Higher education policy in Central Asia and Afghanistan – new report published (open access)

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Grumpy cat
RIP, Grumpy Cat. My blog won’t be the same without you.

What are the challenges and opportunities in higher education in Central Asia and Afghanistan?

What kind of government policies can introduce innovation?

How can science and technology capacity be promoted?

For more on these important questions and some ideas about further developing science, technology and innovation in Central Asia and Afghanistan, please take a look at my newly published report for the University of Central Asia.

Currently available in English, I am told a Russian version will also be available soon.

Here’s a direct link to the report in pdf format: UCA-IPPA-Wp51 – ENG

I welcome your thoughts and feedback on the propositions in the report.

Corruption finally on the wane in Kazakhkstan?

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Apparently, students in East Kazakhstan are very satisfied with the lack of corruption in their universities too

The votes have been counted and the results are in and… well, it turns out that Kazakhstan’s higher education is not as corrupt as you might have thought.

According to a report in Arna Press [ru], students in East Kazakhstan were generally pretty satisfied with their ability to progress through higher education without resorting to bribes.

Over 1,100 students at universities and technical/vocational training institutes in the region completed a survey organized by the East Kazakhstan Region State Agency for Civil Service and Anti-Corruption [ru]. Just 23 of that number – around 0.02% – said that they had bribed a professor, 40 reported using personal or family connections to get around the rules and only 72 admitted to cheating (e.g. using their mobile phone in exams, plagiarising others’ work).

When asked how effectively they thought their universities were dealing with corruption, over half of students said ‘extremely well’, the most positive response on the 5-point scale; only 6.5% gave an extremely negative answer. Fewer than 3% said they regularly encountered situations that could only be resolved through corrupt means whilst nearly 70% said this had never happened to them. And over 80% of those surveyed said they had not come across ‘unfair practices’ (giving bribes or gifts, use of personal connections etc).

Those are extremely pleasing reports for the government, which has committed itself to rooting out corruption from higher education. It has even developed a corruption ranking of universities to name and shame poor performers.

Perhaps the survey results are an indication of deep change in higher education in Kazakhstan, which since Soviet times has been plagued by various forms of corruption. It really would be something if a student could get through a degree without having to know the right people or come from the right family, or have to dig deep into their pockets where cash is not necessarily available in the first place – that is to say, to get a qualification based on what you know, not who you know or whether you can afford to do it.

But these results run counter to the opinion of almost every person in the country I’ve ever spoken to about higher education. I’ve been told and have read about countless stories of corruption from its mildest instances to troublingly deep problems.

It would be easy to reach the conclusion that these survey results [ru] are just as corrupt as the system continues to be. Yet the optimist in me dares to hope that even if there’s some skewing in the outcomes, the prospects for able students without money or connections might just be getting brighter in Kazakhstan.

Internationalizing Kyrgyzstan’s higher education: Double degrees and digitalization lie ahead

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world is a cat
All the world’s a cat and all the universities merely players… [with apologies to Shakespeare]
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:

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!

Harnessing Tajikistan’s growing diaspora

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Expat cats of Tajikistan are not writing home

Website Cabar recently published a thought provoking report by political scientist Muslimbek Buriev on the potential role of the one million+ Tajikistanis living outside the country. The report is available in Tajik, Russian and English.

A sizeable proportion of the nine million strong population of Tajikistan can be considered disaporic in the sense that they are geographically dispersed beyond the country’s borders. The estimate of one million may well be an under-statement of the true number, which could be anywhere up to two million – as much as 20% of the population.

The vast majority of Tajikistanis living abroad are based in Russia, making this group a logical focal point for Buriev’s report. Buriev discusses the activities of expat Tajikistanis in Russia and shows how the lack of proactive government policy towards citizens living abroad misses opportunities to harness their significant potential (although the remittances sent back to Tajikistan prop up the national economy – it is estimated that around 30% of GDP comes from these overseas transfers, making Tajikistan a top five global recipient of remittances).

Buriev makes an interesting comparison with Armenia, where the government has helped to formalize the relationship between the homeland and its diasporic communities, suggesting ways that this experience could be helpful in the case of Tajikistan.

An underplayed aspect of Buriev’s report is the role of the diaspora in promoting alternative visions for the future of Tajikistan. Buriev does note that Rahmon’s regime attempts to ‘reduce the risks of ideological influence’ on those living abroad who may be opposed to the current administration in Tajikistan, but it would have been really interesting to delve into this issue further.

The Tajikistan government’s ability to act extra-territorially is well-established, whether this be undeniable connections with the murder of opposition figures or pressure placed on the family members of those who have escaped the country (with very rare positive outcomes).

The (very) long arm of the law likely precludes many ‘ordinary’ diaspora Tajiks from collectively or publicly voicing their opposition to the current regime, although people are comfortable expressing their views in private and amongst friends. On the other hand, this type of action also drives people away from the country – not only those who overtly oppose the regime but those who see better prospects for themselves and their families outside the borders of an increasingly authoritarian state.

Both cases point to a future where the Tajikistani diaspora remains in much the same condition as it is now: quiet on the outside, increasing in number, social rather than political when diaspora groups do come together, and largely ignored by the government. On the whole, this is probably the best state of affairs that both sides could hope for.

Is there space for civil society in Kazakhstan?

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Peaceful it may be, but it’s probably still too much for the Kazakh government to take…

I’ve been meaning to repost an article from The Diplomat on civil society in Kazakhstan for a while. With news of more arrests today after activists have unfurled banners and quoted the constitution, the topic of civil society in Kazakhstan is becoming a hot one.

Tantalizingly entitled How can Kazakhstan revitalize its civil society?, author Sergey Marinin points to education as one key response to the question. Specifically, Marinin emphasizes the role that the growing number of Western educated Kazakhs can play in supporting the development of civil society, which has historically been more closely associated with the state in Kazakhstan than identifiable as a separate arena.

As Marinin says,

“Politically disenchanted youth lean toward civic activism because the state excludes them from official decision-making processes”

Thus, Marinin offers a ‘win-win solution’: employ graduates returning to Kazakhstan to teach in higher education institutions (HEIs)*, deploying the experience of living and studying in Western contexts to support the development of critical thinking among students and non-Soviet management practices among faculty and staff.

*Marinin does not mention that around half of Kazakhstan’s HEIs are now privately run or that there are ongoing waves of privatization in the sector, meaning that higher education is, on paper, no longer a state sector staffed by civil servants. However, in practice, the state still retains a high level of steering control over the sector.

With the historic changes at the top of the political order unfolding before our eyes after the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and until recently only President of Kazakhstan, this is a moment of hope for proponents of civil society. Could the forthcoming presidential election open up opportunities for the non-state sector to make its views heard?

It’s not only Marinin who thinks that citizens with study abroad experience might hold the key to unlocking civil society in the former Soviet space. University of Oxford academic Maia Chankseliani has found links between student mobility and democratic development when students from the former Soviet region head to Europe and the US (see also her summary of the article in The Conversation).

However, despite major investment by the Kazakh government and students’ families in study abroad to the West, Chankseliani finds that most students from Kazakhstan – along with the other Central Asian states – head to Russia if they study abroad. And the more students go to Russia, the stronger the (negative) effect is on democratization.

Moving beyond the study abroad destination, emerging research by Aliya Kuzhabekova and colleagues at Nazarbayev University has found that students returning from a spell abroad are finding it difficult to access local networks as they readjust to being back in Kazakhstan. Instead, study abroad returnees working in higher education are beginning to set up their own informal networks and alliances, coming together to help make their voices heard.

I reported on another type of grassroots movement being organized by those who are still abroad just recently: #scienceiamdoing – Kazakh women tell all about research and life abroad

Kuzhabekova et al’s study and movements like the PhD Girls’ Union add important nuance to the state/civil society (or authoritarian/democratic) debate. These examples demonstrate how people – well educated, with experience of living abroad, and often young – are attempting to advance civil society in Kazakhstan within the framework of a state that continues to be extremely powerful.

Despite these shoots of hope, it is clear that those advocating for civil society have a long road ahead. Overt attempts to propound democratic ideals such as hanging up banners with extracts from the constitution have not gone down well. At all.

Will the Kazakh state ever be open to civil society?

Well, it could be if Tokayev – Nazarbayev’s likely successor in this June’s presidential elections – turns out to be more like neighbouring Uzbekistan’s President Mirziyoyev who everyone thought would continue the repressive actions of his predecessor Karimov but appears to have taken a more radical reform path.

However, whilst Nazarbayev is still around (where Karimov was not), it looks like there won’t be any real change in direction in Kazakhstan. The space for civil society remains small. It is actions led by study abroad returnees within that space may be what hold the key to eventually leading change from within.

#scienceiamdoing – Kazakh women tell all about research and life abroad

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Not an actual selfie of the #kzphdgirlsunion team

Over on Kazakh social media, something rather brilliant is happening.

At the end of March, a new Yvision (a trilingual Kazakh blogging platform) blog was set up to support an Instagram account that’s already been in operation for several months. The aim of the blog and Instagram accounts are to promote a very exciting project:

#KZPHDGIRLSUNION

The project is a collaboration by 16 female PhD students, all from Kazakhstan, and all doing their graduate work abroad. Between them, they’re studying pretty much all of the hard and social sciences, covering everything from nanotechnology to education.

Their aim is to share news and views about their research, showing others (particularly women, though everyone will enjoy their posts) what it’s like to study and live abroad. This is also a form of community engagement, as they say on their site:

Мы считаем, что образование – это сила, а наука должна быть ближе к людям.

We believe that education is a strength, and science/research should be closer to people.

For those you on Instagram, you can read new posts from the team every Thursday (in Russian). They’ve already covered topics varying from real women in science about female academics they’ve had the chance to meet in person, updates on their research, advice on writing a thesis and they’ve even posted about their mums (I love that one a lot).

The team are on the look out for new recruits: if you are a woman from Kazakhstan, doing research (whether PhD, a post-doc or researching in industry), and willing to ‘write, write and write some more’ as they put it, then I encourage you to reach out.

This is a wonderful and very visual way to make two very daunting prospects – doing a PhD/advanced research and studying/living abroad – and doing both of those things as a Kazakh woman – feel real and manageable. I have learned a lot from the generosity of the women prepared to share their own thoughts and experiences, and hope others will too.

Go KZPHDGIRLSUNION!

 

 

Thanks to Olga Mun for sharing this brilliant initiative on Twitter!

Regionalism in higher education – new journal special issue (open access)

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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?

720px-Peter_karta1707
I love maps almost as much as I love cats! This is a fantastic view of the world from 1713 by Russian cartographer Vasiliy Kipiyanov that I chose for the special issue front cover.

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.