It’s university admissions season in Tajikistan and as a record number of school leavers sit the nationwide university entrance exams, ever-reliable news outlet Asia-Plus took a look at the prospects for the class of 2021.
This unified nationwide testing system was introduced in 2013 as part of a project funded by the World Bank and with Russian government assistance. This follows a pattern seen across the post-Soviet states, where university-specific admissions arrangements have been centralized into a national testing system with one of the main goals being to overcome corruption (bribe-taking, use of contacts etc) in university admissions.
(For a more detailed overview of shifts in access to higher education across the former Soviet Union, I recommend this 2012 paper by Anna Smolentseva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia)
In the Tajik university entrance exam system, all potential university students have to take three exams in Tajik language, maths, and the history of the Tajik people and the foundations of the state and law. Then, depending on the subject you wish to specialize in, you also take another three exams focusing on that area. The five subject-specific clusters are: natural and technical sciences; economics and geography; philology, pedagogy and art; social studies and law; and medicine, biology and sport.
The National Testing Centre produces a useful document for future students called ‘How to choose your course’ [ru] (this uses the term “spetsialnost’” or specialism, which dates back to the Soviet era of planned economy and direct pipeline from university to job market). The guidance suggests that candidates consider the following questions:
-What do you expect to achieve from this specialism?
-Does it meet your interests, aptitudes and abilities?
-Can this area satisfy your needs?
-Can you make a living from this area?
The guidance underlines the importance of the last question and highlights a phenomenon also identified by Asia-Plus, where the prestige of subjects such as economics and law has led to a glut of graduates who now sit unemployed because demand far outstrips supply.
With over 10,000 candidates competing for less than 5,000 nationwide places in subjects related to social studies and law, there is clearly a large gap – not just between those who will make it to university and those who won’t based on the exam score, but in the subjects students want to study and what the government thinks the labour market can bear.
Asia-Plus spoke to candidates taking the exams about how they’d chosen their areas of specialism. Farrukh aspires to be a prosecutor or investigator because they are “the most respected people” and they earn a lot. Muhammad’s father is a teacher and would like him to become one too, but Muhammad is pessimistic: “Teaching isn’t a prestigious career anymore. My dad’s a teacher and where has that got him? He hasn’t even got a car. He owes everyone money.” Like Farrukh, Muhammad dreams of joining the legal profession.
The perceived prestige of economics, law and medicine has in parallel downgraded the prestige of science and technology related jobs. However, as one commentator in the Asia-Plus article notes, “I think that electricians and plumbers earn a lot more than doctors and lawyers. I paid an electrician $800 for 3 days’ work!”.
People I’ve spoken to in universities here are acutely aware of the need for more students to fill scientific and technical positions in the labour market, and it’s clear that the government is also trying to encourage students in this direction. As Asia-Plus notes, Tajikistan has a great need for more graduates with skills in new technologies, geology, industry, transport and energy.
Yet it is the overwhelming and now fairly enduring trend towards areas such as economics, law and medicine that make the headlines. This interest is generally associated with the earnings potential of jobs in these areas – both the take-home pay packet and in the potential to unofficially earn extra on the side.
The take home message here is not all negative. The fact that nearly 100,000 school leavers are choosing to take the university entrance exams because they want to continue their education is laudable. If spread evenly across the subject clusters, that would mean an average of 1.5 candidates for every university/college place available. Demand is high. The tradition established during the Soviet era of placing strong value on higher education in Tajikistan persists, despite the difficulties the country has experienced since becoming independent in 1991.
Nevertheless, a supportive underlying culture in this case is not enough.
I am a great believer in the transformative power of higher education, but it also seems that a dose of labour market-related realism is in order here.
Much more outreach work needs to be done in schools to help young people learn about the post-university job options that are available to them. The prestige of technical jobs has to be addressed creatively and positively. Public sector jobs ought to attract greater salaries so that good candidates are not turned off by the prospect of spending four years in university only to earn $100 a month.
And another point that is not made in any of the government documentation is the need to enrich the job opportunities (and social mobility possibilities) available to female students, especially those from rural areas. As one respondent to Asia-Plus’ interviews noted, she’d ideally like to be a banker or a tax inspector. However, as a rural woman she’s instead limited to being a midwife or a teacher.
And so the cycle continues…
A small flurry of press stories recently (e.g. in University World News on 2 June, University World News on 4 May, The PIE News, Today.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.
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.
Who leaves Tajikistan to study abroad, and why?
Where do these students go, and what do they study?
What are their post-study destinations?
These are some of the questions I address in my new essay on Tajikistan’s international students, out today in Higher Education in Russia & Beyond (HERB).
As I conclude, studying abroad can be a profoundly transformational experience. Many of the people that participated in the research I am reporting on said they had changed greatly as a result of their experiences.
This feeling is neatly encapsulated by the words of one respondent:
“I am so much [a] different person now than I was back then. Education here has broadened my mind to the things that I had no idea of their existence and as I grow in possessing my knowledge I see the opportunities that I can get, and the things that I can do in my life and with my life. I am [a] much happier person now than I was before.”
This issue of HERB looks holistically at international students across the former Soviet space, and I encourage you to take a look at the other essays in this collection.
Higher Education in Russia & Beyond 2(12) – link to whole issue
New education research on Central Asia – “Problems of forming tolerance in the educational environment of Tajikistan” by Diloro Iskandarova
Welcome to the first in a new occasional series on the blog called New education research on Central Asia. The idea is that from time to time, I will review new book chapters and journal articles written about education in Central Asia. My aims are to raise awareness of these new publications and offer a summary of the key points and my views on the piece.
If you would like to suggest a publication for review – or would like to review something yourself for this blog, then please get in touch to discuss. I’d be pleased to hear from you!
I also welcome your feedback on the new look for the blog. I hope it now looks and feels “cleaner” and the links to various pages are easier to navigate.
So – back to new research from Central Asia. The book chapter I’m reviewing today is called “Problems of forming tolerance in the educational environment of Tajikistan” by Diloro Iskandarova of the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The chapter appears in an edited collection called Digital Transformation in Journalism and News Media published by Springer in 2017.
Iskandarova describes a research project carried out with university students in two different locations in Tajikistan, one in the north of the country (Khujand State University) and one in the south (Kulyab State University and Kurgan-Tyube State University). The aim of the research was to use linguistic association to test levels of inter-ethnic tolerance amongst young people. Put in straightforward terms, the research team asked students to list words that they felt best described different groups (both as noun and adjective) – Tajik, Russian and Uzbek. If the respondents listed negative characteristics, it would suggest lower levels of tolerance than if they gave more positive word associations.
The chapter provides detailed description of the words/phrases that came up in the students’ responses, which in general were positive towards the ethnic group at hand across both regions under study. Tajiks (noun) were most associated with hard work, hospitality and Islam, for example.
There was, however, some ambiguity in the words used to describe Uzbeks, which the author ascribes in part to the Uzbek government’s policy of exclusion and generally poor relations between the two countries [though since the chapter was written, there has been a change in President in Uzbekistan and some early signs of a detente in the Uzbek-Tajik relationship].
The overall conclusion of the chapter is, as shown in the key quote below, that students are in general tolerant people. The author found some difference between the two regions, with students from the north being more open to the study and actively providing responses (which were all collected anonymously). An expressed desire to conduct further research, both in other parts of the country and using different word associations, would add greater value to the findings.
Whilst the chapter is rather short and the English language is clunky – and it seems a rather odd choice to publish this in a book on digital transformations – readers should look beyond this to the real value of the study, which is the rich data it has generated. The use of word associations is a smart idea, even if I’m not convinced that testing against ethnoynms tells us much about tolerance in general.
Key quote: “university students [are] fairly tolerant people with very little negative judgments. At the same time, we must remember that stereotypes tend to develop quickly enough in a particular environment” (p.554)
Link to publication: Iskandarova – Education tolerance Tajikistan (whole chapter) 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.