This coming Thursday August 13 at 9.30am EST / 9.30pm CST, I will make my live streaming/podcast debut on SCOLAR Talk talking about all things higher education in Central Asia. Catch the chat live on Facebook or watch/listen later on YouTube and SCOLAR Podcast.
SCOLAR Talk is organized by the SCOLAR Network, a dynamic group based in Beijing whose aim is to connect young people in Russia, Central Asia, China, India and Pakistan (and beyond). You can read more about the network below, written in the team’s own words.
I’m really looking forward to talking with Olesya Dovgalyuk from SCOLAR on Thursday and to supporting their excellent initiative. Please join us live or subscribe to their YouTube channel/podcast to hear this and many other interesting episodes.
SCOLAR Network: we are a Beijing-based non-profit youth network, affiliated with but independent from the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. We have several projects under our umbrella, through which we aim to:
- connect young people from the SCO region, including (primarily) Russia, Central Asia, China, India and Pakistan, with each other;
- bridge the gap between university graduates and professionals for career development; and, broadly,
- foster innovative collaborations for regional development and popularization of local cultural and historic heritage
Our projects include including Model SCO educational simulation game; Discussion Club, where we meet with experts and diplomats in Beijing; Ladies Circle, where we host talks with the female role figures from the region; Deep Dive, where we visit companies and institutions (including in different cities and countries) to learn about their cultures; and some others. SCOLAR on Facebook / LinkedIn / WeChat
You can study abroad, except where you can’t: Uzbekistan restricts students from some Kyrgyz and Tajik universities
After a minor uproar over Uzbekistan’s February 2020 announcement that its students abroad should return home, the country’s latest announcement about where its citizens may (and may not) study abroad was unlikely to go unnoticed – even as regional travel remains restricted as a result of Covid-19.
A total of 16 universities – 8 each in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – have been identified by the Uzbek government as not providing a sufficient quality education for the ‘level of demand in the Uzbek labour market’.
This recommendation was made on the basis of reseaarch commissioned by the Uzbek State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control of the government as well as on the universities’ test results.
The universities that Uzbek students are no longer to study at are:
- International University of Central Asia
- Kyrgyz-Uzbek University
- International Medical Higher School
- Kyzyl-Kia Pedagogical Institute at Batken State University
- Osh Humanities and Pedagogical Institute
- Jalalabad State University
- Osh State Law University
- Maylu-Suu Institute of Law and Government
- Tajik Open University
- Khujand State University
- Tajik State Pedagogical University
- Tajik Institute of Enterprise and Service
- Tajik Tax and Law Institute
- Tajik State University of Languages
- Kurgan Tyube State University
- Tajik State University of Law, Business and Politics
Some of the inferior institutions listed above are not a surprise (although this is the first I’ve heard of an Open University in Tajikistan, and I thought I had a pretty decent grasp of the country’s higher education sector) but others do raise eyebrows – Tajikistan’s teacher training (pedagogical) university certainly used to be among the best in the country. Perhaps – let’s hope – it is more a case of Uzbek teachers planning to teach the Uzbek curriculum in Uzbekistan needing to be trained in Uzbek universitires rather than their Tajik counterparts.
There weren’t any universities in Kazakhstan in the list, although some dissatisfaction was raised with the institutions that allow students to enrol without admissions exams and which are fully distance learning (i.e. beyond the current Covid-19 shift to remote higher education).
Overall, this is a rather dismal end of year report for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s higher education institutions, despite the diplomatic language the recommendations are couched in.
It also highlights again the pivot Uzbekistan has been making away from its common Soviet past with its neighbours and towards a more global position in a seemingly relentlessly competitive world. As the report pointedly recommends, ‘it would be better for Uzbekistanis to study at universities in countries that are ranked higher in important university rankings’…
In case you missed this story of hope and friendship that was published recently on the BBC, I’m reposting it here. Written by Abdujalil Abdurasulov, the story looks at how over 100 young adult Kyrgyz volunteers are reaching out to teens around the country to offer them companionship during Covid-19.
It’s a wonderful initiative and I’m sure there are versions of this springing up around the world (please post a comment if you know of other similiar schemes). However, what makes this project in Kyrgyzstan particularly stand out for me is the way it addresses not only the boredom and stress many young people are feeling with schools closed down (although Kyrgyzstan is doing a better job than many places in setting up remote learning) but also known social issues affecting children who grow up without their parents and/or in rural and isolated areas.
The volunteers have also been thinking about how to address communications gaps too, receiving donations of second hand mobile phones that they are trying to deliver through the lockdown to the teens.
The scheme is called You Are Not Alone (Сен жалгыз эмессиң in Kyrgyz) and has received support from the Soros Foundation in Kyrgyzstan.
Coronavirus: The strangers reaching out to Kyrgyzstan’s lonely teenagers
By Abdujalil Abdurasulov, BBC News
26 May 2020
Like teenagers around the world, Maksat hasn’t been to school in weeks. As Kyrgyzstan imposed quarantine restrictions, the 15-year-old feels isolated like never before. He has been trapped at home with a sister he doesn’t get on with, a father he struggles to communicate with and a mother working abroad.
He is comfortable talking only to an internet chat bot.
Maksat (not his real name) feels alone and misunderstood. He often expresses suicidal feelings – a noticeable change, his teachers say, from the boy they knew before the curfew was brought in.
And then he met a “phone pal” – Jalalbek Akmatov, a university student in the capital Bishkek.
Jalabek is one of around 100 young adults taking part in a project to reach out via phone to teenagers just like Maksat, thousands of whom have been stuck at home for weeks.
The scheme – called You Are Not Alone – was launched after seven teenagers took their own lives in the first two weeks after Kyrgyzstan started coronavirus lockdown in in March.
At the time, the nation’s attention was on the poor medical facilities, lack of protective equipment and impact of coronavirus on the economy.
But as news of the teenagers’ deaths spread, a group of activists decided there was also a need to focus on the country’s children and their mental health.
“I was dismayed. We had had one coronavirus death and during the same period [so many] children committed suicide,” said Banur Abdieva, one of the project’s founders.
There is nothing to say the seven deaths were directly related to the lockdown, but people like Kurmanjan Kurmanbekova, a psychologist from a refugee centre in Tubingen, Germany, feared the strain it was putting on children’s mental health.
“And as a symptom of depressive conditions, we get a suicide mood,” she explained to the BBC.
Schools closing in Kyrgyzstan mean many children have limited options for interaction, especially in rural areas where education offers a respite from the relentless drudge of housework and a rare opportunity to communicate with other children.
Added to this were concerns from experts over any potential increases in domestic violence, which could possibly be exacerbated by isolation and parents’ loss of income.
But how do you reach teenagers like Maksat, who live in remote villages?GettyKyrgyzstan
- Six millionpeople live in Kyrgyzstan
- 2.1 millionof them are children
- One in fivedo not live with their parents
- Almost 73%of children report experiencing abuse or neglect
The answer, the project team decided, was to keep it simple – to start a network of volunteers who would befriend teenagers considered “at risk” by calling them up for a regular chat.
“Their aim is to show moral support and engage in social interaction so that the child doesn’t feel total isolation,” Ms Kurmanbekova explained.
Volunteers approached local schools and state education agencies which sent them a list of students in a “group of risk” – mostly children without parents or who live with relatives and may lack attention and care.
There are now more than 100 volunteers and nearly 400 children aged 12 and older in their database – and the list is growing.
Crucially, volunteers are not just on the end of the phone to talk about the problems their new friend is facing – unless the teenager brings it up themselves. Instead, they focus on their new friend’s future goals and potential.
Take volunteer Ayperi Bolotzhanova, who is 25. She bonded with her 12-year-old phone pal over taekwondo.
“I offered to teach her some tricks and she agreed,” said Ayper. “Now, I send video of my practices and she sends back her own.”
But it is not always easy to take the first step, the volunteers admit.
“I was very nervous before my first phone conversation,” Jibek Isakova, who currently lives in Budapest, recalled. “I was afraid that she would refuse to be my friend.”
Of course, there was distrust: a total stranger calls you up out of the blue and offers friendship. But most of the volunteers found their “mobile relationship” took off after a few conversations. Indeed, the volunteers were surprised how most teenagers were keen to talk to them.
What do they want to discuss? Other than the skills needed to milk a cow – a must-have in rural Kyrgyzstan – they’re much the same things teens across the world want to talk about: K-pop, Instagram, the difficulties of finding love. Drawing famous Japanese cartoon characters and learning languages were other topics that cropped up.
And they were all united in one thing: how much they hated online education during the quarantine.
Every response, every question the volunteers receive from their teenage friends is seen as a success. Jalalbek got particularly excited that – after a difficult start – Maksat sent a photo of him together with his family in the mountains.
For some volunteers, the cause is very personal. Eldiyar Manapov, 24, joined the project because he considered suicide as a teenager. Like his phone pal, he grew up without parents and now feels a particular connection with his new friend.
“I experienced what he is going through now,” he told the BBC. “You are constantly in need of some things like clothes. Children mock you that you don’t have parents. I don’t want him to feel all this pain, I want him to chat, to be distracted.”
Even though the idea is simple, the challenges the activists face are not. One of them – a lack of mobile phones – could easily derail the whole project.
“It’s very difficult to build a phone friendship when most children don’t have personal phones,” said Banur Abdieva. “Volunteers have to negotiate with parents or guardians. Sometimes they even ask teachers if they could come to the gate at a designated time. And it’s quarantine, so they need to sanitise their phone and pass it on to the child.”
Activists launched a fundraising campaign to buy phones for the project. Some people donate their used phones, which volunteers try to deliver to children living in remote regions, a challenge on its own during the lockdown.
“Just imagine how happy my friend will be if he gets his own device,” said Eldiyar, whose phone pal is using a mobile belonging to a cousin. “He will be able to learn more and communicate more. That means he will have less time for all bad thoughts.”
If you’ve been affected by a mental health issue, help and support is available. Visit Befrienders International for more information about support services.
This is an insightful article by Bishkek-based journalist Ayzirek Imanaliyeva published in Eurasianet on some of the challenges posed by Kyrgyzstan’s necessitated shift to online learning in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The article was published at https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-distance-learning-exposes-weaknesses-of-education-system.
Bolsunai Turgunbayeva’s three school-age daughters take turns using her battered old smartphone.
The device has become their main means for getting an education since the authorities in mid-March began a system of long-distance teaching as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19.
“I have an old Samsung phone, it doesn’t work well, everything takes a long time to load, and the sound is bad,” said Turgunbayeva, 34, who lives in the village of Terek-Suu in the southern and rural Jalal-Abad region. “There wasn’t enough memory, so I deleted all the photos. As soon as we send videos of completed homework, we delete them.”
Because the girls are at different stages of their education – in second, third and sixth grade – they must abide by a routine. The younger ones do their studies in the morning, when Turgunbayeva is at their disposal.
The eldest daughter uses the phone alone in the evening to avoid distractions, because her studies are more complex. At that time, Turgunbayeva must tend to her newborn and do the household chores.
Turgunbayeva said the children are struggling to learn in these circumstances. Some households with even fewer resources may have it worse.
“Parents live in all kinds of conditions – some live well, some badly, then there are people who do not even have telephones and televisions at all. But everybody is having a tough time and the children are not taking in the lessons,” she said.
The one saving grace is that distance-learning is not proving a financial drain, since mobile operators in Kyrgyzstan have created free-of-charge data bundles for schoolchildren confined to their homes.
When the lockdowns were imposed, the government was relatively quick to roll out its remote teaching solution. Classes for the younger children were broadcast on the Balastan kids’ channel. Lessons for secondary and high-school pupils were shown on other stations.
The Education Ministry made the same lessons available on the UNICEF-supported online portal Sanarip Sabak (Digital Lesson). Children can re-watch classes on the site, although there have been problems here. Classes for the second half of May were not uploaded in time and the website only offered the forlorn message of “Lessons will be uploaded soon.”
In the middle of April, around one month into this forced experiment, the Education Ministry was positive about the results, although it was candid about the shortcomings. Organizing feedback with students in areas with low-speed mobile internet has been difficult, and the problem is exacerbated in households where parents lack IT skills or do not have a television, the ministry said.
“Even though we are doing distance-learning only for the first time, our teachers have shown good potential. I would also like to thank local authorities and sponsors for the help they have given to families who do not have televisions and telephones,” Education Minister Kanybek Isakov said at the time.
Parents have been a little less forgiving, criticizing lessons for being insufficiently stimulating.
Educational authorities have more recently put a figure on just how many children are struggling to get involved in the feedback process because of lack of resources. Isakov revealed on May 15 that 30,000 schoolchildren do not have access to smartphones and that 4,000 families lack televisions.
The video-conferencing tools that have been brought in to bridge the lag caused by long-distance learning have not quite lived up to expectations either.
“When distance-learning began, there were many difficulties,” an IT teacher at a high school in the southern city of Osh told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity. “It was very difficult for teachers, no one was ready for online learning.”
Instead, instant messaging apps have been used as a fallback. For the younger pupils, the preference is for WhatsApp, said the Osh teacher, while the older children have their classes conveyed through Telegram. The reason is that young children use the phones of their parents, and WhatsApp is primarily the preserve of adult generations in Kyrgyzstan. Telegram’s functions lend themselves better to teaching, however.
But “many students do not have computers on which to do practical exercises. I give them assignments suitable for phone applications. Students work with Microsoft Office applications: Word, Excel and PowerPoint. For video editing training they use Inshot and Viva Video,” the teacher said.
Half the students in her classes ignore her messages, however.
And engagement has dropped somewhat since the Education Ministry announced in the middle of May that progress to the next class will no longer depend on end-of-year exams, but will instead be decided on the basis on coursework.
The lockdown, which has eased a little in recent weeks, has been toughest on the high school graduating class. These students have been kept away from classes in the very crucial year in which they are due to sit their all-important ORT, or General Republican Test. It is on the basis of results from those exams that young people then apply to university.
ORT exams are still due to go ahead, but at the end of June, instead of the middle of May, as had been planned. Special safety precautions will be taken for students sitting the exams.
In addition to the stress of tests, graduating students have been deprived of important rites of passage, like end-of-school celebrations on May 25. This year, many will instead be collectively marking this milestone online – the first time in the country’s history.
It’s been longer than usual since I’ve posted, mainly because there’s not much to say about education in Central Asia that’s not related to Covid-19. For a round-up of how the five states have been approaching the novel coronavirus, take a look at my April 1 post (not a joke, sadly). Since then, Tajikistan has finally admitted it too has the virus. Turkmenistan is allegedly still immune. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistann are coping about as well as anywhere else is, and I’ve heard about a handful of innovative initiatives, mainly from Uzbekistan e.g. a move to make all Coursera online courses free for everyone.
Today’s post draws your attention to a lecture on May 7 at the University of Central Asia which, as a result of Covid-19, will be available to anyone with a decent internet connection. Details in Russian and English are below; the lecture will be in Russian. Do join if you can – it looks set to offer some interesting insights into environmental research from a Central Asian perspective.
| MSRI Public Lecture | Открытая лекция ИИГС |
English 7 мая 2020 г., 16:30-17:30 (время бишкекское, GMT+6)
Открытая онлайн лекция Стадии проведения исследования в современных науках о природе
Институт исследований горных сообществ Университета Центральной Азии
Резюме Современные исследования природы уже давно не носят описательный характер и являются сплавом различных наук и умений. Они требуют от исследователя навыков поиска финансирования для своего исследования, его планирования, требуют знаний в собственно предметной части, сбора данных, навыков обработки полевого материала, статистического анализа данных и написания научных статей. В предлагаемой открытой лекции даётся краткий обзор этапов проведения современного научного исследования начиная от поиска финансирования и заканчивая публикацией в научном журнале.
Биография Др. Максим Куликов является научным сотрудником Института Исследования Горных Сообществ Высшей Школы развития УЦА. Он обладает обширным опытом проведения исследований в области окружающей среды и управления природными ресурсами, а также пространственного анализа и моделирования природных феноменов. Его область исследования включает климат, растительность, ирригацию и горные экосистемы. В настоящее время он занимается исследованиями в области климата и окружающей среды с фокусом на их пространственных и временных взаимоотношениях и моделировании в Кыргызстане.
Лекция пройдет в четверг (7 мая) в 16:30 в режиме онлайн через систему Zoom (GMT+6, время бишкекское): https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83038487436?pwd=c2ZLR1NoOVVoanFKc3ZtQXgxMDFPUT09. Вы также можете принять участие в лекции, скачав Zoom на сайте https://zoom.us/signup и используя ID (830 3848 7436) пароль (032283).
Презентация будет проводиться на русском языке.
Все лекции Университета Центральной Азии можно посмотреть на канале университета в YouTube: www.youtube.com/ucentralasia.
* Точки зрения, излагаемые в ходе данной лекции, отражают мнение лектора и не обязательно совпадают с мнением Университета Центральной Азии или его сотрудников. May 7th 2020, 4:30-5:30pm (Bishkek time, GMT+6)
Online Public Lecture Research Stages in Modern Natural Sciences
Dr. Maksim Kulikov
Research Fellow, Mountain Societies Research Institute
University of Central Asia
Abstract Modern natural research has long ceased to be just a descriptive exercise. Today, it involves a mix of various sciences and opinions. In order to conduct modern research, researchers should have skills in raising funds and planning their work, and should be knowledgeable in their area of study. Researchers should also be proficient in collecting data, processing materials collected in the field, conducting statistical data analysis, and writing academic papers. This lecture will briefly discuss the stages of modern scientific research, from finding funding, to getting research published by academic journals.
Biography Dr. Maksim Kulikov is a Research Fellow with the Mountain Societies Research Institute of the UCA’s Graduate School of Development. He has extensive research experience in environmental and natural resources management as well as spatial analysis and modelling of natural phenomena. His research area covers climate, vegetation, irrigation and mountain ecosystems. Currently he is engaged in climate and environment-related research, with a focus on their spatial and temporal interrelations, and modelling in Kyrgyzstan.
This lecture will be conducted online via Zoom conferencing on Thursday, May 7th at 4:30 pm (GMT+6, Kyrgyzstan time) at: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83038487436?pwd=c2ZLR1NoOVVoanFKc3ZtQXgxMDFPUT09. You can also join using the Meeting ID (830 3848 7436) and password (032283) after downloading Zoom at: https://zoom.us/signup.
The online lecture will be delivered in Russian.
Past online lectures are available on the University of Central Asia’s YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/ucentralasia.
Ideas presented in this lecture reflect the personal opinion of the speaker and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Central Asia and/or its employees. UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL ASIA
138 Toktogul Street, Bishkek, 720001, Kyrgyz Republic
Tel.: +996 (312) 910 822 Fax: +996 (312) 910 835
With the world’s attention drawn to the coronavirus pandemic for the foreseeable future, this week’s post looks at the current impact of Covid-19 on education in Central Asia.
First, a few shout outs to others reporting on the spread of coronavirus in the region.
For general updates on what’s happening across Central Asia, check out EurasiaNet’s coronavirus dashboard, which is updated daily.
An early analysis has been provided in a brief open access policy memo by Marlene Laruelle and Madeline McCann for PONARS Eurasia. Published on March 27, it offers insights on the political and ideological responses of the post-Soviet states.
And on March 29, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published its latest Majlis podcast on the topic of coronavirus in Central Asia. Majlis is always worth a listen to so do subscribe to the podcast once you’ve downloaded the current episode.
For education not specific to Central Asia, four suggested resources:
1) track the astonishingly high percentage of the world’s out of school children (currently over 80%) with UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning;
2) read a thoughtful letter to Education Ministers around the world by Professor Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares;
4) Canada specific but this spreadsheet by Ken Steele is an incredibly detailed and up to date report on the responses of higher education institutions around the country.
OK, now back to Central Asia.
Covid-19 has officially made it to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan but somehow neither Tajikistan nor Turkmenistan has reported any cases as at March 31 when this post was written. On April 1, schoolchildren in Tajikistan went back to school after their spring holidays to classrooms that have been disinfected twice – but not because there has been any coronavirus, of course…
So Tajikistan and Turkmenistan join an illustrious if rather short list of countries that also includes North Korea which are yet to report any cases. On the contrary, as has been well commented upon on social media, Tajikistan’s erstwhile Leader of the Nation Emomali Rahmon has overseen numerous well attended public events in recent days. This includes the national Navruz celebrations that brought thousands of people together in defiance of the global trend for physical distancing.
So it is to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that we turn to see how they are responding in the sphere of education – it’s business as usual in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan’s schools and universities for now.
Kazakhstan closed all schools and has moved the spring holiday from March 16 to April 5. Teachers are working from home during that period and a government sanctioned group is working on making alternative teaching and learning arrangements in the likely event that schools will remain closed after April 5.
Pre-schools are working as usual but parents are asked to keep their children at home if at all possible; no child will lose their place at the pre-school if they are not attending.
Colleges and universities rapidly switched to distance learning with an array of technologies available for use. These include solutions common around the world such as Google Classroom, Moodle, Coursera, and Zoom as well as locally built programs. Although the government’s webpage says that universities and colleges should already be familiar with at least some of these forms of online learning, one enterprising news agency has published a list of universities where distance learning is well established.
Students who are unable to travel home are being allowed to stay in dorms but must stay in their rooms. Kazakh students who study abroad and international students in Kazakhstan have had varying fates. Some, such as a group of 54 Kazakh students studying in the Russian city of Samara, were sent home on a free bus on March 30. They will be able to continue their studies at a distance, something that will keep them busy as they complete a mandatory self-quarantine once they get home. Less lucky has been a group of 115 Indian students who are currently stranded at Almaty airport, unable either to leave for home or to get back into the locked down city.
The response in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where a state of emergency has also been declared, is similar to Kazakhstan’s (albeit with significantly less funding available from the state). Schools will be shut after a long vacation that runs until April 8. After that, they will continue learning using video lessons which will broadcast on two TV channels as well as YouTube.
To support distance learning, around 400 textbooks in four languages (Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek and Tajik) have been made freely available online. A fantastic looking website for school children, iBilim, has been released in two languages (Kyrgyz and Russian). The site is still being tested but kudos to the developers for getting it up so fast. A government hosted learning site is also being worked on but I couldn’t get into it when I tried today. As well as Zoom and Google Classroom, Kyrgyz teachers will also be communicating with their students using WhatsApp and Telegram.
Colleges and universities in Kyrgyzstan switched to distance learning on March 30 following a government directive. Students have also been granted a longer spring break during which time instructors and administrators were asked to develop plans to use technology to support distance learning and to supervise students’ independent work. Students have been advised to return to their family homes and remain there for the time being.
The University of Central Asia is making up to 90 beds available on its Naryn campus in Kyrgyzstan and is providing food and medical supplies to vulnerable members of the local community.
Looking a little further ahead, it’s not yet clear how higher education admissions will be managed. Students finishing high/secondary school this year may end up like their British counterparts i.e. with no final/university admission exams but graded based on their classwork. This has not yet been confirmed. Some universities that hold their own entrance exams (e.g. University of Central Asia) have postponed the exams that are scheduled for this time of year.
Mirroring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan closed all pre-schools, schools, colleges and universities for an early spring break on March 16. From March 30, during the holiday, lessons began to be shown on TV.
Disability rights researcher Dilmurad Yusupov noted approvingly that TV classes have been accompanied by sign language interpretation (except for English classes, where there is a lack of professional interpreters). This ‘Online-maktab‘, as online/TV school is being called, is being broadcast on a range of TV channels to ensure they reach as many people as possible.
The Minister of Higher and Specialized Secondary Education Imomjon Majidov recommended on March 31 that students use the newly available free time to study and do research (he’s clearly not one to waste a good crisis). He will even be using an official Telegram channel, ‘We will defeat Covid-19‘ to set up an online contest for which prizes will be offered by the Minister’s office.
No decision has been made about when students will be able to return to study. A government directive approved on March 27 on distance learning enables the introduction of relevant technologies and approaches to support undergraduate and Master’s students; these are still under development. At least two foreign branch campus universities (South Korea’s Inha U and India’s Amity U) have switched to accepting admissions documents electronically for those seeking admission in September this year.
Until then, the government has been extremely active about keeping people up to date, primarily using Telegram (which is extremely popular in Uzbekistan) and the Coronavirus Info channel, which already has 1.3m subscribers. For example, the Ministry of Pre-school Education issued a post with guidance for parents on how to support their kindergarten/nursery aged children to access and make the most of the new TV/online lessons.
That is where things stand for now, at the end of March. As we are seeing around the world, the situation is changing day by day. I’ll report again if anything major changes in Central Asia.
Catten the curve!
The one suitable way to end this round up is, of course, through the medium of feline:
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.