Kyrgyzstan

The future is still bright

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The world is a different place these days as COVID-19 spreads its wings in all directions (officially reaching Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by the time of writing on March 18).

When we look back on these unusual times, I think we will see that coronavirus achieved what no politician, activist, or movement has yet managed by forcing us to collectively question the kind of world we want to live in. When the dust has settled, will we return to the economic growth imperative that has failed to be an equalizer across and within societies? Or is now finally the time to listen to the voices that have been clamouring for change – for change to relations between peoples, between humans and the earth, between places?

Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, whose name will be memorialized by the Kyrgyz Space Program

This blog isn’t the place to answer these deep questions. It is, however, a space where I can use my voice to share visions for a more hopeful future. (And do so in a way that ties in with my interests in Central Asia, education, society and politics…)

It seems fitting, then, that today’s post is about young people in Central Asia who are pioneering science and technology because they think it will help the development of their country. How about that for a positive and hopeful vision.

Who are these young people? They are the Kyrgyz Space Program, a group of dedicated women in Kyrgyzstan who want to build the country’s first satellite and relaunch the space industry. Despite some really unpleasant gender stereotyping and ongoing issues in securing funding (plug: please support them on Patreon if you can), the team is persisting and is on track to launch a CubeSat satellite in 2021.

Beautifully and poignantly, they are going to name their satellite Burulai, after Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, a 20 year old medical student who was abducted by so-called bride kidnappers and later murdered in 2018. As one of the team members says:

It will make her name immortal. I just hope that people won’t forget about her.

Aidana Aidarbekova, Kyrygz Space Program team member

Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and feel optimistic for the world’s future by watching this lovely 25 minute documentary recently released by AlJazeera. And please share the link to spread the joy of discovery and hope.

International Women’s Day: Celebrating female success, still marching for progress

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If cats did celebrations… PS Women: you don’t need a cat to be successful. But you knew that already.

8th March saw the annual marking of International Women’s Day (IWD), which is a formal opportunity to celebrate female success on the one hand, but also a time to lament the continued global persistence of male-dominated structures and norms, and to work on ways to reverse this situation.

IWD has developed and gained prominence since its founding at the beginning of the 20th century, and was a firm fixture in the Soviet calendar.

IWD continues to be celebrated around the former Soviet space to this day. I particularly enjoyed the Moscow Times’ Buzzfeed-friendly feature ‘5 Russian Women You Haven’t Heard Of But Should Have‘. (Check out number 5!).

Over in Uzbekistan, the local Sputnik news agency ran with a story about Gulchehra Rikhsieva, currently the only female Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of a higher education institution in the country. Rikhsieva heads Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies, having worked there since 2000 and assuming the leadership in 2019 after a short spell in government as Deputy Chair of the Senate Committee on Science, Education and Healthcare. She is a member of the Republican Commission on Gender Equality and the national Higher Education Council.

In an interview with Rikhsieva, she brings up some of what has become the ‘new normal’ in Uzbekistan’s higher education – rapid reforms, university rankings, competition, internationalization and so on. So far, so on message.

But a couple of the questions really grate, undermining everything Rikhsieva has to say about her plans for the university, the future for Uzbekistan, and so on. Could you ever imagine a male Rector being asked ‘How compatible is your role as a Rector with your family responsibilities? How do you cope with managing the university and household chores?’, or ‘Do female Rectors accept male Rectors? Isn’t it difficult for them to work with you?’

I didn’t think so.

Next door in Kyrgyzstan, women leaders of a different kind have also been facing both gendered and physical barriers. A women’s march on March 8 was initially banned by local authorities and then permitted to proceed, but then got cut off and assaulted by a group of masked men. Things turned from bad to worse when the police, who had been waiting in the background, arrested around 70 people who had been attacked.

Yes, that’s right. Not the attackers. The victims of the attacks. They were arrested.

The country that was once touted as the island of democracy is rapidly sinking under the weight of a shift to a set of norms that normalize so-called ‘traditions’ like bride kidnapping, permit abuse against women, and ban the expression of female issues.

The brilliant Kyrgyzstan-based movement Bishkek Feminist Initiatives calls for the development of feminist values in Kyrgyzstan and beyond, solidarity and respect for fairness and human rights, and the creation of a feminist space that will increase rights and opportunities for women and girls.

There are many ways we can do this, as individuals and by working together. Let me ask you to take the time to work out what (more) you can do. Even if you don’t think you can do much on your own, there is always somewhere to start.

It could be by supporting an organization involved in education and training for women or girls (as you probably know, I’m a huge fan of the Kyrgyz Space Program). It could be by educating yourself on the key issues faced by women and girls in Central Asia and around the world. It could be by amplifying the voices of females, whether that’s at a work meeting or on social media.

We all need to stand up and take action to end inequality against women and girls, and create a world where anyone can be and do anything.

Financing higher education in Kyrgyzstan

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For a small country with a population of a little over 6 million, Kyrgyzstan has an awful lot of universities – 68 at last count. For comparison, Singapore (population 5.8m) has exactly half as many and El Salvador (identical population to Kyrgyzstan) has 26 universities.

As with many countries in the former Soviet space, the number of universities and institutes (collectively, higher education institutions, or HEIs) rocketed in Kyrgyzstan with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even so, growth in the higher education system in Kyrgyzstan was phenomenally high, increasing by 325% in the first 15 years of independence. In neighbouring Kazakhstan, the increase over the same period was a more modest 197% (!).

Higher education growth in Kyrgyzstan came in both the pre-existing public sector as well as the nascent private higher education scene, and these days, the split between public and private HEIs is more or less 50-50.

With so many universities competing for students and limited state resources, Sputnik Kyrgyzstan recently published a fascinating interview with a senior administrator at one of the country’s leading institutions, Kyrgyz National University (KNU) on how the university gets and spends its money. This level of detail is often very difficult to glean from universities or Ministries of Education, so it adds quite significantly to our understanding of how higher education in a major state university in the former Soviet space is funded.

If cats did university budgets…

Income

KNU is a public university according to its history and current legal status, but in fact only gets 7% of its funding from the state.

As one of the biggest universities in the countries, they have over 17,500 students on their books and it’s these students who basically keep the university propped up. 92% of students are fee-paying, meaning that only a small minority are funded by the state (through various scholarships for e.g. high academic performance in secondary/high school or family/social status).

The biggest source of income by far is the 485 million som a year the university generates from tuition fees – equivalent to US$7m. Not bad considering that tuition fees didn’t exist as recently as 30 years ago.

From the state, KNU receives 40 million som a year (US$600,000) in the form of funding for students in receipt of government scholarships. The university allocates 60-70% of this on salaries and employment taxes.

Other income is minimal in comparison: 12 million som a year (US$170,000) in rent from its four dormitories, and 6 million som (US$85,000) from its residence in Issyk Kul (a popular lakeside holiday destination) and from eight dissertation councils.

In total, KNU is generating 543m som or US$7.85m in income a year.

Tuition fees and student numbers

Fees at KNU range from 31,000 som per year (about US$450) on ‘cheap’ courses such as physics, chemistry and Kyrgyz philology up to 46,000 som (around US$650) for economics courses in the Kyrgyz-European Faculty.

Each faculty has some wriggle room in setting its fees – some are planning to increase theirs by up to 10%, whereas others are actually decreasing them. This has been the case in physics and meteorology, where KNU has struggled to fill both fee paying places as well as state funded spots.

Total student numbers at KNU are considerably higher than at many universities, but have nevertheless dropped quite dramatically. Whereas around 28,000 students were fee paying 3-4 years ago, that number has almost halved to today’s figure of 16,330.

State sponsored places have also been reduced from 2,100 to 1,346. However, the university does not believe that the government will totally withdraw scholarship funding.

Expenses

As a state university, KNU has some limits on how it can spend the tuition fee income. They are required to allocate 80% to salaries and the remaining 20% for local taxes, staff/faculty travel, physical resources (furniture etc) and infrastructure maintenance.

A senior lecturer can expect to receive around 6,000 som a month from the state funding (a paltry US$85), which KNU then supplements depending on the lecturer’s teaching load and level of qualification (PhD/Candidate and Doctor of Science qualifications would entitle to you a higher pay grade).

The university doesn’t say what the total monthly pay packet looks like for senior lecturers, but the average monthly salary in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital (where KNU is located), is US$285. Let’s hope that senior lecturers are not too far off that figure.

KNU pays 144 million som (US$2m) to the state in various taxes each year, as well as a whopping 564 million som (US$8m) for electricity, water, and communal and other services.

I can’t calculate the total expenses per year as it’s not clear from the article whether the 20% of fee income in taxes is included in the 144m figure noted in the previous paragraph. And either I’ve misunderstood someting or there’s a typo in the services figure: if it really is 564m som a year, that’s more than the total income and presumably would mean the university would run very quickly into bankruptcy.

Those queries aside, the availability of data like this sheds important new light on higher education financing in Kyrgyzstan. For me, the big takeaway is how little of the university’s funding actually comes from the state despite its appellation as a public university and, as a result, just how dependent KNU is on tuition fee income and therefore students’ continued desire to study at the university.

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”!