Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz students in Russia

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Say hi to Pep, who likes to hang out at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Pep has nothing to do with today’s story but I seem to have exhausted most of the internet’s attempts at cat memes relevant to university students.

Whereas their Uzbek counterparts are being sent home from studying abroad, Kyrgyz students are heading to Russia in ever greater numbers. From 1,300 in 2006/07, there were 5,700 Kyrgyzstanis studying in Russia at last count in 2016/17.

But in the style of the classic Russian gameshow What? Where? When? (Что? Где? Когда?), let’s find out more.

The most popular Russian cities and universities for Kyrgyz students are not in the major metropoles of Moscow and St Petersburg, but in the country’s regions. The Siberian city of Tomsk – one of the closest to Kyrgyzstan, just north of Kazakhstan and a mere 2,300km away – has the top two – Tomsk State University and Tomsk State Architecture and Building University.

Following the Tomsk pair, the next most popular are a duo in Moscow – the Higher School of Economics and the Russian People’s Friendship University, and then Kemerovo State University. Kemerovo is just down the road from Tomsk and its popularity is probably linked to its convenient location.

The Russian Minister for Education Valeriy Falkov is pretty happy about this given the government’s emphasis on developing higher education in the regions.

Kyrgyz students in Russia are more likely to study medicine and an array of technical subjects and hybrid courses such as agrobusiness.

Students from around the former Soviet space are these days not necessarily drawn to Russia because of the historic ties from their Soviet legacy. Nevertheless, there persists a sense – particularly in economically poorer states like Kyrgzystan and Tajikistan – that Russian education is ‘better’ than the domestic system based both on its history as well as comparatively higher investments in the system. Furthermore, there are still plenty of Central Asian students being educated in Russian who can manage the language of instruction.

That said, it’s just as likely that the current generation of Kyrgyzstani 18 year olds – who were born a good decade after the fall of the Soviet Union – are attracted by scholarships that are offered not just on admission but for placing highly in competitions and olympiads organized by Russian universities. A number of education fairs held annually in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia/ex-Soviet region also help recruit students to Russia’s higher education system.

The upward trend of international students in Russia is gaining some attention in the academic and practitioner worlds, and for good reason. Of the 5+ million students studying abroad, Russia is now the sixth most popular destination country. The number of international students in Russia has grown by 9% per year on average over the past 15 years; the government has an ambitious plan to increase numbers from the current figure of 220,000 to 700,000 by 2025.

Why are Uzbek students abroad being sent home?

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No choice but to home for Uzbekistan’s overseas students

Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Education has announced that Uzbek students studying abroad in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan should return home and enrol at a domestic higher education institution.

The Ministry has been quick to underline that this decision is not connected to the novel coronavirus that has been panicking the world after spreading rapidly in and from China in early 2020.

Instead, the reasons given are two-fold. Firstly, parents of these internationally minded students are apparently concerned about the difficulties of getting money to their offspring. The second issue is that some of the universities where these students are studying are not listed in Uzbekistan’s national ranking. This in turns has led to a question about whether these universities are of sufficient quality for the nation’s next generation to be educated at.

Hm. Something’s not quite right here.

It’s true that students from Turkmenistan who are studying abroad have experienced difficulties with receiving money transfers from home or using their Turkmen-issued bank cards internationally, as I have reported on before. On that basis we could surmise that Uzbek students in Turkmenistan might indeed experience some problems with getting funds from their relatives. Tajikistan has been having a rocky relationship with money transfers too, though largely because the government is keen to scrape as much commission from the companies that are still allowed to operate. But I’m not aware of any potential issues for students in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

So yes, there may be some truth to the first reason given – although is that enough in itself to summon all overseas students home? What about those studying in non-Central Asian countries?

As for the second issue of quality assurance, call me cynical but that just seems fabricated to cover for something else. Uzbekistan has barely been able to put together its own national ranking – the Ministry of Justice outright cancelled the Ministry of Education’s first effort in 2018!

Since then, Uzbekistan has proceeded to put together rankings but this is the first I’ve heard of them taking international (i.e. non-Uzbek) universities into account. It seems like an awful lot of work to go through when the country is still in the very initial phases of ranking its own universities.

The recall of students has implications for the students themselves, for the host universities, and for the relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbours.

Uzbekistan’s universities are notoriously hard to get into – not because of corruption (although that’s definitely a problem) but because there are so few places. In 2019, 1 million school leavers competed for under 150,000 places. Little wonder that many of those denied a place at a domestic university look abroad.

In a pattern than plays out across Central Asia, most of Uzbekistan’s international students head to Russia – 26,000 last year alone. But there are significant numbers nearer to home too: more than 4,000 in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and almost 2,000 in Kyrgyzstan. So the loss of these students will have a major impact on the host universities.

This is a particular problem for Tajikistan’s Pedagogical University, which apparently has a whopping 2,500 Uzbek students on its books. Almost all of them are ‘contract’ (i.e. fee paying) students paying around 4,000 TJS (around US$400) per year, which all adds up to a significant amount of revenue for the university and will be sorely missed once the students leave.

Finally, this has ramifications for Uzbekistan’s bilateral and regional relations. Only recently starting to thaw, the Uzbek government has made huge inroads into improving its relations with its neighbours. In higher education this has led to, for example, many new cooperation agreements between universities and commitments to joint research and academic mobility.

This new and unexpected move to recall Uzbekistani students is thus not only surprising, but potentially throws a (small) spanner in the works as the overall schema for Central Asian regional relations had just begun to look more positive than ever before.

Lift off! Kyrgyz Space Program launches its next phase

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The all-female team at Kyrgyz Space Program had the idea first!

As some of you know, I am an enthusiastic supporter of a brilliant initiative for girls and young women in Kyrgyzstan called the Kyrgyz Space Program.

The Kyrgyz Space Program is aiming high: specifically, into space. They plan to build and launch Kyrgyzstan’s first ever satellite – and to do so with an exclusively female team. In early 2018, the Kyrgyz Space Program was launched [ru] with the support of media outlet Kloop, which continues to be a partner of the project.

Since then, the program has recruited and trained a core team of 10 young women, held masterclasses and camps, spoken at a TedX event, travelled to the UK to meet Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut and more! In January 2020, the team took delivery of the development kit they need to build their prototype. It’s a huge step forward for the team, and brings them that bit closer to being the world’s first ever all-female-constructed satellite.

Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and please consider becoming a sponsor of this amazing project!

Why does Kyrgyzstan need a satellite? Well, as the team say, “why not?!” The technology and parts are more accessible and cheaper than ever before, and Kyrgyzstan would be following other countries such as Ghana, Lithuania and Mongolia that have also decided to launch their own cubesats (the smallest type of satellite).

Why should it only be built by girls/young women? Let me quote the team directly (my translation):

We’re fed up of discrimination against girls and women in Kyrgyzstan. We’re fed up that in many families, girls are being brought up as servants. We’re fed up that many girls in Kyrgyzstan are being kidnapped, raped, and then forced to live with their rapist, having to call him “husband”.

We’re also also fed up with tens of thousands of other stories of awful injustices towards women.

But what can we do in response? We wanted to create an environment in which a group of girls would make history for real. In doing so, they would overcome stereotypes and cliches and inspire other girls in Kyrgyzstan (and perhaps around the world too) to realize their most fantastic dreams.

We believe that Kyrgyzstan can become a much stronger place if its citizens – irrespective of gender, race and social origins – can create, invent and surprise the world because of our discoveries.

We want the girls who will build the first Kyrgyz satellite to become role models for all young people in our beautiful country.

If you’re still reading here, let me say this again: Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and please consider becoming a sponsor of this amazing project!

Activism, academia and equality in Central Asia

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I’m a little late to the party on this, but then again it’s never too late to find time to read a brilliant series of articles on OpenDemocracy from earlier this year on how academic research is conducted in Central Asia.

Spearheaded by tireless UK/Sweden/globally based academic and activist Dr Diana T. Kudaibergenova, the series currently includes the following articles:

When your field is also your home: introducing feminist subjectivities in Central Asia by Diana Kudaibergenova

When “the field” is your institution: on academic extortion and complaining as activism by Elena Kim

How does it feel to be studied? A Central Asian perspective by Syinat Sultanalieva

Listening to women’s stories: the ambivalent role of feminist research in Central Asia by Davlatbegim Mamadshoeva

A view from the margins: alienation and accountability in Central Asian studies by Mohira Suyarkulova

“Two fields” within: Lost between Russian and Kazakh in the Eurasian borderland by Zhanar Sekerbayeva

The series has been well received by other Central Asia experts, who have been sharing their feedback on social media:

 

So what are you waiting for? Get those tabs open and set your learning mode to “on”!

Keeping the classroom secular in Kyrgyzstan

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Religion-is-the-catnip
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, catnip use is on the rise

Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has called on citizens to ensure that education in the country remains secular, citing the constitutional principle of compulsory basic education.

At present, Kyrgyzstan has over 110 religious institutions – mostly medressas and Islamic colleges plus one Islamic university, but there are also 13 recorded Christian schools. This is a tiny fraction of the total number of public schools and universities in the country: there are over 2,000 schools, more than 200 colleges and 34 state universities for Kyrgyzstan’s six million strong population.

So why the concern? There are clearly enough secular schools and universities to go around.

The worry expressed by the head of state stems from the revival of Islam in Kyrgyzstan since the country obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the concern that this could lead to extremism.

Professor Almazbek Akmataliyev has observed that the rapid expansion of Islamic education in the country is not only connected to the ending of communist-era clampdowns on religion but also results from an influx of foreign funding. Coming from other Muslim states – mainly the rich Arab region nations – this cash has been used to build mosques and support education. This is something I have also heard reflected in comments made to me by people I know in the country.

Professor Akmataliyev also points to the lack of state intervention in religion in the early years of independence in the 1990s as a factor that allowed Islam to spread through the country. His views are backed up by fellow academics Emil Nasritdinov and Nurgul Esenamanova. Writing in the journal Central Asian Affairs, they found that the revival of Islam in the 1990s was marked among women, and this identity is increasingly commonly visually asserted through the number of women in the capital city who now choose to wear a hijab.

After recovering from a hiatus in control in the 1990s, the government of Kyrgyzstan has been more active in responding to the growth of religion and its impact on education. However, as an OSCE report on religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan published in 2013 found:

Educational programs and training programs do not pay enough attention to nurturing of respect for religious diversity and tolerance. Publication of religious studies materials and textbooks should remain neutral and give equal treatment to different religious groups operating in the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic in accordance with national legislation. (Source: OSCE 2013, p. 28)

By the time Jeenbekov came to power in late 2017, Human Rights Without Frontiers observed that:

The Kyrgyz Republic, led by a new President, is at a cross-road, either to restrict the religious freedom of all faiths in the name of security and the fight against violent Islamic groups, or to open the space of religious freedom for all peaceful movements whilst educating their youth about religion in a spirit of tolerance and fighting any initiative inciting to violence. (Source: HRWF)

Jeenbekov’s response?

Speaking at the 2018 ‘Islam in a Modern Secular State‘ conference (launched by Jeenbekov’s predecessor as an annual conference in 2017), Jeenbekov called on the one hand for tolerance towards all religions but on the other hand, pointed to the need for the state to get involved:

We need to create new forms of relationship between religion and the state to ensure peace, order in society and inter-ethnic harmony. (Source: 24.kg)

This was connected to religious education which, according to the President, should ‘correspond to the future development of our society’ (Source: 24.kg).

And that brings us back to the President’s recent call for secularism in the classroom. Since the 2000s (if not the late 1990s), the Kyrgyz state has decided that religion is not something to be left alone – tolerance of all faiths and none is to be aided and abetted by the government. By extending this to the state education system, the government runs the risk of marginalizing those who choose to follow a religious faith and politicizing religion, which is surely a shortcut to the very intolerance the President would like to prevent…

Recommended article – “Educational research in Central Asia: methodological and ethical dilemmas in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan” by Dilrabo Jonbekova

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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.

Reference

Jonbekova, Dilrabo. 2018. “Educational Research in Central Asia: Methodological and Ethical Dilemmas in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.” Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, October, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2018.1511371.

Политика в сфере высшего образования в Центральной Азии и Афганистане

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Мой отчет о политике в сфере высшего образования в Центральной Азии и Афганистане теперь доступен на русском языке. Его можно найти на сайте Университета Центральной Азии (заказчик проекта) илл скачать здесь.

Огромное спасибо УЦА за перевод! If you prefer it in English, you can find my report on higher education policy in Central Asia and Afghanistan here.

О докладе:

Данный отчет преследует две цели. Первая – рассмотреть сферу высшего образования в Центральной Азии, делая особый акцент на Кыргызстане, Таджикистане и Афганистане. Вторая цель – предложить политические решения, способные помочь этим государствам сделать их системы высшего образования более инновационными с опорой на науку и технологии. Отчет состоит из двух разделов. В первом разделе рассматриваются некоторые общие тенденции и вызовы в сфере высшего образования в Центральной Азии и Афганистане.

Выделены основные проблемы и возможности, стоящие перед системами высшего образования и обществами стран региона, с точки зрения государственных приоритетов, сформулированных в общедоступных документах и материалах. Во втором разделе на основе обзора текущей ситуации делается переход к будущему планированию.

В отчете изложены факторы, способствующие инновациям в системе высшего образования, и приведены примеры того, как это делалось в других местах. Наконец, в тексте предлагается ряд предложений в сфере политики высшего образования для трех государств, которые направлены на развитие научно-технического потенциала, что, в свою очередь, может заложить основу для внедрения инноваций в Афганистане, Кыргызстане и Таджикистане. Рекомендации, представленные в отчете, сгруппированы в план, охватывающий пять областей: нормы, навыки, исследования, научная культура и бизнес. Целью стратегического плана является поддержка развития науки, технологий и инноваций в сфере ысшего образования.