A long overdue update of my Links page is now available. Tucked away on the blog, the idea behind this page is to share reliable, interesting and/or fun websites that focus on Central Asia or higher education (but not both – I’m the only person doing that).
I also have a few links to other websites and blogs that I like and that you may enjoy too. My top new finds are Sapiens, a fabulous Anthropology blog that is totally accessible for non-Anthropologists, and Afternoon Map – those of you that have ever seen me teach or give a presentation will know quite how partial I am to a good map. If it’s historical, even better!
The list isn’t long so do take a moment to have a look. If you have suggestions for other websites and blogs (English and Russian language), please use the Comments feature to let me know.
Who else out there is blogging on Central Asia right now? There must be some great stuff I’m missing.
In part two, A classroom for the mountains, Igoe discusses the intensity and rigour with which the undergraduate curriculum has been developed, the difficulty of recruiting suitably qualified staff to come and work in rural mountainous Kyrgyzstan on the site of the first campus and the fundamental importance of that mountain location to the Aga Khan’s vision for the university.
Part three, The future leaders of Central Asia, focuses on the university’s hopes for its future graduates, including a nice feature with an undergraduate from Khorog, Tajikistan, who matter of factly comments on the hostility her family has faced from the government for expressing political view. The piece also emphasizes the way the university is gearing its programmes towards the needs (current and prospective) of the regional economy.
Something that struck me in all three articles was the absence of discussion of the political environment in which the university operates. This may be a reflection of the pragmatic mission of the Aga Khan and his network of charities that aim to work with local communities from the inside, rather than tie short-term funding to political or economic conditions. This is a laudable aim, although for the University of Central Asia, it seems as if the encouragement for students to be change-makers beyond the economic arena will be implicit at best.
In a setting like Kyrgyzstan where the government is more open, this strategy may be effective. It may be possible for students to envisage and even implement alternative ways of seeing and experiencing their home and other contexts. Yet for the Tajikistan context, the government maintains close control over the political establishment, making it hard (it not impossible) for alternative voices to be heard, let alone permitted in government.
The Tajik campus of the University of Central Asia is opening in Khorog, a town in the south-east of the country that the government has for a number of reasons found harder (though not impossible) to control. People from Khorog and the surrounding region of Badakhshan are spiritual followers of the Aga Khan and since he first visited the country in 1995, they have keenly followed his command to focus on education, particularly in English language and information technology. School leavers from Badakhshan are thus likely to be in a position to make extremely competitive applications to the university, increasing local leadership capacity in a part of the country that has on occasion been restive.
I think this raises important questions about just how holistically – ‘leadership’ is taught – and interpreted – at the University of Central Asia.
Starting off the new year with a hopeful story – and I will do what I can to make this year one where hope is rekindled – comes news from the University of Central Asia‘s (UCA) brand new campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. Regular readers will know I’ve been following this project for 15 years now, since working for the Aga Khan Humanities Project in Tajikistan. I’ve written about UCA before on the blog: have a look at the archives here.
The article from Michael Igoe on Devex, which is reproduced below, is a very interesting read. It’s one of the few pieces about UCA I’ve read that gets beyond the university’s own marketing and publicity. It also sheds light on the impact of the university on the local environment and its local communities, something that is so important to the Aga Khan in his vision for development. Whilst Igoe has focussed on the “world-class in the mountains” angle – in itself a fascinating story – I would love to hear more about the local level as UCA develops. This covers themes as diverse as the professional training that will be directly relevant to the university (such as in construction and catering), the financial impact any university brings to its local town, to the less tangible impact a university has on the people who live locally. Igoe cites several local residents who seem to feel disconnected from the university whilst at the same time affected by its very presence, a curious phenomenon.
With the opening of the second of three campuses due in September this year, the questions of the local – not just the global or the national – will only become more important for UCA.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a three-part Devex series that examines the Aga Khan’s plan to create a new model for higher education in Central Asia, where the opportunity to achieve academic excellence is usually found somewhere else.
The road to Naryn, a sleepy outpost 100 miles from the Chinese border at Torugart pass, winds southeast from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s leafy, cosmopolitan capital, over mountain passes and through eroding canyons.
This is one vein of the fabled Silk Road, the ancient trade network that stretched from China to the Mediterranean Sea. Today cargo trucks traverse the route. Arriving fully weighted from China’s western provinces to stock Kyrgyzstan’s crowded markets, most of them return empty, belching black exhaust along the way.
Two men on horses guide a flock of fat-tailed sheep into oncoming traffic. The cars brake and the sheep envelop them, then part like a dusty sea of wool. The road turns with the Karakudzhur River, and then carves through a tight sandstone gorge as it levels out for the approach to Naryn, through an open plain of villages, still quietly reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago.
But on the outskirts of town, on a barren plot of land at the river’s edge, backdropped by imposing cliffs that glow red in the late or early light, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is building a university.
Naryn is now the site of an audacious experiment, a daring bet placed by a billionaire philanthropist, one of global development’s most distinctive thinkers, and the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims who regard him as a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad.
The Aga Khan — who, as founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, has built a global development empire that employs 80,000 people in more than 30 countries — has poured more than $100 million into this sleepy, mountain town over the last 16 years. He plans to spend even more.
His vision is of a world-class university on the banks of the Naryn River, with state of the art facilities, and a curriculum designed to equip young leaders from mountain communities with the knowledge and skills to bring about an economic renaissance for the region. This is one of three campuses that will together comprise the University of Central Asia, a secular, nonprofit university jointly chartered by the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan and the Aga Khan.
At Naryn the crisp yellow and red buildings of the campus rise improbably from manicured lawns bisected by neatly plotted walkways, while gangs of stray dogs roam the scrubby paths just outside the campus perimeter. It has wood-paneled dormitories, geothermal heating, laboratories, laptops for every student, and a “sports bubble” encased in white fabric to seal its indoor facilities against Kyrgyzstan’s harsh winter.
Naryn, like many of Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet-style settlements, is an unremarkable town dropped in a dramatic location. Set along the clear, blue Naryn River, crumbling apartment buildings and rusted storefronts cling like an afterthought to the walls of two parallel mountain ridges that cradle the country’s ninth-largest city — home to only 40,000 people — in a narrow valley. Despite sharing a border with the world’s second-largest economy, this is one of the poorest regions in the country, mostly dependent on animal herding, for wool and meat.
But UCA graduates emerging from Naryn and the other campuses, the Aga Khan hopes, will be the future leaders of Central Asia — a vaguely delineated region where civic-minded leadership has been in short supply in the 25 years since the Soviet Union dissolved into a jigsaw puzzle of independent republics. The three countries partnering with the Aga Khan Development Network to launch this joint university have teetered between democracy and despotism. Tajikistan fell from Soviet rule into a full-fledged civil war. Kyrgyzstan has seen ethnic violence and revolution. Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has occupied that post since 1990.
The Aga Khan’s vision seems to defy logic. How will a world class university survive in a place few have ever heard of and fewer still would ever think to visit? Why build it here, in a remote mountain town? In a region with so many needs, why not focus on something simpler, such as basic health care or primary education?
“When I have talked about this project with people in all parts of the world over these past 16 years, many of them have been a little bit surprised,” said the Aga Khan, now 79 years old, at the Naryn campus inauguration ceremony in October. While he spoke, some members of UCA’s inaugural undergraduate class wept with joy and reverence.
For 12 years, not much happened at the construction site, while Naryn’s residents — and UCA’s own staff — wondered if the project would ever break ground. More than a decade after the three presidents and the Aga Khan signed UCA’s charter, there was still no university to point to.
Different people offer different explanations for the long wait. Some say the Aga Khan expected to find co-financing for the project — from the three partner countries or a multilateral development bank. Others suggest he didn’t have the right team in place yet to execute his vision.
Everyone points to the massive investment AKDN has made in Naryn to better prepare the town to benefit from the construction of a world class university at its doorstep.
“The impact of what we do can not only be global and regional — it can be local as well,” the Aga Khan said at the Naryn campus inauguration ceremony in October. “By working with the leadership of the [state], we hope, for example, that Naryn will become a dynamic university town, enhancing the quality of life for all its citizens.”
The Aga Khan Development Network espouses an approach it calls “multi-input area development.” It means that multiple parts of the 10 agency network converge on a region with mutually supportive initiatives. The picture that emerges in a place such as Naryn, where AKDN has a big presence, is of a development organization that has become a deeply integrated — seemingly permanent — part of the town.
In Naryn, AKDN has built a local diagnostic center that could eventually become a hospital. The same day the Aga Khan inaugurated the UCA Naryn campus, he joined local government leaders in opening a new wifi-enabled “smart park,” complete with exercise equipment, inlaid stone walkways and playgrounds.
But UCA’s School of Professional and Continuing Education, a sharp, red building smack in the center of town, stands out.
For six of the 12 years that UCA’s construction site stayed quiet, UCA’s professional branch in town was busy providing continuing education courses to local people who, if they have the skills and business acumen, stand to benefit from having a world class educational institution on their doorstep.
While a young man selling onions and sheepskins by the side of Naryn’s market road described his impressions of the University of Central Asia — he thinks it will be a “big, great university,” but that it remains out of reach for many of Naryn’s own students — an older man named Baryktabas approached and greeted him.
He pointed to a stately but shabby Soviet building nearby where, in retirement, he directs a youth center. Baryktabas opened the doors to this building revealing a hidden concert hall, secreted away from a lost era of Soviet youth culture, filled with rows of musty, wooden seats, a full drum set on the concert stage and, improbably, a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar leaning against the bass drum.
“I’m not a musician,” he said, after delivering a spirited drum solo to the cavernous, empty hall.
Baryktabas is skeptical the University of Central Asia will deliver on the promise it has made to the small cohort of striving undergraduates who now matriculate there. “What are they going to become?” he asked. “President of the United States?”
But, despite his pessimism, Baryktabas is himself a product of the University of Central Asia system — and part of the much broader effort the Aga Khan has launched in Naryn to turn this struggling, secondary city into a international research and teaching hub.
Devex spoke with Michael Kocher, general manager of the Aga Khan Foundation, about the challenges of balancing a long-term approach with the urgency of working in a geopolitical hot spot.
Some 90,000 students have passed through UCA’s School of Professional and Continuing Education, which has learning centers in each of the three UCA countries. While the impact of UCA’s flagship undergraduate program will take years to gauge, the supporting educational and economic infrastructure the Aga Khan agencies are constructing is, in many ways, the bigger story — particularly for people in Naryn.
Baryktabas graduated from a certificate program. Then he received a business loan at 9 percent interest — nearly 20 points lower than the going rate thanks to UCA’s partnership with the Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank — and additional coaching from SPCE’s business instructors.
“I got a good education there,” he said.
SPCE’s program has helped launch 27 startup businesses, from building contractors to children’s clothing producers, in Naryn, said Nurbek Nisharapov, head of SPCE’s Naryn campus. Before students — who range from 14 to 70 years old — can gain their certificate, they have to present a 35-page business plan.
The continuing education school has also helped fill a local labor gap that risked barring many of Naryn’s residents from winning construction jobs at the university project site. Graduates from SPCE’s technical and vocational education program founded a small construction enterprise that has contracted with UCA on the main campus project.
Each of the three university campuses brings it own unique challenge to the construction management table. In Tekeli, Kazakhstan the soil conditions are bad. Khorog, Tajikistan a bone-rattling 12-hour drive over rugged, mountain roads from the capital Dushanbe presents “horrendous” logistical problems, as one UCA staff member put it.
In Naryn, the biggest challenge is finding skilled local labor. Skilled workers go to Bishkek where construction projects dominate the skyline, leaving few people in town with the experience to deliver contracts at the quality UCA is demanding — or to benefit from the opportunity that UCA’s construction represents.
But even as AKDN’s other projects in Naryn gained steam, people still doubted that the big idea — the world class university they’d heard about for over a decade — would really come to fruition.
Designed on a fault line
When Grant Robertson joined the University of Central Asia in April 2012 as director of construction and facilities, he encountered a project that had lost focus.
The original plan was to build all three university campuses in parallel at full capacity — a 330,000 square meter project that would also have entailed getting all of the academics on line at the same time too.
“Mind-blowing,” Robertson said.
The university’s celebrated Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki — with a long list of conceptual buildings in Europe, the U.S. and Japan to his name — and AKDN’s leadership were at an impasse over what to do now that it had come to light the Naryn campus was designed on top of a seismic fault line.
“UCA blamed the architect, the architect blamed UCA, and it just sort of ground to a halt,” said Robertson, seated at a conference table in UCA’s Bishkek office, with aerial plans for each of the three university campuses taped to the wall behind him.
“There was no clear direction on what campus was going to go first, what the size of that campus would be, if there was phasing and what that phasing would look like — and what the pot of money that was available would be.”
“I came in at a time when it needed to move,” Robertson said.
First the team had to redraw a master plan that both the Aga Khan and Isozaki, the architect, had lent their seals of approval to, since the fault line issue made the original plan unworkable. Isozaki argued they shouldn’t build on the site at all, Robertson said.
“We don’t have another site. We need to build on this site,” Robertson said. He scheduled a three-day trip to negotiate with the Japanese architects in Japan. Within three hours, they came to a new agreement with a new plan.
Instead of building three campuses in parallel, Robertson was tasked with delivering the first phase of one campus in Naryn, a 15,000-square-meter compound that would grow over time. But he still had to figure out what a workable project management approach would look like in rural Kyrgyzstan, under the looming threat of an extreme winter, for a project that demanded uncompromising quality.
50 projects in 1
Usually, when an organization wants to do a complex construction project, they hire a general contractor to manage it. But the model can have drawbacks. A general contractor typically won’t begin any part of the project until the entire design has been finalized and approved. For every service they commission or material they procure the contractor adds some profit margin onto the cost they charge their client.
In places such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — with recent histories of political violence and reputations for graft and corruption — an international general contractor is going to include a risk premium. And since Central Asia has no general contracting firms capable of executing a project this big, an international firm from Turkey or Russia or elsewhere would have to come in — and usually they will import most of their own labor.
But under the Aga Khan’s direction, UCA’s mission was not just to build a campus on the outskirts of a struggling town. It was to contribute to Naryn’s economic development — not an international contracting firm’s portfolio and profit margin.
For Robertson, it was clear the standard model would not achieve the Aga Khan’s goals. Instead, UCA adopted a “multipackage construction management” approach. They split the project into 50 different “work packages” and managed each as an individually contracted project — oftentimes with local contractors. One third of the project’s overall value has gone to Kyrgyzstani contractors, Robertson said.
“It is a risky thing. Theoretically speaking, you are taking the entire risk. But practically speaking you are taking the entire risk in any case, because if the general contractor walks away the risk falls on you,” said Rahim Somani, UCA’s chief financial officer.
The multipackage approach also gave UCA the flexibility to move parts of the construction at different speeds, since they didn’t have to deliver a fully approved project design to a general contractor before any work could get started. They could construct one work package, like the foundation, while still designing another, like the roof. Robertson estimates it saved 18 months.
UCA’s multipackage strategy has since earned an important vote of confidence. In Khorog, where Robertson is now implementing the same procurement model, the U.S. government’s Overseas Private Investment Corp. committed $30 million in financing to the construction of UCA’s Tajikistan campus. For an experimental university startup initiative with a nontypical procurement model, that validation is an important thing to have.
The Khorog campus is scheduled to open in the fall of 2017.
Town and gown
At the moment, the undergraduate campus in Naryn still feels a world away from Naryn’s modest cultural offerings. The town’s residents are universally curious about UCA, but their knowledge of what it looks like and what’s happening there is still imbued with a hint of mystery and awe. A shopkeeper named Elmira said she heard the campus was “like a five-star hotel,” with televisions in the classrooms. She’s never been inside.
It’s hard to predict whether the town and the university will grow together.
Sitting on a stone bench outside UCA’s dormitory building, Robin Higgins, the university counselor, and Jonathan Chang, a student life adviser, are talking about what they do on their rare days off. Chang gets one free weekend every month. He spent his last weekend in Bishkek — a relative metropolis, with coffee that’s brewed from beans, not powder, and multiplex movie theaters.
But it’s tempting to imagine a version of Naryn with the trappings of a college town.
“I actually think that some entrepreneur should put a good coffee shop just off the campus here,” says Higgins, pointing across the street, where a cluster of concrete buildings cling to the hills. “Just a place to go that’s kind of different.”
You can almost see how it would happen. A student at the professional school in town puts together a 35-page business plan for her certificate program and gets a soft loan from the bank. A cafe springs up. Students and teachers shuttle back and forth for a coffee or an off-campus meeting.
But, for the moment, a lone cow grazes at the side of the road as a battered minivan rattles past the sign marking UCA’s entrance. Its passengers glance at the carefully laid paths and the mountains reflecting off of clean glass windows. Then the sight disappears from view as they continue West, tracing the river.
Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider’s perspective.
Rifts between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are well documented, particularly in the border areas around the Ferghana Valley. The two most recent disputes that reached the international press came in March 2016 and August 2016. The geographical complexity of this area of Central Asia is visible in the second map below, which places the Ferghana Valley at the heart of these three countries. Here you can begin to see some of the intersections – including nine exclaves, little pockets of land belonging to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan that sit like little islands within another of the three states.
It is rare for politicians in the region to extend overtures aimed at appeasing these tensions. Somehow each spate of conflicts is overcome, but it leaves behind distrust and uncertainty. Yet in a break to what you could call a “new tradition” of non-diplomacy, it has been heartening to see Uzbekistan ostensibly opening up to Tajikistan in recent weeks since the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. A relaxation of visa arrangements and better inter-country travel opportunities have been mooted, both of which would represent a significant (and positive) shift in the countries’ relations.
Nonetheless, relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan appear to remain fraught, particularly when it comes to matters pertaining to the Ferghana Valley area. If leaders cannot use politics to overcome these disputes, it seems there might be an opening for other state actors such as universities to make important moves towards engendering better neighbourly relations between the two countries. Academic diplomacy, as this is known, can create a safer space for governments to find ways to work together through what has been called “international meetings of minds“.
The Uzbek delegation, which included Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Adham Ikramov, met with Osh SU students, visited the university’s medical faculty and enjoyed cultural events. Speaking at the university, Ikramov noted that good relations between the two countries should inform the long-term development of their mutual cooperation. In particular, Ikramov noted that Uzbek universities could learn from the way Osh SU has been developing e-learning. Accompanying the Deputy Prime Minister, Rector of (Uzbek) Andijan State University Akram Yuldashev expressed his hopes that the visit would reinforce relations between the countries and bring young people together. This might lead to future cooperation, such as holding conferences or undertaking joint publicity activities.
The clear success of these two visits, at least on paper, gives hope that the strategy of “international meetings of the minds” could prove to be an effective way to start to rebuild trust and common bonds between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
After many years in the pipeline (just do a quick search on my blog if you want to check the archives!), the University of Central Asia (UCA) has today welcomed its very first undergraduate students. True, they are a select few: just 71 students selected from the three UCA countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s also true that just one of the three envisaged campuses is up and running… but nonetheless, this is quite some achievement. Creating any new organisation is a challenge, but UCA has deliberately added to the complexity by working over three countries and physically building campuses in somewhat remote mountainous areas of those countries.
The university also grapples with other challenges such as dealing with endemic corruption in the region, raising awareness of and interest in an American style English-language education, proving that a good higher education can be obtained at home as well as abroad and more. Some of these issues are not specific to UCA but are issues all institutions in the region must deal with. Having worked for UCA (in a different guise) nearly 15 years ago when it was in the early stages of development, I sense that some of the great creativity and genuine innovation in earlier versions of the undergraduate curriculum have been lost or overtaken by other ideas and needs. Time will tell how the UCA offering is received and whether the concept will catch on.
For today, though, I would simply like to pass my congratulations to everyone involved in the grand UCA project, and to wish the students, staff and faculty all the very best of luck. An exciting adventure awaits!
Poster for the Soviet classic, “The irony of fate”, where the big joke is that all cities share the same street names
If you’re feeling nostalgic for the Soviet Union, for the days of free education, jobs for life, and street names that were the same in every city, then it seems you’re not alone.
Sputnik News today reports the results of a poll of over 12,000 people across 11 countries of the former Soviet Union who were asked whether life was better in the USSR than after it collapsed in 1991. On average, over 50% of those aged 35-64 agree that life was better before. This compares to an average of just under 30% of those aged 18-24 who felt the same – though how they might know this without having been born during the Soviet Union escapes me.
The breakdown of the results by country is interesting, particularly looking at unlikely outliers Uzbekistan and Moldova. In Uzbekistan, apparently almost no one misses the good old days, in stark contrast to its extremely economically successful neighbour Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan purports to have similar levels of nostalgia as Kazakhstan, despite enjoying a reputation as “Central Asia’s most stable state”. I’m not saying that political and economic success/stability as an independent country necessarily affects results, but I do feel surprised by the lukewarm response from older Tajiks based on my own extensive research and contacts in the country.
Comments on the Sputnik News website express a similar range of confusion and scepticism. Indeed, Sputnik News – a Russian government spin-off – is regularly accused of spouting Russian-friendly propaganda. Certainly, the way the statement is worded is highly subjective: why not flip the question and ask whether life is better now than it was during the Soviet Union? And why are the voices of those who weren’t even born when the Soviet Union collapsed given equal weight to those who lived a good part of their life with a different passport – and where are the over 65s?
Revitalizing the idea that times were better in the old days is not new – just look at the ongoing “ostalgie” stories about East Germany. If you have the time to explore this further, I strongly recommend Alexei Yurchak’s absolutely beautifully named 2005 book, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. It focusses on the 1960s-1980s, the many paradoxes of Soviet life and telling the story of the last Soviet generation – the very same people who now seem to be so nostalgic…
Iceland’s fans performing the thunder clap at Euro 2016
Their victory instantly became part of modern footballing legend. When fellow underdogs Wales returned home defeated but triumphant after achieving a semi final place, their team led thousands of supporters in the “Icelandic thunder clap“, proudly echoing the stomps heard all over Iceland in the days before.
Word of Iceland’s triumph has spread far and wide, this week connecting with Central Asia as Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev counselled his small team of 19 Olympians ahead of their departure for Brazil. According to dpa/Europe Online, Atambayev told the sportspeople to “Do it with team spirit. Do it like tiny Iceland“. He went on to say “We have no oil resources, but we have our people who can accomplish great feats. May you be lucky in your pursuit for medals.”
Good luck to Kyrgyzstan, all the other Central Asian nations – and of course Iceland – at this year’s Olympics!
After a recent blog post I published on Women in higher education in Central Asia, I was approached by University World News to write more about why it is that some women in Central Asia – particularly those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are doing so much better (better even than the world average) in getting to university than their counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
This led to some fascinating further research trying to understand more about this conundrum.
I am hugely grateful to Aksana Ismailbekova, Albina Yun and another researcher who chose to remain anonymous for their expert insights and support for this article, which I am delighted to say has now been published:
I would love to get your comments on this important issue, and ideas / practices from elsewhere in the world that might support greater gender equality in the parts of Central Asia where opportunities to enter higher education are not (yet) as accessible for women.
A cat meme is worth a thousand words (not dollars, of course)
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? You come to class, put in the hours, write your exam at the end, and hopefully pass. Don’t turn up, don’t submit assessments – don’t pass.
Apparently not at the Osh State Law Institute.
After the instructor failed some of her students for not turning up for the exam, she asked some to write an explanatory letter setting their reasons for absence. The letters she got back are shocking.
One student claims he was “cheated” by another instructor who didn’t let him pass even though he paid 6,000 Kyrgyz som (nearly USD$100) as a bribe. That’s not far off an average person’s entire income for a month.
Another, who had to stay at home to look after his parents, claims he paid the local equivalent of USD$75 to one of the university’s most senior officials, who then told him he didn’t have to come in to take the exam.
Naturally, the university completely denies the allegations. One senior official is quoted not once but on two separate occasions as saying “There’s nothing illegal about that” in defence of the university’s actions.
The instructor who bravely refused to pass these students has taken up her case with the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies but in the meantime she has been sacked, according to her because of this incident (again, the university denies this).
Whether you believe Mamatova, the students, or the university officials, there is so much that feels wrong about this situation. Why is that young people feel they have to get a degree so much that they’ll even consider paying for it? How has bribe-taking become so normalized and how might this trend be reversed? What are the implications for the quality of education and of the nation’s graduates? What is going on with the national economy that going abroad to work has become so common? Why are cultural and economic conditions in universities such that an instructor or official will accept a bribe? What happens to others who might now be too scared to shine a light on such rampant corruption?
The picture may be frivolous (and hopefully drew you in to read this far – if so, please read the original article in Russian or my edited translation below) but the issues it belies are serious. The cat in the picture may be saying “don’t ask questions” but I am encouraging you to do just the opposite.
Loosely translated by Emma Sabzalieva; original article (c) Ernist Nurmatov for Radio Azattyk
An instructor at Osh State Law Institute Syuita Mamatova claims that 100 students are being allowed to progress to the next year of study without actually having been to class. These students are working abroad in Russia and paying to receive grades instead of studying. The university administration completely denies these allegations.
Mamatova says that the number of students who take the final exam but don’t turn up for classes is growing. She teaches a class in Banking law where she says around 20 fourth year (in a five year system) students never turned up. When she asked the administration to remove from the class, she got no answer.
Mamatova says that as a rule, instructors aren’t able to record these students as absent, but that she did. Mamatova also took her quest for justice one step further by informing the Rector’s office in writing that these students were being expelled from her class. Yet instead of expelling them, Mamatova claims that the Rector Egemberdi Toktorov and First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov told her to give the students marks.
When Mamatova refused, she was fired. She then turned to the Ministry of Education and law enforcement agencies. Claiming she was put under pressure, she gave marks to students who did produce final assignments or other work in lieu of attending class. However, she refused to give grades to anyone who had not come to class at all and says that this is why the Rector fired her. As a pretext, the administration claimed they didn’t have enough hours for her to work.
Mamatova is convinced that senior administrators and other instructors are covering for these students and that they took umbrage at her interfering with them receiving money from students for grades.
As insurance, Mamatova took statements from students who did not attend in which they explained their absence. Some students admitted that they were working abroad and paying for their grades instead of studying.
Final year student Aybek Taalaibek uulu said in his letter: “I didn’t attend any of the 22 hours of teaching or any of the 14 seminars for Banking law. I was in my village. But I gave 6,000 som [a little under USD$100] to the teacher Gulzirek Anarbayeva and asked to be let through the course. But she cheated me and didn’t let me pass. This year I had to go to Moscow to earn for my family and Aysinai Alymbayeva promised to let me pass, but she didn’t. I was cheated.”
Nurlan Asanov, another final year student, wrote: “I didn’t attend because I was at home looking after my parents. I gave 5,000 som [USD$75] to First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov and asked him to let me pass. He told me it was all sorted out and I could skip the state exam. I apologise for not attending the Banking law classes.”
The university management refutes Mamatova’s allegations. First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov had the following to say: “We don’t have any students who don’t attend exams. Everyone comes and studies. If there are students who for some reason or another can’t make class, they make up for it either through independent work or reports. Nobody takes money from anyone. All students go to class and take exams by themselves. In the specific case Mamatova is referring to, the letters she presented were written under duress. These students had various reasons that they weren’t able to attend. Their parents have come to me and complained. It’s true that I phoned Mamatova and asked her to give them marks for the catch-up work the students did. All of them had written up to 20 short projects and she gave them marks. There is nothing illegal about that.”
Mamatova also claims that the university gave out documents to 120 Kazakh students who were not studying at the Institute. Again, First Vice-Rector Mamasaly Arstanbekov denies this and accused Mamatova of incompetence: “We had an agreement with a university in Almaty [Kazakhstan] for 120 Kazakh students to join our courses by distance learning. I went to Almaty myself to oversee the admissions process. After six months, they all decided of their own accord to transfer to a different university. We didn’t give them documents saying they’d completed their studies with us, just a letter explaining what they had done during that time. There’s nothing illegal about that.”
Osh State Law Institute’s Rector Egemberdi Toktorov was not available for comment.
Around 5,000 students are enrolled at the Institute. As two undergraduate courses are being wound up this year, a little over 3,000 students remain.
Tuition fees were introduced in post-Soviet higher education systems further to the advice of international organizations such as the World Bank in the 1990s, as one way of relieving very constrained state budgets from the deteriorating economic situation most of the newly (re)independent states found themselves in further to the break-up of the Soviet Union. [Make of those “wannabe knowledge economy” neoliberal prescriptions what you will – I’m not judging – today at least.]
With the advent of tuition fees, the language describing students has become more complex. A significant number of students receive state scholarships, a legacy from the Soviet era when public education was paid for by Moscow. In most of the Central Asian states, these stipends are now awarded on academic merit to those students who performed best nationwide in the unified university entrance examination (another post-Soviet globally directed new policy phenomenon that has spread through Central Asia, reaching Tajikistan in 2014). In Russian, these students are called budgetniki (бюджетники) i.e. students who are paid for from the state budget.
Go to Russia… Fortunately the advice is not to do this to become one of the several million migrant workers from Central Asia working in often illegal and extremely poor conditions, but because of the grants offered by the Russian government as a strategy to attract students from its “near abroad” either to study at Russian universities in Central Asia (such as the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University) or in Russia itself;
Get a discount… This would only work for a small number of students. Orphans will normally get free or heavily discounted tuition, and disabled people may also get some discount on their fees [Russian-reading folk should check out this really good article on disability in Kyrgyzstan]. Some universities also offer a sibling discount.
Be an Olympian! Many state universities will discount fees by up to half if you’re an internationally recognized sports person
But there’s one big point missing from the Sputnik article – perhaps unsurprisingly given its official nature. What is the elephant in the room?
Sad to say, but corruption in the form of paying bribes for admission or using personal contacts to get into university through the back door remains a major issue for Kyrgyz – and other Central Asian – institutions. Although the government has taken some steps to try and curb corruption it remains prevalent.
Whether you’re a kontraktnik or someone who cares about quality and transparency in higher education, it seems the angry cat is here to stay – for now at least.