Central Asian faculty and friends I know are fond of observing that higher education in the region is not as good as it used to be, and/or is facing a ‘crisis’ because of a lack of quality, corruption, outflow of good teachers and so on.
All of these points are valid. Yet at the same time, a university degree continues to be in high demand. Two recent stories from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that happened to pop up in my newsfeed on the same day show the lengths that some are prepared to go in the clamour for admission to university.
In Kazakhstan, it has been reported that five higher education institutions (HEI) have had their licenses taken away, and a further 12 have been fined, with one being taken to court. Given that the state-issued license gives an HEI the right to operate legally, its removal effectively closes down operations, at least temporarily.
This particular crackdown is a response to what some might see as actually a pretty canny move by students. Kazakhstan, like most (if not all) of the former Soviet states, has a national admissions entrance testing system, an exam taken by domestic high/secondary school graduates to determine which courses and universities they are eligible for.
To get around this barrier, it seems that some students – as many as 37,000, according to the news story on MK Kazakhstan – had enrolled at universities in neighbouring (ex-Soviet) countries as international students i.e. without having to sit that country’s entrance exam. Then, after a semester or a year, they transferred to an HEI in Kazakhstan, typically a smaller institution based outside of one of the bigger cities in the country. Whether or not these students ever even went to the foreign university to study before transferring is questionable; it seems likely that this is purely a paper shuffling exercise.
Not only a strategy deployed by students, the HEIs are also benefiting from this ‘market’: students who for whatever reason did not want to take the national entrance exam, as well as recruiting those who were thrown out of other universities for poor results. But with this latest crackdown, it looks like it’s 1-0 to the government for now.
Over in Uzbekistan, it’s Russian HEIs getting into hot water. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, five HEIs have been accused of recruiting Uzbek students without the proper authorization.
The HEIs – a mix of state funded universities and smaller private institutions – have allegedly been signing contracts with students for 2019/20, even though the academic year is already well underway. This would be OK if the HEIs were properly accredited in Uzbekistan (as over 20 Russian universities are), but in this case the paperwork wasn’t in order.
So, the State Inspectorate for Education Quality Control has put its foot down, issuing a stern warning to the institutions concerned. They’ve even put out a reminder that it now only takes ten days to get the right documents, down from one month. These Russian HEIs have been named and shamed, but whether this step or the Kazakh government’s legal actions make any significant difference to students’ and institutional behaviour when it comes to higher education admissions remains doubtful.
Following the firing of the Rector of Tashkent’s ‘most corrupt university’ in August 2019, another university leader has been shown the door.
Rector Bahodyr Khodiev of Tashkent State University of Economics (TSUE) was suspended in November 2019 on the grounds of corruption. Details of Khodiev’s alleged activities have not been made public, but this very high profile removal comes as part of the Uzbekistan government’s drive for greater transparency during the university admissions process, which now carries ‘severe penalties’ for those who violate the process.
Khodiev had been at TSUE since May 2016, although this was not his first stint there as Rector. He had previously also been in charge prior to moving over to several senior government positions in 2010.
Khodiev has been replaced by Kongratbay Sharipov who has come over from the Ministry of Higher and Professional Education to take charge at TSUE. Sharipov left school at 15 to work as a mechanic, turning to teaching in the late 1980s and turning fully to academia as Uzbekistan became independent in the 1990s. In the 2000s he appears to have combined academic work with business operations – in 2009 alone he had positions as both the general manager of new projects at GM Uzbekistan and was briefly the rector of Turin Polytechnic University!
Watch this space to see who’s next to go in the anti-corruption drive in Uzbekistan.
My latest piece for University World News, a global online publication for anyone with a passing interest in higher education, was published on October 19. I wanted to bring UWN’s readership up to date with recent developments in Uzbekistan, which have been taking place at breakneck speed over the past couple of years.
Please find the article at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20191017104759957; a copy of the text is below:
A breathtaking shift from autocracy to an open HE system
The higher education landscape in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, has been changing rapidly over the past three years. Since the passing of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, who had been in power since 1991, the country has seen an about-face under the leadership of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Under Mirziyoyev, a swathe of policies aim to transform higher education into what one government minister has called ‘Universities 3.0’.
These policies will give universities more autonomy to choose their own leaders and to manage their own affairs through their governing bodies, will give universities greater control over student numbers and course offerings and will liberalise price controls on tuition fees and increase the number of public-private partnerships.
In October 2019, these and other ideas were formalised through the ratification of the Higher Education Development Plan to 2030.
Although Uzbekistan was the first of the Central Asian states to permit international branch campuses, having hosted the United Kingdom’s University of Westminster and Russia’s Plekhanov Russian University of Economics since 2001-02, the number of foreign higher education institutions remained very limited at just five.
However, under Mirziyoyev, regulation was introduced in late 2017 offering tax breaks and other financial incentives. Since then, international branch campuses have spread ‘like mushrooms’, according to Yekaterina Kazachenko, a journalist with the independent Russian agency Fergana News.
Much fanfare accompanied the opening of the American Webster University, where bilateral talks on opening campuses in Tashkent and Samarkand had apparently begun under the previous leadership in 2012. However, it was not until the 2019-20 academic year that the campuses were inaugurated, with just under 500 students.
According to the university, this makes the Uzbekistan branches the largest population of Webster students outside of the university’s St Louis, Missouri, main campus.
Interest from Russia and Asia
It’s not just English-speaking countries that are getting in on the branch campus act. Russia, which is the largest provider of branch campuses to the countries of the former Soviet Union, has also been increasing its efforts to expand the presence of its universities in Uzbekistan.
Campuses linked to six Russian universities opened in 2019 alone and talks are ongoing to create other branches.
With the country’s strategic location between Europe and Asia, it is unsurprising that interest in opening branch campuses in Uzbekistan is also emanating from the south and east.
The relatively well established presence of Singapore (Management Development Institute of Singapore) and South Korea (Inha University) is being joined by Malaysia’s University of Technology and India’s Amity University, among others.
There are also rumours that China will be creating not just a branch campus but a fully-fledged university in the capital Tashkent.
The flourishing of branch campuses is one obvious area of change for the size and shape of the higher education system in Uzbekistan. Other reforms have also had a demonstrable impact, such as the resumption of the teaching of political science in 2019 after it was banned under Karimov, ostensibly because it did not represent the then president’s ideological leanings.
The speed of reform
Many of the plans being put forward adhere to what we might think of as a ‘standard operating procedure’ global template for higher education reform. It’s not only Uzbekistan that is welcoming international branch campuses, creating university rankings, opening science parks and pushing for publications in ranked international journals, as readers of University World News will be well aware.
Arguably, however, there are two things that make the reforms in Uzbekistan stand out. The first is the sheer speed with which a systemic overhaul is being introduced. Mirziyoyev has been at the helm for less than three years, but he has already made a significant impact, not only in higher education but in the media, economy, social policy and other areas.
The second is the distance that these reforms are taking Uzbekistan from the previous authoritarian regime.
In September 2019, academics in Uzbekistan and around the world rejoiced at the wonderful news that the scholar Andrei Kubatin had been acquitted of all charges and released from jail. Kubatin, a well-known Turkic studies expert and historian, had been imprisoned in 2017 and subjected to torture after being sentenced to an 11-year term on false charges of treason.
Human rights watchers and academics alike are hopeful that the reversal of Kubatin’s charges could lead to the re-examination of other politically motivated cases.
Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector continues to experience significant challenges. One is systemic corruption, which ranges from bribing professors for grades to using connections to obtain places on popular courses.
Another challenge is the limitation on who can access a degree. Although a record number of students applied to get into university in 2019, participation rates in higher education are still low at 10% (the gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education for 2018).
This figure is even less encouraging for women (8%), who continue to experience gender discrimination and inequality. It is also known that students from rural areas find it more difficult to get into higher education.
A third barrier comes from the top-heavy governance of the system, where university leaders are appointed (and removed) at the state’s behest.
Yet, as experienced journalist Navbahor Imamova has recently pointed out, despite continuing curtailments on citizens’ liberties and low trust in government, the reforms in Uzbekistan to date nevertheless reflect a “remarkable shift, one that stands in sharp contrast to what often seems like a relentless international trend toward greater repression, increasing autocracy, and eroding liberties”.
Several weeks after news broke that the head of Tashkent’s ‘most corrupt university’ had been fired, a new appointee has taken up the mantle.
Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL)’s Rector Yesemurat Kanyazov was fired not just from his university leadership position but also from his other job as Deputy Minister of Justice. The official reason now given was that Kanyazov was leaving for another role – Deputy Director of the Intellectual Property Agency at the Ministry of Justice, according to sources.
Taking the helm at TSUL is 36 year old Rahim Hakimov. Hakimov has a doctorate in law [the higher-than-a-PhD level Doctor of Sciences degree] and is a graduate of TSUL, from which he graduated with a Specialist degree [like a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s] in 2005. He joins TSUL from government, having previously served on the defence and security committee as a member of parliament.
Like his predecessor, Hakimov has also been given the dual role of Deputy Minister of Justice. Let’s see whether he has more effect in clamping down on the corruption that has given his new workplace the not so illustrious title of ‘most corrupt university’ in Tashkent.
PS Today is my blog’s 8th birthday! Having set out in 2011 to share stories about Central Asia and the former Soviet space and links to higher education, I’ve been true to form over the years. The blog has been viewed nearly 50,000 times to date and well over 1,000 of you subscribe to receive updates from the site. My top post – in terms of how many times it was viewed and shared on other sites – remains my bruising critique of the Tajik government’s introduction of a dress code for university students, High heels for higher learning.
Thank you very much indeed for reading the blog. Here’s to the next eight years!
Catching up on recent higher ed news, here’s a story from Uzbekistan that speaks both to the ongoing wave of education policy reforms in that country as well as to the persistence of corrupt practices in higher education.
At the end of August 2019, the Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL) Yesemurat Kanyazov was dramatically fired from his top position. The resignation was ordered by no less than the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The reason(s) for his removal from the university post were not given. Kanyazov had been at the helm of TSUL since 2013 having previously developed a career in government. Indeed, at the same time as being Rector of TSUL, he also held the position of Vice Minister of Justice. It’s not clear whether Kanyazov has managed to hang on to this job either.
At the time of writing this piece, TSUL’s website is still showing Kanyazov as its Rector and there are no news stories about his departure…
In my research on former Soviet higher education systems, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 continues to feature prominently as a starting point for some of the subsequent shifts that have occurred in higher education (and in society at large). More recent changes such as the introduction of principles of the European Union’s Bologna Process have shifted higher education even further away from the Soviet model that was inherited. Yet taken as a whole, the notion of a pre-1991 and post-1991 division in the direction of higher education holds quite strong.
That was the starting point for some recent research I did to find out how authors writing about those post-1991 changes in higher education have understood what has happened. I also wanted to investigate whether there are differences in how authors writing in English and those writing in Russian conceptualize these shifts.
To do this, I delved into 57 academic articles (and I read a whole lot more to whittle the number down to a suitable data set!) in English and Russian that discuss post-1991 higher education in Russia or other former Soviet republics. I devised two different methods to analyse the articles and the standpoints taken by their authors.
You can find out more about these methods and what I found at the Europe of Knowledge blog, which is the official blog of the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies. I presented my research at the ECPR Annual Conference in 2018 and am happy to say that my paper was selected for the 2018 Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar. This is a great honour and I am very grateful to the selection committee and to the Standing Group, which I am proud to be involved with.