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:
Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Education has announced that Uzbek students studying abroad in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan should return home and enrol at a domestic higher education institution.
The Ministry has been quick to underline that this decision is not connected to the novel coronavirus that has been panicking the world after spreading rapidly in and from China in early 2020.
Instead, the reasons given are two-fold. Firstly, parents of these internationally minded students are apparently concerned about the difficulties of getting money to their offspring. The second issue is that some of the universities where these students are studying are not listed in Uzbekistan’s national ranking. This in turns has led to a question about whether these universities are of sufficient quality for the nation’s next generation to be educated at.
Hm. Something’s not quite right here.
It’s true that students from Turkmenistan who are studying abroad have experienced difficulties with receiving money transfers from home or using their Turkmen-issued bank cards internationally, as I have reported on before. On that basis we could surmise that Uzbek students in Turkmenistan might indeed experience some problems with getting funds from their relatives. Tajikistan has been having a rocky relationship with money transfers too, though largely because the government is keen to scrape as much commission from the companies that are still allowed to operate. But I’m not aware of any potential issues for students in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.
So yes, there may be some truth to the first reason given – although is that enough in itself to summon all overseas students home? What about those studying in non-Central Asian countries?
As for the second issue of quality assurance, call me cynical but that just seems fabricated to cover for something else. Uzbekistan has barely been able to put together its own national ranking – the Ministry of Justice outright cancelled the Ministry of Education’s first effort in 2018!
Since then, Uzbekistan has proceeded to put together rankings but this is the first I’ve heard of them taking international (i.e. non-Uzbek) universities into account. It seems like an awful lot of work to go through when the country is still in the very initial phases of ranking its own universities.
The recall of students has implications for the students themselves, for the host universities, and for the relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbours.
Uzbekistan’s universities are notoriously hard to get into – not because of corruption (although that’s definitely a problem) but because there are so few places. In 2019, 1 million school leavers competed for under 150,000 places. Little wonder that many of those denied a place at a domestic university look abroad.
In a pattern than plays out across Central Asia, most of Uzbekistan’s international students head to Russia – 26,000 last year alone. But there are significant numbers nearer to home too: more than 4,000 in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and almost 2,000 in Kyrgyzstan. So the loss of these students will have a major impact on the host universities.
This is a particular problem for Tajikistan’s Pedagogical University, which apparently has a whopping 2,500 Uzbek students on its books. Almost all of them are ‘contract’ (i.e. fee paying) students paying around 4,000 TJS (around US$400) per year, which all adds up to a significant amount of revenue for the university and will be sorely missed once the students leave.
Finally, this has ramifications for Uzbekistan’s bilateral and regional relations. Only recently starting to thaw, the Uzbek government has made huge inroads into improving its relations with its neighbours. In higher education this has led to, for example, many new cooperation agreements between universities and commitments to joint research and academic mobility.
This new and unexpected move to recall Uzbekistani students is thus not only surprising, but potentially throws a (small) spanner in the works as the overall schema for Central Asian regional relations had just begun to look more positive than ever before.
The number of international students around the world is on the increase (see UNESCO graph for growth from 2011-17), and has now reached five million people.
Whilst there are major disparities in the desinations chosen by international students (Anglophone/former colonial nations top the list) and the resources they need to get there (the more financial/social capital your family has, the easier it is for you to become internationally mobile), one remarkable trend is that international students are now drawn from every country in the world.
That includes the former Soviet space, where student mobility until 1991 allowed travel only as far as Moscow, Leningrad (St Petersburg), Novosibirsk and a handful of other academic centres in the Soviet Union. Students could travel between republics but the idea of getting a degree from outside the communist space was out of the question.
In the nearly 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, that picture has changed dramatically. Long term readers of my blog will remember the results of a survey I did of international students from Tajikistan who had ended up far and wide, from the UK to Uruguay, from Slovakia to Singapore.
In revisiting the survey data for a new paper I am working on and will present at CHER in August 2019, I took the opportunity to look at longitudinal trends across the former Soviet space. Using data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistcs, the graph below shows how patterns have changed since 1998 (the point at which data starts to become more reliable) across 14 of the 15 Soviet republics (there’s no data for Moldova). There are three time points over roughly ten year periods – 1998, 2008 and 2017, the latest data that is available.
The overall picture is of dramatic growth: if there were 120,000 international students leaving this region in 1998, that number had leaped to almost half a million by 2017. That’s an impressive increase of 265%!
As the graph shows, Kazakhstan now sends nearly 100,000 students abroad, a much higher number than second placed Ukraine (coming up for 80,000). And both those countries send significantly more students to other countries than Russia (not quite 60,000) despite Russia’s population being more than three times bigger than Ukraine’s and about six times higher than in Kazakhstan.
The big picture inevitably hides the array of scenarios seen in different countries at different points. In the last 10 years, for example, the number of intenrational students leaving Uzbekistan has been relatively flat, increasing by just 5%. Compare that to much larger increases in other countries such as Azerbaijan (475%) and Turkmenistan (550%). Over the period since 1998, the lowest growth in the number of international students has been from Estonia (up 20%), dwarfed by enormous increases in Tajikistan which are over 1,400%!
That’s a very quick analysis of some extremely interesting similarities and differences between these 14 countries. The aim was to make these numbers available in an accessible format and hopefully to inspire some curiosity to ask why we see these trends, and to think about how these might change over the next ten years.
Values, Identities and the Problems of Modernisation in Central Asia: Public lecture in Almaty, June 26
If you’re in Almaty on June 26, this upcoming University of Central Asia lecture looks great (although the word ‘modernization’ makes me queasy). Take some notes for me?
Values, Identities and the Problems of Modernisation in Central Asia
Sociologist, Candidate of Historical Sciences
Central Asian societies feature characteristics of both a traditional and modern society. Industrial manufacturing and large-scale urbanisation are characteristics of modern society. At the same time, persistent tribalism, widely adopted socio-cultural logic of traditional nature, and the hierarchical structure of institutions suggest that Central Asia is still more traditional than modern. Such social patterns of Central Asian countries objectively results from their historical development, and therefore it is unlikely that the current situation can be radically changed in the short-run or even in the mid-term. Backbone institutions of our society are not subject to choice, but are the inheritance of historical opportunities.
This lecture will cover the modernisation of Central Asian countries, leveraging concepts from cognitive sociology (such as values, identities, institutes and types of social systems), and highlighting the importance of socio-cultural institutes in the modernisation of the state, society, economics and politics. It will also explore the degree of success of social modernisation projects. The lecturer sees modernisation as a transition to another level of socio-cultural complexity, which significantly exceeds the current condition of our society. At the current level (as determined by the socio-cultural theory of society), it is not sufficient to ensure adequate self-reflection on the condition of the society and possibilities for modernisation.
Eset Jesimbekovich Esengaraev was born in 1960 in the East-Kazakhstan Oblast (Province), and currently lives in Karaganda City. Esengaraev is a Sociologist, Candidate of Historical Sciences, and an Expert in social systems, social institutions, and modernisation. He is Senior Fellow of the Institute of Economic and Legal Research of Karaganda Economic University of Kazpotrebsoyuz. Esengarev has also authored several books including “Society, Institutes and Social Science” (Karaganda, 2017), “Management as Socio-Cultural Phenomena” (Karaganda, 2019; co-authored), and has publications in newspapers and websites in Kazakhstan and Russia.
Professor, Doctor of Philosophy
Acting Head and Faculty Development Programme Manager
Aga Khan Humanities Project
University of Central Asia
The lecture will be delivered in Russian.
National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Central Scientific Library, Conference Hall
The lecture will be delivered in online mode.
Please confirm your participation to Nurzhanuar Isaeva, Candidate of Biological Sciences, Professor, Coordinator of Faculty Development Programme/AKHP in Kazakhstan email@example.com with your name and affiliation.
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.
The Bologna Process is a programme of reforms/policies co-opted by the European Union (EU) that are designed to harmonize higher education systems and facilitate greater mobility. Partnership and mobility programmes include Tempus and Erasmus (now Erasmus+) and a major cross-national research scheme, Horizon 2020. Reforms include aligning degree cycles to the Bologna Bachelor’s-Master’s-PhD cycle to ensure mutual recognition of qualifications (dealt with in the Lisbon Convention) and introducing/upgrading quality assurance processes. Taken together, all of these initiatives lead towards the Bologna Process’ main objective, the creation of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA).
First formalized in 1999, the influence of the Bologna Process has now spread well beyond the confines of the EU, from Australia to states in Latin America. Bologna has also reached the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Yet only countries with territories in Europe can ever be members of the EHEA. So, for Central Asia, this means that only Kazakhstan – which has a sliver of European land in the western part of the country – will ever be able to join the EHEA.
This raises an interesting question: Despite their inability to join the EHEA, why do policymakers outside the EU choose the Bologna Process as a means of implementing change in higher education?
Once the decision is made to adopt Bologna-compliant policies, this leads to another interesting question: How are these reforms received by those at the frontline of implementation, namely faculty members?
I’m tackling these two questions in a new study I am working on, and which I am presenting at the Canadian Political Science Assocation annual conference (if by chance you’re in Vancouver and free at 8.45am on June 6, please come!).
As you might expect, I’m looking at these issues in the context of Central Asia. Each of the five states has connections to the Bologna Process, from Turkmenistan’s minimalist approach to Kazakhstan’s full-on adoption of the Bologna Process in 2010. The image below, one of the slides from my conference presentation, sets out the Central Asian journey to implementing Bologna:
In the course of the interviews I undertook with faculty in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as part of my PhD research, I asked respondents what they felt had been the biggest change in higher education in their country since they had obtained independence in 1991.
Many – and an overwhelming majority in Tajikistan – brought up some aspect of the Bologna Process. Some thought Bologna was a really positive step for higher education in their country, particularly the opportunities for student/faculty mobility and the ability for their students’ qualifications to be recognized by other countries. Others were more critical in their attitudes. In Tajikistan, this was mainly in relation to teething issues as new reforms bed in. Across all three countries, some respondents were cynical about the necessity/appropriateness of Bologna for their national systems.
What was particularly interesting in these discussions was that regardless of whether or not faculty found the Bologna reforms to be useful or appropriate, everyone who brought up the Bologna Process did so in the broader context of changes to higher education.
In this way, I found that the Bologna Process has become – or is becoming – a metaphor that is deployed by faculty to help them make sense of and navigate the fluctuating environment in Central Asian higher education. Framing the Bologna Process in this way helps us better understand the worldviews of the faculty who are at the frontline of implementing reforms. Further, it also shines a light on the processes, strategies and behaviours that faculty use to bring meaning-making into action.
I hope that at some point in the future I’ll be able to find a home to publish the study as that will be an opportunity to bring forward the voices of faculty members whose views are rarely heard, not only within the domestic policymaking scene but in the Anglophone academic literature.
Everyone’s at it these days – internationalization of higher education, that is. Internationalization is a loose enough term that it can encompass a wide range of activities, from attracting more international students to redesigning the curriculum to incorporate a broader array of global perspectives.
Higher education systems in the Central Asian countries have dutifully leaped onto the internationalization bandwagon since obtaining independence in 1991. The last decade has seen a particular uptick in activity, although in Kazakhstan this can be dated back even further to the late 1990s.
Prominent features of internationalization in Central Asia are similar to trends found in other countries that have been paying greater attention to global higher education in recent years. These include:
- Inviting foreign universities to open branch campuses – Russian institutions lead the way in Central Asia, but Uzbekistan has been incredibly open to invitations from all over the world of late;
- Joining the Bologna Process, the European Union led initiative seeking to harmonize systems and qualifications to enable greater transferability across Europe (and now beyond);
- Seeking to position a country as a regional education hub;
- Attracting international students and faculty members.
A recent conference in Kyrgyzstan [ru] sought to tease out some of the challenges and opportunities faced as the country continues its internationalizing path in higher education.
An interview [ru] with Rector of ADAM University and higher education expert Dr Svetlana Sirmbard revealed two interesting emerging trends for Kyrgyzstan. The first of these is the development of double degrees, degrees taught and certified equally by two universities in different countries. Sirmbard offers double degrees as a cost-effective alternative to studying for a degree abroad, noting that an increasing number are organized not by two universities but by a larger consortium, allowing each to draw on its strengths and tap into the resources already available elsewhere.
The second area for development noted by Sirmbard is digitalization. Thus, we should expect to see further expansion of online learning that will widen access to highier education (for those with good internet connections) – especially women at home with young children, Sirmbard suggests. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), which took off in a big way in English speaking countries a few years ago, will also be in the pipeline for Kyrgyzstan.
A challenge that remains as Kyrgyzstan – and indeed, other countries around the world – continue their drive to internationalize is how to ensure that the opportunities opened up internationalization are available to everyone. Online learning and MOOCs are two ways to open or extend access to higher education, but as Dr Sirmbard notes, challenges remain for students with additional needs, whether as a result of disabilities or other issues. Really emphasizing the importance of ensuring internationalization is maximally inclusive will be where value can really be added for higher education.
If you’re excited by internationalization and its possible futures, let me offer a quick plug for a conference I am co-organizing on exactly this topic. Being held at the University of Toronto on June 24-25, Shaping Sustainable Futures for Internationalization in Higher Education has an excellent line-up of no fewer than 36 workshops, roundtables, sharing circles and panels along with three exceptional keynote speakers. Registration for the conference is open and I hope you will consider joining us!
What do the European Union, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the Western Balkans and the Association of Asian Universities have in common?
Answer: They are all excellent examples of regional groupings, alliances or partnerships that higher education institutions and nations within the former Soviet space have become involved with in recent years.
This notion of regionalism – the introduction of supranational political initiatives for higher education that are formed around regional alliances, associations and groupings – is fairly new in higher education studies. This is despite the fact that such partnerships have proliferated and continue to flourish, whether organized by universities themselves or as priorities within groupings of multiple nations.
Regional initiatives are not always based around geographic blocs, as the example above of the BRICS suggests, although it is common to focus on shared spaces. In this way, regional identities and initiatives do not only reflect historic legacies or geographic commonalities, but also represent imaginaries of future constellations of actors.
The rationale behind entering into regional higher education initiatives, the power dynamics among the actors involved, and the impact of these partnerships and alliances on the everyday lives of those working in higher education are among some of the many important issues raised in a new special issue for Higher Education in Russia and Beyond (HERB) that I have guest edited and which has just been published.
The special issue begins with four articles exploring different varieties of regionalism, assisting in the conceptualization of the term and its role for higher education in the former Soviet/communist space. Larissa Titarenko discusses how policymakers prioritize different regions for both economic and political purposes, observing that the economic dimension makes Asia an important focal point for cooperation in Belarus. In my article, I lay out why Russia too shares a growing interest in educational cooperation with Asia, offering several examples to illustrate how and why regional connections to Russia’s east are on the rise.
Heading west, Alenka Flander’s article ties together regionalism in the Western Balkans with national initiatives to internationalize the Slovenian higher education system. Looking to the future, she posits that other Slavic language groups outside the EU may be a new region in the making for Slovenia. The final article in this part by Maxim Khomyakov frames Russia’s involvement with the BRICS within the Global North-Global South discourse, arguing that this non-geographic region holds fascinating possibilities for Russia as it looks forward beyond its own Soviet legacy.
The second part of the issue contains four articles that consider the scope and prospects for higher education regionalism within the former Soviet space. Natalia Leskina asks whether there is such a thing as a Eurasian Higher Education Area, showing that while the political odds make it unlikely, it is actually bottom-up initiatives by universities that are driving the development of this regional grouping. Abbas Abbasov considers how Russian branch campuses can be seen as a new form of (post-colonial) regionalism, shining a spotlight on the regional activities of Russia’s leading university, Moscow State University, as a case study.
Keeping the focus on Russia, Zahra Jafarova examines patterns of student mobility to the former metropole. She unpacks the dynamics of shifting trends from Ukraine and Kazakhstan, finding that student mobility is being influenced by Russian soft power, albeit in different ways in the two countries. While Russia may be leading the way in former Soviet higher education regionalism, Martha Merrill’s piece on Central Asia makes it quite clear that these countries’ very different visions and abilities to develop education do not offer promising prospects for a Central Asian regional identity to emerge in higher education.
The third part of the triptych deals specifically with the European Union (EU), which is currently the most significant region for higher education ideas, policies and programmes across the former Soviet space. Chynara Ryskulova explains how the choice made by Kyrgyzstan’s policymakers to adopt European reforms has heralded a new quality assurance system that has not yet been fully absorbed or accepted by the faculty that have to deliver the new reforms on the ground. On the other side of the former Soviet Union, Nadiia Kachynska also points to the difficulties of integrating into the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program, analyzing the reasons that Ukrainian universities still struggle to participate on an equal basis with their EU counterparts.
Svetlana Shenderova and Dmitry Lanko then take us to the Russian-Finnish borderlands, pointing out the gaps that emerge as the two countries attempt to cooperate on double degrees without sharing experiences and expertise obtained from their involvement in other regional initiatives (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for Russia; the European Union for Finland). Finally, Aytaj Pashaeva looks at a twining project that brought EU experts to Azerbaijan to support the development and launch of the Azerbaijani Quality Assurance Framework in 2018.
Taken together, the 12 articles add considerable depth to our understanding of what regionalism in higher education looks and feels like across the ex-Soviet/communist space. The articles help us move beyond describing the wealth of regional initiatives – although this is in itself is an important contribution – towards answering more profound questions around what engagement in these initiatives signifies at individual, institutional and national levels and how regionalism can be used both to perpetuate existing hierarchies and inequalities but also to break free from them and look in different directions.
Higher Education in Russia and Beyond is an open access non-academic journal published by the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia. The special issue on regionalism is one of four volumes that will be published in 2019; the back catalogue from its inception in 2014 can be found here.
My huge thanks go to the authors of the articles in the issue for such interesting and insightful contributions as well as their willingness to engage with me and the regular editorial team as we moved towards publication.
Thank you also to Maria Yudkevich, Vice Rector of HSE, for the invitation to guest edit an issue of HERB and for being open to the exploration of this relatively novel topic. Finally, thank you to Vera Arbieva, HERB’s coordinator, for her constant professionalism and support.
The Academy of Sciences in Turkmenistan is facing major budget cuts that will see a third of its personnel lose their jobs and structural changes that may see the Academy disappear from the science scene in the country.
As an institution, the Academy of Sciences brings together researchers from across disciplines, historically separating them from their teaching counterparts in universities and specialized institutes. Although the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded under Peter the Great in 1724 [ru], it is the Soviet-era version that was propagated around the Soviet Union, reaching Central Asia in the 1940s/1950s.
Fast forward to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the Academy of Sciences – now divided into national branches, no longer held together as a single entity – has met varying fates. In Russia and Kazakhstan, there have been moves to get rid of the Academy by merging its functions with universities, whereas in other states like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, its work continues moreorless in the same format as was inherited in the 1990s (even if the structures and disciplinary groupings have changed).
Turkmenistan’s Academy of Science was already dealt a near fatal blow in 1995 when it was closed down, also leading to the closure of postgraduate studies in the country as the Academy of Sciences is also responsible for training the next generation of researchers.
But with a change of president in 2007, the Academy was reopened in 2009. A government sanctioned list of its achievements testifies to the variety of science and research activities being undertaken (or at least reported to the government).
Sadly, notwithstanding the re-emergence of the Academy, it will mark its tenth anniversary as the latest institution to be hit by a series of state funding cutbacks. Budget belt tightening has been underway for three years, as the ever reliable (and very witty) Bruce Pannier of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Qishloq Ovozi reported in December 2018.
Government funding for the Academy is due to be phased out over the next three years and 30% of staff will lose their jobs [ru] in the immediate future. That’s around 200 researchers from the nine research institutes that remain. Mergers will also be underway, bringing the Biology Institute into the University of Engineering and Technology, for example.
Turkmenistan Chronicle tells the sombering tale [ru] of how 2,000 people – including 450 researchers at the Academy of Science – were obliged to attend an event lasting several hours, in which they were ‘treated’ to 23 songs in honour of the President before hearing the Rector of the University of Engineering and Technology give a speech extolling the virtues of the President’s latest great idea. Imagine what it must have felt like sitting in that audience, either knowing or being able to make an educated guess about your unlucky fate.
Even before the news broke, the future for science in Turkmenistan has not been looking promising. Just 300 people in the country hold a Candidate of Sciences (PhD equivalent) degree, and fewer than 100 have the higher level Doctor of Sciences. Of the 12 people awarded a Doctor of Sciences in recent years, only four are working in science and research. And while on a more positive note, 1,200 people have written a Candidate thesis, none have been allowed to defend it.
The science pipeline is not leaky in Turkmenistan anymore. It’s not even burst: it seems to have completely dried up. And that is not a situation that any country with a plan for the future should want to find itself in.
The opportunity to study abroad is usually positioned as a life (and CV) enhancing experience. Among other benefits, studying abroad enables you to learn about different ways of teaching and learning, find out about new cultures, make new friends, and brush up on your language skills. Little wonder that the number of internationally mobile students is rapidly increasing – around five million currently and predicted to rise to eight million by 2025.
A recent series of meetings in Turkmenistan – a major sender of international students, primarily to Russia and Belarus – sought to put paid to any romantic ideas about studying abroad.
Parents of students currently studying abroad were summoned to attend meetings in which government officials informed them about the many dangers associated with these overseas stays.
Chief among the potential problems is religious (Islamic) radicalization – a concern shared by the Tajik government, which since 2010 has been clamping down on citizens with the temerity to study courses related to Islam abroad.
Other concerns raised by the officials included the prospect that Turkmen students would commit crimes while abroad, go to bars or visit brothels.
Despite ‘untrustworthy’ (outspoken?) parents not being invited to the meetings, Chronicles of Turkmenistan, an information resource run by the the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, nevertheless reported how frustrated some of the attendees became at one meeting:
One could overhear outraged exclamations from the audience:
– What bars are you talking about if they have no cash for food!?
– A student visa does not give the right to work and we are unable to transfer money to them. What is to be done?
– We hear that some students engage in thefts, robberies or drug trafficking but this should come as no surprise as they have no money!
There have been longstanding problems transferring money outside Turkmenistan and accessing funds from Turkmen banks in other countries, causing significant problems for students.
After these concerns were raised, the meeting was rapidly shut down after promises that the parents would get answers to their questions within 10 days.
Will they get their answers?
It doesn’t look promising. Chronicles of Turkmenistan goes on to note that parents at an earlier meeting had raised similar questions about the low money transfer limits in their province. They were told that:
…the restriction is related to the fact that “the region makes the smallest contribution to the country’s economy” and advised them to “resolve their problems on their own”.
The response to those parents who spoke up at the recent meeting may well be along the same lines.