal Compare, Dilrabo Jonbekova’s 2018 article examines the challenges and opportunities open to researchers of Central Asia, studying both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ researcher perspectives (and the blurring of the lines between these two groups).
Jonbekova, a faculty member at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, is well placed for a study like this, being able to draw on her own research expertise as well as professional background and contacts to recruit respondents for this paper.
She argues that researchers face various ‘methodological dilemmas’ when conducting research in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The dilemmas are multifarious, sometimes connected and sometimes not. They range from poor internet access in rural areas to self-censorship in more constrained political environments. As a result, some methods become problematic – surveys may get low response rates, focus groups could be ineffective and secondary data may be unreliable or inaccessible.
In addition to methodological dilemmas, Jonbekova also highlights ethical dilemmas facing researchers. These too have multiple roots and consequences, whether this is a fear of signing a written consent form or selective choice of research owing to safety concerns.
Whilst Jonbekova finds that these findings were fairly consistent across the three countries she compares, she also notes similiarities with dilemmas facing researchers in other contexts such as the Middle East. On balance, as might be expected, ‘outsider’ researchers face greater barriers than ‘insiders’ in conducting research in Central Asia, but no one was immune from challenges.
This article is well worth reading in its entirety (please contact me or the author if you are unable to access it directly) as it adds valuable perspectives to our understanding of the specifics of doing research in Central Asia as well as the suite of challenges and opportunities faced by researchers doing on the ground work across a range of contexts.
In my research on former Soviet higher education systems, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 continues to feature prominently as a starting point for some of the subsequent shifts that have occurred in higher education (and in society at large). More recent changes such as the introduction of principles of the European Union’s Bologna Process have shifted higher education even further away from the Soviet model that was inherited. Yet taken as a whole, the notion of a pre-1991 and post-1991 division in the direction of higher education holds quite strong.
That was the starting point for some recent research I did to find out how authors writing about those post-1991 changes in higher education have understood what has happened. I also wanted to investigate whether there are differences in how authors writing in English and those writing in Russian conceptualize these shifts.
To do this, I delved into 57 academic articles (and I read a whole lot more to whittle the number down to a suitable data set!) in English and Russian that discuss post-1991 higher education in Russia or other former Soviet republics. I devised two different methods to analyse the articles and the standpoints taken by their authors.
You can find out more about these methods and what I found at the Europe of Knowledge blog, which is the official blog of the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies. I presented my research at the ECPR Annual Conference in 2018 and am happy to say that my paper was selected for the 2018 Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar. This is a great honour and I am very grateful to the selection committee and to the Standing Group, which I am proud to be involved with.
The number of international students around the world is on the increase (see UNESCO graph for growth from 2011-17), and has now reached five million people.
Whilst there are major disparities in the desinations chosen by international students (Anglophone/former colonial nations top the list) and the resources they need to get there (the more financial/social capital your family has, the easier it is for you to become internationally mobile), one remarkable trend is that international students are now drawn from every country in the world.
That includes the former Soviet space, where student mobility until 1991 allowed travel only as far as Moscow, Leningrad (St Petersburg), Novosibirsk and a handful of other academic centres in the Soviet Union. Students could travel between republics but the idea of getting a degree from outside the communist space was out of the question.
In the nearly 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, that picture has changed dramatically. Long term readers of my blog will remember the results of a survey I did of international students from Tajikistan who had ended up far and wide, from the UK to Uruguay, from Slovakia to Singapore.
In revisiting the survey data for a new paper I am working on and will present at CHER in August 2019, I took the opportunity to look at longitudinal trends across the former Soviet space. Using data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistcs, the graph below shows how patterns have changed since 1998 (the point at which data starts to become more reliable) across 14 of the 15 Soviet republics (there’s no data for Moldova). There are three time points over roughly ten year periods – 1998, 2008 and 2017, the latest data that is available.
The overall picture is of dramatic growth: if there were 120,000 international students leaving this region in 1998, that number had leaped to almost half a million by 2017. That’s an impressive increase of 265%!
As the graph shows, Kazakhstan now sends nearly 100,000 students abroad, a much higher number than second placed Ukraine (coming up for 80,000). And both those countries send significantly more students to other countries than Russia (not quite 60,000) despite Russia’s population being more than three times bigger than Ukraine’s and about six times higher than in Kazakhstan.
The big picture inevitably hides the array of scenarios seen in different countries at different points. In the last 10 years, for example, the number of intenrational students leaving Uzbekistan has been relatively flat, increasing by just 5%. Compare that to much larger increases in other countries such as Azerbaijan (475%) and Turkmenistan (550%). Over the period since 1998, the lowest growth in the number of international students has been from Estonia (up 20%), dwarfed by enormous increases in Tajikistan which are over 1,400%!
That’s a very quick analysis of some extremely interesting similarities and differences between these 14 countries. The aim was to make these numbers available in an accessible format and hopefully to inspire some curiosity to ask why we see these trends, and to think about how these might change over the next ten years.