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.
The month of March brings with it the official start of spring, the vernal equinox (this year on 20 March), and in Tajikistan – as with other Central Asian countries – the celebration of Navruz / No’rooz, or New Light/Day. There are multiple spelling variations of what has been classified as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO.
In recent years, celebrations of Navruz in Tajikistan have taken on a distinctly nationalist character as the government seeks to appropriate it as something that embodies the modern Tajik state, shifting the festivity away from its ancient pan-Eurasian and Iranian roots.
Like the other post-Soviet states, Tajikistan has been frantically building an identity for itself as an independent state over the last quarter of a century. This has been done within a framework that is more globalized, placing unprecedented pressures on the formerly Soviet countries in ways never experienced by other ‘new’ countries of the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries. Yet unlike some of the post-Soviet states, Tajikistan and its Central Asian neighbours experienced independent statehood (with their current geographic boundaries) for the first time in the 1990s, making the nation-building imperative even more urgent.
Thus the celebration of Navruz in today’s Tajikistan becomes something more than an expression of joy at the end of winter and coming of a new harvest season. It separates Tajikistan from its past, when Navruz was banned in Soviet times.
It is a ‘safe’ quasi-religious celebration that does not give too much credence to the official religion of Islam, a source of great stress to the leadership of Tajikistan (where even wearing a beard can get a man into trouble). It is the government’s idea of a good social policy, as it can offer public holidays and festivities around the country.
This year the government is taking Navruz to new highs. In a recent letter to all educational establishments in the country, the Ministry of Education and Science has decided that all teachers and students should wear national dress during March [ru] in honour of Navruz. Why, you might ask? Here’s the answer news agency Asia-Plus gives:
В распоряжении отмечается, что данная рекомендация сделана в целях пропаганды и возрождения лучших традиций предков таджикского народа и достойной встречи Навруза.
This recommendation is being made to promote and revive the best traditions of the ancestors of the Tajik people and in honour of the great holiday Navruz.
[Source: Asia-Plus; my translation]
According to information agency Avesta, this ruling only applies to female students [ru]. Once again, it seems to be the women who get the dress code at university. Apparently, some educational institutions might take this ruling even further. A senior (male) leader at northern Khujand State University said that female students and staff might continue to wear national dress through to the end of the academic year, not just for March. (Or perhaps Khujand State is on a mission to prove it can exceed government targets in Stakhanov-esque fashion.)
This isn’t quite the laughing matter that it appears. As Asia-Plus points out, the cost of a dress made of the ‘national’ material of atlas can be around US$30, or around a third of a monthly salary. A government official in the capital city has already had to issue a clarification to its statement noting that kindergarten/nursery children are not subject to the dress code rule after parents reported rumours that their little ones would also need to be suitably kitted out during March.
You’ll doubtless be relieved to know that the Ministry of Education’s Press Secretary has confirmed that no one in schools or universities will be forced to wear national dress during March [ru]. They are also allowed to wear a ‘pretty dress’ instead…
Let me remind you of the last time the government decided that women should dress differently at university, when it was fairly easy to prove that no, wearing high heels did not in fact make you a better learner. Wearing national dress during March may look great for your school photo, but does it make you more patriotic? Work harder? Think more? I think you know where I’m going with this.