Kyrgyzstan

The use and abuse of honorary titles in academia

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I recently reported on a new China-led university alliance, and noted the increasing influence of China in Central Asia.

So I thought it was good timing to note that Kyrgyz career diplomat and Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Abdyldaev was recently awarded an honorary academic post by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The award of Honorary Professor at the Chinese Diplomatic Academy (attached to the Ministry) came in recognition of Abdyldaev’s contributions to building relations between the two countries. Abdyldaev is a fluent Chinese speaker and lived for many years in China as a Soviet diplomat/Kyrgyz ambassador.

The use of honorary titles in academia is common around the world’s higher education systems. The award of such titles can be used by higher education institutions as a way to recognize an individual’s achievements, their contribution to the institution/community, or to symbolize something the institution wants to tell you about its values and principles. They can also be a way to build or cement a relationship with the individual (or whoever/whatever it is that the individual represents).

Witness, for example, the award of honorary doctorate to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev from Japan’s Tokai University and Korea University, both in 2010. In both cases, the awarding universities stressed the importance of country-to-country and institution-to-institution cooperation and the Kazakh government’s Bolashak scholarships, which have provided good funding for many students to study in both countries.

In the case of the Kyrgyz-Chinese connection noted above, the honorary title goes beyond institution to the level of the state. This is not surprising in a higher education system that remains very closely tied to the state, more so than in other jurisdictions where individual institutions have more autonomy to decide on their own awards.

In systems where universities have more autonomy, institutional values and principles through honorary awards are sometimes expressed in other ways. The University of Oxford’s famous denial of an honorary doctorate to Margaret Thatcher in 1985 demonstrated academics’ rejection of Thatcher’s social policy, which was seen as damaging UK science, education and health.

I don’t expect any such actions from Central Asian universities (yet?) but there’s certainly an interesting piece to the higher education jigsaw in considering the ways that institutions around the world use symbolic expressions like honorary degrees and titles that remains under-explored.

Town and gown dispute update: Statement from University of Central Asia 

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Shortly after my post on the rising tension in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan following an alleged town and gown dispute after a sports match, the University of Central Asia has now issued a detailed version of the incident on its Facebook page. The English version is copied below in full:

UCA LOOKS TO BUILD BRIDGES FOLLOWING BASKETBALL SAGA

Emotions ran high in Naryn yesterday (June 8) as the basketball team from the University of Central Asia and the Naryn Club Team continued their feud – but all ended well with apologies from both sides.

On May 27 at a basketball game on the UCA Campus in Naryn, a physical altercation ensued between the UCA Team and the Naryn Club Team, consisting of students from the Naryn State University and the Naryn Sports School. The matter was handled by the UCA faculty and security present at the game, and the teams left without further incident.

Yesterday, June 8, while some UCA students were in the town of Naryn on academic assignment, they were recognised by a few players from the Naryn Club Team, and verbal insults were exchanged which led to physical threats. The Naryn Club members quickly called for reinforcements and in a short time a mob of some 80 individuals had gathered. Most had simply shown up in support and were unaware of the issues involved.

It was suggested a meeting take place at one of UCA’s off campus buildings to resolve the issues. The Governor of Naryn, the Deputy Mayor, and the Dean of UCA’s School of Arts and Sciences, along with some community leaders, presided at this meeting. The Governor’s plea for good sense to prevail went unheeded. After some heated verbal exchanges, and in the interest of maintaining peace and civility, the involved UCA students apologized for the incident at the basketball game, and the crowd dispersed soon thereafter.

UCA has been working closely with the authorities including with the Governor and Mayor of Naryn to arrive at an amicable resolution. Today, accompanied by the Governor and senior government officials, a student delegation as well as some leaders of the crowd that gathered yesterday, came to UCA’s Naryn Campus and conveyed their apologies to the UCA leadership and students for yesterday’s unfortunate incident. The Governor conveyed his appreciation of UCA and the benefits it has brought to the town of Naryn, and urged the gathering to build bridges. The meeting ended in an atmosphere of forgiveness from both sides. 

Working in close cooperation with the authorities in Bishkek and Naryn, UCA is continuing its investigation into the causes of the incident, so that appropriate action can be taken, including how such altercations can be prevented in the future. 

Town and gown clash at the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan

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Local residents gather at the UCA campus in Naryn on June 8, 2017. Image (C) Akipress

Reports are coming in of a clash between university students at the new campus of the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, and local inhabitants. Tempers flared between town and gown in which some of the university’s students from neighbouring Tajikistan allegedly “beat up locals during the basketball match” (source: Akipress).

This led a large group of local residents to gather at the university campus on June 8 to demand retribution. The Akipress story is reproduced below. A video on the Akipress Facebook page shows a large gathering that is heated at times. It ends with Dr Diana Pauna, UCA’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, explaining the need for the students to learn not only to be better sports people but to learn some life lessons from this unfortunate incident.

Apparently, five students – and also some professors – got down on their knees by way of apology to the local residents.

Today, June 9, news is emerging that the national government is treating the response of local residents as hooliganism and a violation of public order.

The flare-up has become a nationwide controversy in Kyrgyzstan. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the images of angry protesters humiliating  young students and their professors by making them (not violently) get down on their knees is shocking and embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch. Bear in mind that this happened in a country where social and cultural norms and traditions are an extremely important part of life with continuing relevance. The Kyrgyz are known for being extremely hospitable and most pride themselves on this reputation.

This has led to media responses by some well-known Kyrgyz figures such as Ilim Karypbekov, also from Naryn. In a passionate article singing the praises of UCA [ru, reproduced from his Facebook page] (with some great photos too), Karypbekov writes that he is speechless, unable to explain the “horror, disturbance, shame and bitterness” of what happened. He says that the people of Naryn are the ones that should be on their knees in front of the AKDN. He says the incident will make people question Kyrgyz hospitality and the safety of international students in the country.

Secondly, the government will be highly conscious of the particular university that is the target of locals’ anger. The UCA is a major new university funded mainly by the Aga Khan Development Network and the brainchild of the Aga Khan himself, with a vision firmly rooted in positive development for Central Asia.

Thirdly, there’s more than a whiff of social tension in the air. This is not just a hierarchy mismatch – students vs elder local residents, town vs gown. There are potentially some ethnic issues too, given that the students who allegedly sparked the fight on May 27 are not from Kyrgyzstan but southern neighbour Tajikistan. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, new national identities have been forged and (re)created and seemingly out of nowhere, a new or revived sense of difference between former Soviet republics has emerged. Kyrgyzstan has a rocky history with another neighbour, Uzbekistan, with frequent border clashes in the Ferghana Valley area (see e.g. this story from August 2016). There has been significantly less conflict with Tajikistan despite the thorny and probably unresolvable border question created by Stalin, but there have been a few incidents. (Madeleine Reeves’ Border Work is a great book if you want to get into this area more deeply.)

There is no official response from UCA about the incident. It seems to me that something indeed must have happened at that ill-fated basketball match, and indeed we have video and photographic evidence of the response by locals on June 8. How and if the students will be disciplined is a matter for UCA.

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Town and gown disputes in university towns like Oxford would often lead to violent fights in the past

Disputes between students and local residents is a theme that has been recurring as long as universities have existed. Such conflicts in today’s world are normally raised and resolved through non-violent means, which is in part why the Naryn/UCA scandal hits hard.

The bigger and longer-term question is whether this causes irreparable damage to town and gown relations between UCA and the residents of Naryn. I tend to think not. There is enough vested interest in the UCA project that means a resolution is likely to be reached quickly.

Whether this will do enough to overcome any lingering concerns local residents may have is another matter, and I very much hope that in bringing a resolution about, methods that are appropriate and accepted by all parties are employed.

 

Akipress story from June 8:

Angered Naryn youth made the University of Central Asia foreign students to get down on their bended knees to apologize for a conflict that arose after the students “beat up locals during the basketball match.”

On June 8, dozens of young people in Naryn gathered for protests in front of the University demanding the authorities to step in the conflict. The protesters demanded to detain responsible students from Tajikistan who have allegedly beaten up local residents during the sports competition at the UCA on May 27.

Governor of Naryn region Amanbai Kayipov and other officials met with the protesters.

During the meeting, the angered mob demanded the Tajik students to apologize on bended knees and also demanded to expell the students from Kyrgyzstan.

After a while, students and some of the professors got on their knees and asked for apology.

The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000. The Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan, and His Highness the Aga Khan signed the International Treaty and Charter establishing this secular and private University; ratified by the respective parliaments, and registered with the United Nations. The Presidents are the Patrons of UCA and His Highness is the Chancellor.

The UCA Naryn Campus launched in September 2016. It is the first phase of a larger vision for the 252-hectare site, gifted by the Kyrgyz Government. Classes commenced for the inaugural class of 71 undergraduates at the Naryn Campus on 5 September.

 

What does the Asian Universities’ Alliance mean for Central Asia?

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A small flurry of press stories recently (e.g. in University World News on 2 JuneUniversity World News on 4 May, The PIE NewsToday.kz and ICEF Monitor) announced the arrival of a new partnership of higher education institutions, the Asian Universities’ Alliance (AUA). Bringing together 15 universities from 14 countries, the AUA aims to promote academic mobility between institutions and countries and enhance collaborative research activity.

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Partnerships and alliances come in many shapes and sizes

As reported by University World News, the founding members include China’s Tsinghua University and Peking University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology or HKUST, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, South Korea’s Seoul National University, Japan’s University of Tokyo, Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, Myanmar’s University of Yangon, Malaysia’s University of Malaya, National University of Singapore, University of Indonesia, Sri Lanka’s University of Colombo, United Arab Emirates University, Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University and Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University.

University alliances are an excellent manifestation of the soft power potential of higher education (check out this Google search for many, many examples of this). As also noted by Andrew Gunn and Michael Mintrom writing for University World News, what is unusual about the AUA is its choice to focus only on top-ranking universities in Asia – many alliances bring together a range of institutional types from a number of world regions.

Gunn and Mintrom go a step further, suggesting that the AUA is “distinctive because of the extent to which it is a form of Chinese soft power.” Indeed, the AUA is led by Bejing-based Tsinghua, considered one of China’s best universities.

At a time when responses to China’s (literally) far-reaching One Belt, One Road economic and foreign policy have often expressed concern/fear about China’s grand plans, it is interesting that responses to the AUA have been largely positive, even though it is unashamedly focussed on increasing Asia’s position in global higher education.

Perhaps the lack of negativity comes from the lead institution’s more nuanced vision for the alliance. Quoted in The PIE News, Tsinghua University president Qiu Yong said that this was not about Asian universities trying to mimic their Western counterparts:

Higher education should not have only one voice. Western education is also successful but I do believe that there are Eastern educational philosophy and heritage that deserves to be cherished also.

(The fact that Tsinghua is providing US$1.5m of funding to kickstart the AUA may also help explain the aura of positivity…)

As you’ll have seen from the list of members above, there is one Central Asian institution in the new alliance – Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University. This gives me the opportunity to reflect on the impact that the new AUA may have in Central Asia, not just for Nazarbayev University, but more generally for higher education in the region.

I suggest that this could go one of two ways for universities in Central Asia.

First and foremost, Central Asian universities will be able to use the AUA to position themselves as a bridge between the US/Europe and Asia. Kazakhstan has already been doing this very effectively for a number of years, and the country’s President is very fond of the “heart of Eurasia” geopolitical symbolism in describing his country.

Indeed, Nazarbayev University President Shigeo Katsu echoes this discourse directly, and is quoted by Today.kz as saying:

Казахстан находится в сердце Евразии, между Востоком и Западом, поэтому я думаю, что важно развивать сотрудничество не только с западными, но и азиатскими вузами. Учрежденный сегодня Альянс азиатских вузов будет полезным не только для учреждений высшего образования как таковых, но и, в первую очередь, самих студентов, которые смогут общаться друг с другом на площадке молодежного форума Альянса.

[Kazakhstan is at the heart of Eurasia, between East and West. That’s why I believe that it’s important to develop cooperation with both Western and Asian universities. The new Alliance of Asian Universities will be useful not only for higher education institutions like ours, but also – and importantly – for students, who will be able to communicate with each other through the Alliance’s youth forum.

There are opportunities for other Central Asian universities to replicate this bridging symbolism in a way that makes sense for their own institutional missions.

A second possibility is that, rather than the AUA offering the opportunity for Central Asian universities to position themselves between Asia and the West, they might instead prefer to move in just one direction. I think it is feasible that a number of universities will see the AUA as legitimizing their own interests/strategies in connecting with Asian higher education.

China is increasingly influential in Central Asia, primarily through its economic might (although reports suggest this may be taking some time to embed). Universities could see the AUA as a way to benefit from this regional leadership, rather than struggling against it. Joining an alliance as an active and willing partner would certainly give institutions a stronger position in the AUA than being co-opted (coerced?) further down the line.

Does the AUA force universities to make a choice about whether to align with Asia or to join Kazakhstan’s strategy of straddling global groupings?

I don’t think so. Rather, I believe that universities in Central Asia that are minded to think strategically can benefit from the AUA without closing themselves off to other alliances. As Indian Institute of Technology Bombay Deputy Director Prasanna Mujumdar noted,

If we have strength to pool universities together, the best of minds from both sides, each with their own niche expertise to contribute…

…then you create the possibilities of enhancing the educational offerings of your university. You have a formal network of partners with whom you can exchange students, supporting their learning and broadening their worldview. You have the opportunity to draw on expertise (and potentially physical research equipment) not available in your own setting. And you are part of a bigger whole, able to look not just at the local and national environment but to a regional setting as well.

Creating and developing these factors means that your university is better positioned to then join other networks, whether these are bilateral partnerships or larger associations like the AUA.

The key challenge for universities in Central Asia will be to demonstrate the value they can bring to such partnerships. The many strengths they have are often overlooked because the countries of Central Asia are considered to be marginal in the world system or because the legacy of the Soviet higher education system is (wrongly, in my view) dismissed as weak/irrelevant. Views like this are hard to overcome, and make the challenge for universities harder, but it is imperative that universities do what they can to step up to this challenge.

Central Asia’s first universities

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As Tajikistan’s oldest university celebrates its 70th birthday [ru], I thought (as probably only I would) that this would be an excellent opportunity to reflect back on the development of universities in Central Asia in the early to mid 20th century.

Prior to the 20th century, universities did not exist in Central Asia. That perhaps surprising fact does not mean that education was not available – on the contrary, the region has been home to a wealth of philosophical and scientific developments.

The great philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the West) was a Tajik born in Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) whose 11th century CE medical encyclopaedia was still considered a key canon in medical education in Europe some 500 years later.

As Islam embedded across Central Asia into the medieval era, primary and secondary education started to be offered in maktab (schools). Some madrasah, seats of higher learning, existed, although these should not be conflated with the university as the two institutions developed separately and served different purposes – and that’s where you get back to the notion that there were no universities until the Russians arrived.

Lenin and cat
I had to include a cat somewhere in the post…

The very first higher education institution in Central Asia dates back to 1918 when the jadids (what Khalid calls the ‘first generation of modern Central Asian intellectuals’) and early arrival Russian intellectuals came together to form the Turkestan Muslim People’s University in what is now Uzbekistan, although its ‘official’ history begins two years later following a decree signed by Lenin creating the State University of Turkestan.

Not only did this act lead to the founding of the first university in Central Asia, but it did so at a time when most people remained functionally illiterate and lacking any formal education.

‘Enlightenment Institutes’ were established in Central Asian (now Soviet) territory to offer initial teacher training, with students continuing their studies at universities in Russia.

The massive government campaign against illiteracy, known as ‘likbez’ from the shortened Russian words for liquidation of illiteracy (ликвидация безграмотности), dominated the higher education and training agenda in the early Soviet years.

The first higher education institutions outside of (modern-day) Uzbekistan were all pedagogical institutes, dedicated to training the teachers required in the fight against illiteracy.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Enlightenment Institute became a pedagogical technical school in 1925, but the first pedagogical institute (institute having a higher status than technical school) opened its doors in 1928 as a ‘Pedagogical Workers’ Faculty’. In 1932, it was reformed as the Kyrgyz State Pedagogical Institute and another institute, the Zootechnical Institute, started admitting students a year later (after teachers, the Central Asian states were told they also needed agricultural scientists and technicians).

These first two institutes still exist today. In a pattern seen across many former Soviet states, the Pedagogical Institute has become the country’s flagship university. It is now known as Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University, having become first a state university (1951) and then a state national university (1972). The Zootech. is now Skryabkin Kyrgyz National Agrarian University after going through a similar process of transformation.

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Another early university – the Kazakh State University, now Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty. Image from early 1930s, (c) etoretro.ru

Much in the same way, Kazakhstan’s first Pedagogical Institute was founded in 1928 in Almaty and is now known as the Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University. The Academy of Sciences in Kazakhstan – the place for research and advanced scholarly work – was founded in 1946. This came a decade before Kyrgyzstan was granted its own Academy of Sciences (it had a branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1943-1954) and five years before the same happened in Tajikistan.

In Tajikistan, higher education generally followed a little later than the other Central Asian Soviet republics. The first institute was the Higher Tajik Agro-Pedagogical Institute, opened in the northern city of Khujand (then Leninabad) in 1931. (Clearly by this time, the Soviet leaders had worked out that you could teach both agricultural science and education under one roof.) Having made the move to the capital Dushanbe during World War Two, the institute is now the Shotemur Tajik Agrarian University.

Tajik National University, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, claims the title of the country’s first university. Founded as Tajik State University in March 1947, its first students had to share classroom space with the teacher trainees at the (you guessed it) Pedagogical Institute before it was granted its own building in Dushanbe.

Current Rector Muhammadyusuf Imomzoda was interviewed [ru] recently about the university’s achievements and future plans. As a good Rector should, he was keen to note that the university’s graduates are its greatest achievement. Yet he does have a somewhat easier job than university leaders in larger systems (until 1990, Tajikistan had ten universities/institutes) – not least because their most famous graduate is none other than the Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation…. aka President Emomali Rahmon.

References/Further reading

Khalid, Adeeb. 1998. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Krasheninnikov, A. A., and N. N. Nechaev. 1990. “Universities as Centres of Culture: An Historical Approach to Higher Education in Central Asia.” Higher Education in Europe 15 (3): 54–60. doi:10.1080/0379772900150308.

Ministry of Education and Science, Kyrgyzstan. 2010. “Istoriya Obrazovaniya [History of Education].” http://edu.gov.kg/ru/high­education/istoriya­obrazovaniya/.

Reeves, Madeleine. 2005. “Of Credits, Kontrakty and Critical Thinking: Encountering ‘Market Reforms’ in Kyrgyzstani Higher Education.” European Educational Research Journal 4 (1): 5–21. doi:10.2304/eerj.2005.4.1.4.

Ubaidulloev, Nasrullo Karimovich. 2014. “Istoriyagrafiya narodnogo obrazovaniya Tajikistana vtoroi polovini XIX – pervoi polovini XX vv. [Historiography of public education in Tajikistan from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century].” Doctor of Science thesis, Dushanbe: Academy of Sciences, Republic of Tajikistan.

Take a look at these links

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Surely it’s not that bad?

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.

A mountain to climb? Educating leaders for Central Asia

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Big, beautiful cats in the big, beautiful mountains of Central Asia. Image (c) National Geographic

At the start of this year, I shared a great article on the nascent University of Central Asia from Devex and Michael Igoe. If you enjoyed that, you’ll be pleased to hear that the article in fact came in three parts.

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.