In a series of moves that have been tentatively welcomed by Central Asia-watchers, Uzbekistan has been enjoying a resurgence of international support under the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Mirziyoyev’s highest profile international visit so far was a trip this week to the United States. Covered in good detail by English language outlets including the latest excellent Majlis podcast, an exclusive interview in The Diplomat with Uzbekistan’s Minister of Justice, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, his three day visit led to a wealth of pronouncements and new bilateral agreements being signed. Concluding the visit, there has been general agreement – as you might expect from any good diplomatic visit – that things are looking optimistic for the future of Uzbek-US relations (even if parts of the American press is still struggling to pronounce the Uzbek leader’s name).
Of interest for international academic relations are two agreements, both signed at state level. The first will launch an Uzbekistan-based programme to “support partnerships between U.S. universities and higher education institutions across Central Asia”; the second provides for financial support to expand English language teaching in Uzbekistan. The English programmes will be targeted at teachers and students at school and university level, journalists and professionals.
The Memorandum of Understanding on institutional partnerships provides several points for discussion and reflection. Partnerships in higher education are normally signed on an institution-to-institution basis either as a very general agreement to cooperate or with specific aims in mind (e.g. to run a joint degree programme). It is less common to see agreements signed at bi-national level; in this case, it looks like the two governments have a specific programme in mind that will facilitate the entry of American higher education institutions into Central Asia.
This links to another observation: that the partnership here extends beyond Uzbekistan, even though the visit of Mirziyoyev has otherwise had an exclusively bilateral nature. The press release on the two agreements does not go into further detail so we will have to wait and see how this programme pans out once we have more information.
With all the fanfare surrounding this overseas trip and the enthusiastic proclamation of the US government’s press release that these are “landmark” agreements, it would be easy to think that Uzbekistan’s education system has been isolated from the international academic community. To some extent, this is true, as was the case for other sectors of society under the rule of previous President Islam Karimov. For example, the European Union’s Bologna Process of degree harmonization and partnerships has had less impact in Uzbekistan than its Central Asian neighbours. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector has actually been relatively international since the country became independent in 1991.
One of the region’s longest running international universities, the British Westminster International University in Tashkent, has been operating since 2002, offering teaching solely in the medium of English. A suprisingly wide range of other partnerships are also in operation, from Italy’s Turin Polytechnic University (opened in 2009) to recent (2014) South Korean entrant Inha University. Thus far, international academic relations such as these congregate in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. It is noteworthy that all of these were set up under inter-governmental agreements during the reign of Karimov.
I’d suggest two conclusions from all of this.
Firstly, this week’s visit by Mirziyoyev is a sure sign of the further reintegration of Uzbekistan into the global community, and it will be interesting to observe how these connections are (re)formed in similar and different ways to his predecessor Karimov. Such international relations are not new for Uzbekistan, but represent a new wave of outreach and partnerships.
Secondly, in terms of higher education, I think we are about to witness Uzbekistan building on its existing international ties and seeking greater convergence with the so-called “global academic community”, a phrase beloved of the Kazakhstans of this world. Thus, Kazakhstan now brings out its own university rankings and seeks to establish world-class universities in order to try and become more competitive with a model of higher education it observes globally.
Based on the country’s 2017-2021 Development Strategy [ru], it does indeed look like the current plan for Uzbekistan is towards this type of convergence. On higher education, the strategy callls for:
повышение качества и эффективности деятельности высших образовательных учреждений на основе внедрения международных стандартов обучения и оценки качества преподавания, поэтапное увеличение квоты приема в высшие образовательные учреждения
enhancement of the quality and effectiveness of higher education institutions based on international education standards and assessment of teaching quality, gradual increase in the admission quotas to higher education institutions
This raises much deeper questions about the nature of higher education worldwide. Is there such a thing as a globalized idea of the university? If there is, what are the implications for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the many other countries seeking to emulate it? And for international academic relations, what is the future of partnerships such as those signed this week between the US and Uzbekistan if countries can produce their own globalized university?
My new article is now out in University World News, in which I investigate a growing scandal in Tajikistan with a rash of plagiarised doctoral dissertations exposed. Vindicated in this highly embarrassing scandal include high level government officials and senior academics.
Read the full story at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20180428053554356.
Just when you think the cool-headed forward-looking Kazakh government has higher education under control, another scandal erupts and throws things off kilter.
On April 24, a report emerged that the Astana Medical University had been forced to expel over 100 of its students [ru] for doctoring their language test documentation.
All (post)graduate students studying medicine/allied subjects are now required to produce proof of their English language abilities upon admission to a Master’s or PhD course or in applying for a residency.
Following complaints last year from other students that something was afoot with the language skills of certain of their coursemates, an investigation was opened, eventually finding that the IELTS (International English Language Testing System, one of the two most widely used tests of English language ability for non-native speakers) certificates of 117 students had been faked.
Not only have all the students been expelled, but they must now repay the state funding that went towards their tuition fees and living costs. All bar a handful of the accused students had been in receipt of a much sought after government grant.
There is also a possibility of legal action, which can range from a monetary fine to imprisonment in line with Kazakh law.
For Astana Medical University, this is a highly embarrassing and unwanted piece of negative publicity. But it lost the chance to come out cleaner than it has by slowing down the government’s investigation, insisting that it was not fully responsible for taking action. As a result of what has been seen as deliberate interference, it may lose its licence to offer educational courses.
The TV news report that accompanies the written article ends by asking whether those who were responsible for offering the falsified IELTS test certificates will also face any punishment for their role in this messy affair. After all, the report notes, there is a huge demand for English language testing in Kazakhstan, and it seems that some companies may be taking advantage of this.
The higher education system in Kazakhstan has for the most part changed dramatically since its most recent inception as an arm of the Soviet state. Yet there are some elements that stubbornly persist, despite what I consider to be genuine efforts by the current leadership to clean up the system.
One of those elements is corruption in admission to higher education. Whereas nepotism was commonplace in Soviet times – who you knew and what political or social position you held could make a huge difference to where you could get your children in to university, for example – these days, bribery usually takes on a financial character.
The fake IELTS certificates scandal at Astana Medical University is the latest in a contemporary and sophisticated embodiment of what is sadly becoming a longstanding tradition in Kazakhstan’s higher education system.
Ever wondered how university leaders get chosen?
And specifically, how this process works in Kazakhstan?
I thought so.
A recent article on Kazakh website BNews offers a great ‘Who’s Who’ at the top echelons of Kazakhstan’s higher education system in its report on the competition for the top spot at three of the country’s public universities [ru].
Who’s who in Kazakh higher education?
The report lists the names, qualifications and current positions of no fewer than 42 would-be university leaders (called Rectors in Kazakhstan), all competing for one of the three posts available.
The data was released by the Ministry of Education, which will now pass the candidates’ proposed development programmes to the university in question for a committee to review.
Those who are recommended by the committees will be interviewed by a state-wide committee, made up of representatives of the Kazakhstan Association of Higher Education Institutions, higher education trade unions, elected members of the two houses of parliament, ‘eminent academics’, representatives of the business community and ‘other social actors’. A vote taken by the committee will determine the eventual nominee.
Whilst introduced relatively recently, this selection process has already been used to appoint 16 other Rectors at public universities.
The fact that this process is publicly shared (and the article on BNEws has been ‘liked’ a whopping 22,0000 times on Facebook) and the names of the candidates made available to anyone who might be interested is very impressive. It suggests that notions of democracy are embedding into the Kazakh higher education system and in government more generally, which still faces significant challenges arising from the Soviet legacy and persistent corruption even at the highest levels.
Modelling selection processes
This is not the first process that Kazakhstan has used to select public university leaders. I’ve identified three models that have been in operation at varying points over the last 30 years:
- Soviet period: State
- Early years of independence: Academic community
- Current period: State-society
As a highly bureaucratized and centralized system, it is unsurprising that the Soviet model can be defined by the dominance of the state. During the Soviet Union, university leaders were civil servants, appointed and removed by Moscow. This system has persisted in some post-Soviet systems such as Tajikistan.
On becoming an independent state in 1991, higher education in Kazakhstan experienced a great deal of immediate change. One such reform was to allow the academic community to elect university leaders. Whilst this second model was short-lived, it has left an important footprint in how the Kazakh academic community positions itself and is positioned by the state and society.
This brings us to the current model as outlined above. I’d conceptualize this as a ‘state-society’ model, something of a hybrid between the Soviet period and that of the academic-led era of the early 1990s. The state has staked out its interest in the selection process (after all, these are public universities that are funded primarily by the state) but is making efforts to open this process out to other actors with a vested interest in higher education.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear from people based at universities in Kazakhstan to learn more about how the leadership selection process is perceived, and how democratic you think it really is.
And what about the three models I’ve proposed? Do these make sense? What have I missed?
Finally – what about the voice of students, many of whom now make a financial contribution to their higher education? To what extent are they represented in the three models?
I’m sharing a post I wrote for the Centre for Canadian & International Higher Education‘s blog about the University of Central Asia. The post was published today at https://ciheblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/a-multinational-university-in-central-asia/ and is also copied below:
A Multinational University in Central Asia
It’s the early 1990s and 15 new countries have emerged from the colossal historical moment that was the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of these new countries have never experienced statehood with their current set of borders before – including the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
With the collapse of a huge unified political and economic system, questions of nationhood and national culture exist alongside a great number of urgent problems for these new countries. Unemployment is growing – as much as 30% in some countries – and as many as 40-70% of the population are falling below the poverty line. How can the new national governments create economic opportunities when jobs have vanished overnight?
And yet at the same time, the new nation states inherited a legacy of well-developed social infrastructure that was particularly strong in healthcare and education. In Central Asia, for example, the first universities and Academies of Science (research institutes) were created during the Soviet era. Whilst the region has an incredibly rich heritage of learning and discovery stretching back more than a millennium, the 20th century saw the founding of the first formal institutions of higher education here.
It is into this context of economic crisis but highly developed education and social institutions that the University of Central Asia (UCA), a new institution equally based in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia, came into being. And it was UCA’s story that the university’s Chancellor Dr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha came to share with a large audience a joint CIHE/Munk School seminar held at OISE on March 2, 2018.
The story of the University of Central Asia
From 1995, agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a major international secular private foundation with a presence in 30 countries worldwide, began working with the Central Asian governments. At their request, agencies of the AKDN began to provide food assistance, education, and financial services. As the 1990s progressed and the economic situation stabilized across the region, education rose up the agenda as a priority area. A successful Humanities Project, initiated in Tajikistan in 1997 under the auspices of AKDN funding (and still running today), showed that innovation in higher education could work.
In 2000, the UCA was created. It is believed to be the only regional university in the world to be founded by international charter signed by the three host countries; the charter has since been lodged with the United Nations. It joins a tiny number of other regional universities such as the University of West Indies and the University of the South Pacific.
A key aim of the UCA is to “create job creators, not job seekers”, according to Dr Kassim-Lakha. UCA is striving to fulfil this mission in a number of ways:
- Providing very low cost continuing education across a widely disbursed area, including in neighbouring Afghanistan. Courses are vocationally oriented, covering subjects such as Business English, Accounting, and Car Mechanics;
- Undergraduate education with two majors at each of the three UCA campuses. Two campuses – in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan and Khorog, Tajikistan – are operational; the Kazakh campus in Tekeli is expected to open within the next five years. Right now, there are just under 200 students and at capacity, UCA hopes to host 1,200 students on each campus. Graduate education will follow in the future;
- Research in areas of relevance to the mountain societies that host UCA. The Mountain Societies Research Institute and Institute for Public Policy and Administration are already producing some interesting outputs;
Across all its activities, UCA is striving to engage the communities and countries around it. This ranges from a new Mountain University Partnershiplinking up UCA to existing higher education institutions in the towns it is operating in to substantial financial support for the majority of its undergraduate students.
The cost of creating a new university
Even though tuition fees are minimal compared to other higher education systems – US$5,000 plus $3,000 for accommodation and living costs – this is well beyond the means of most prospective students. Huge financial subsidies mean that most students are only paying a fraction of the true cost of their education, which Dr Kassim-Lakha put at $28,000.
A huge amount of money has been put into the UCA initiative. There’s the financial subsidies for students, the cost of construction – the campuses have each cost nearly $100m to build – before you start to account for ongoing running costs.
Some of that cost has been met by generosity from Canada. To date, around C$20m of funding has been channeled from Canadian government agencies and non-governmental organizations into the creation of UCA, and Dr Kassim-Lakha expressed the university’s deep gratitude towards the Canadian people for this support. As well as direct funding, there are already concrete partnerships in place with the University of Toronto, Seneca College, University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria, each supporting UCA to develop a specific area of its curriculum.
Nevertheless, and perhaps understandably, working out how the university will be financially sustainable in the future is the issue Dr Kassim-Lakha said that keeps him up at night.
In the very specific former Soviet context it is based in, there are also potential challenges arising from an autonomous university attempting to set its own future direction within national higher education frameworks that remain heavily state-centric and bureaucratized.
And actively choosing to build a tri-campus university in small and remote mountain towns, as UCA has done, adds another dimension to the challenge. The guiding rationale for doing so – to reduce political, social and economic isolation – means that the university and other AKDN agencies are not just building a university, but a whole framework around it: from providing continuing education courses to qualify local people to work on the building sites to creating physical infrastructure such as building roads and pipelines.
UCA is an incredibly ambitious and exciting new endeavour. If the quality of its graduating students – the first of whom will reach the workplace in 2021 – come anywhere near matching the quality of financial investment and effort placed into creating UCA, then the results could be transformative for the mountain societies and the countries they are located in.