As Tajikistan’s oldest university celebrates its 70th birthday [ru], I thought (as probably only I would) that this would be an excellent opportunity to reflect back on the development of universities in Central Asia in the early to mid 20th century.
Prior to the 20th century, universities did not exist in Central Asia. That perhaps surprising fact does not mean that education was not available – on the contrary, the region has been home to a wealth of philosophical and scientific developments.
The great philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the West) was a Tajik born in Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) whose 11th century CE medical encyclopaedia was still considered a key canon in medical education in Europe some 500 years later.
As Islam embedded across Central Asia into the medieval era, primary and secondary education started to be offered in maktab (schools). Some madrasah, seats of higher learning, existed, although these should not be conflated with the university as the two institutions developed separately and served different purposes – and that’s where you get back to the notion that there were no universities until the Russians arrived.
The very first higher education institution in Central Asia dates back to 1918 when the jadids (what Khalid calls the ‘first generation of modern Central Asian intellectuals’) and early arrival Russian intellectuals came together to form the Turkestan Muslim People’s University in what is now Uzbekistan, although its ‘official’ history begins two years later following a decree signed by Lenin creating the State University of Turkestan.
Not only did this act lead to the founding of the first university in Central Asia, but it did so at a time when most people remained functionally illiterate and lacking any formal education.
‘Enlightenment Institutes’ were established in Central Asian (now Soviet) territory to offer initial teacher training, with students continuing their studies at universities in Russia.
The massive government campaign against illiteracy, known as ‘likbez’ from the shortened Russian words for liquidation of illiteracy (ликвидация безграмотности), dominated the higher education and training agenda in the early Soviet years.
The first higher education institutions outside of (modern-day) Uzbekistan were all pedagogical institutes, dedicated to training the teachers required in the fight against illiteracy.
In Kyrgyzstan, the Enlightenment Institute became a pedagogical technical school in 1925, but the first pedagogical institute (institute having a higher status than technical school) opened its doors in 1928 as a ‘Pedagogical Workers’ Faculty’. In 1932, it was reformed as the Kyrgyz State Pedagogical Institute and another institute, the Zootechnical Institute, started admitting students a year later (after teachers, the Central Asian states were told they also needed agricultural scientists and technicians).
These first two institutes still exist today. In a pattern seen across many former Soviet states, the Pedagogical Institute has become the country’s flagship university. It is now known as Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University, having become first a state university (1951) and then a state national university (1972). The Zootech. is now Skryabkin Kyrgyz National Agrarian University after going through a similar process of transformation.
Much in the same way, Kazakhstan’s first Pedagogical Institute was founded in 1928 in Almaty and is now known as the Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University. The Academy of Sciences in Kazakhstan – the place for research and advanced scholarly work – was founded in 1946. This came a decade before Kyrgyzstan was granted its own Academy of Sciences (it had a branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1943-1954) and five years before the same happened in Tajikistan.
In Tajikistan, higher education generally followed a little later than the other Central Asian Soviet republics. The first institute was the Higher Tajik Agro-Pedagogical Institute, opened in the northern city of Khujand (then Leninabad) in 1931. (Clearly by this time, the Soviet leaders had worked out that you could teach both agricultural science and education under one roof.) Having made the move to the capital Dushanbe during World War Two, the institute is now the Shotemur Tajik Agrarian University.
Tajik National University, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, claims the title of the country’s first university. Founded as Tajik State University in March 1947, its first students had to share classroom space with the teacher trainees at the (you guessed it) Pedagogical Institute before it was granted its own building in Dushanbe.
Current Rector Muhammadyusuf Imomzoda was interviewed [ru] recently about the university’s achievements and future plans. As a good Rector should, he was keen to note that the university’s graduates are its greatest achievement. Yet he does have a somewhat easier job than university leaders in larger systems (until 1990, Tajikistan had ten universities/institutes) – not least because their most famous graduate is none other than the Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation…. aka President Emomali Rahmon.
Khalid, Adeeb. 1998. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Krasheninnikov, A. A., and N. N. Nechaev. 1990. “Universities as Centres of Culture: An Historical Approach to Higher Education in Central Asia.” Higher Education in Europe 15 (3): 54–60. doi:10.1080/0379772900150308.
Ministry of Education and Science, Kyrgyzstan. 2010. “Istoriya Obrazovaniya [History of Education].” http://edu.gov.kg/ru/higheducation/istoriyaobrazovaniya/.
Reeves, Madeleine. 2005. “Of Credits, Kontrakty and Critical Thinking: Encountering ‘Market Reforms’ in Kyrgyzstani Higher Education.” European Educational Research Journal 4 (1): 5–21. doi:10.2304/eerj.2005.4.1.4.
Ubaidulloev, Nasrullo Karimovich. 2014. “Istoriyagrafiya narodnogo obrazovaniya Tajikistana vtoroi polovini XIX – pervoi polovini XX vv. [Historiography of public education in Tajikistan from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century].” Doctor of Science thesis, Dushanbe: Academy of Sciences, Republic of Tajikistan.
With a plethora of institutional offerings, deciding what, where and how to study are perennial questions for prospective students around the world.
Here’s what Yelena Pak of Kazakhstan’s Delovoi [Business] Kazakhstan news agency [ru] suggests you should look out for if you’re going to apply in Kazakhstan.
University rankings are a hot topic in Kazakhstan, which seeks to ‘modernize’ its economy and society and to that end has joined pretty much every quantifiable measure of progress on offer.
Pak notes that Al-Farabi Kazakh National University takes national pride of (236th) place in the global QS World University Rankings. As she notes, this ranks Al-Farabi higher than the University of East Anglia in the UK, Miami U in the US and St Petersburg State University.
A number of other Kazakh universities have ‘progressed well’ in the rankings, says Pak. These include Gumilov Eurasian National University, Satpayev Kazakh National Research Technical University and Abai National Pedagogical University.
Kazakhstan now has its own national university ranking system produced by the independent Kazakh Quality Assurance Agency. This covers around a third of the country’s universities. Pak suggests that applicants also take a look at these ratings.
Study abroad or at home?
An option taken up by around 10,000 Kazakhs a year is to seek higher education abroad. Most head to neighbouring Russia, which not only shares a border with Kazakhstan but also membership of the Eurasian Economic Union and (for now at least) a common alphabet and language.
Other Kazakh students are scattered around the world, drawn by factors including availability of subjects and specializations that are not offered at home, the chance to study and live in a different culture and so on.
Pak bemoans the lack of information on university websites on the cost of study and living. This would certainly be a helpful addition for applicants who have not yet firmed up their study options.
Whilst tuition fees are now commonplace in Kazakhstan, it is still possible to study for free if you perform well enough on the Unified Entrance Examination. In 2017, the Ministry of Education will be giving out vouchers, the idea being that students can then apply the voucher (effectively a full fee waiver and a guarantee of the student’s high quality) at any institution in the country.
Pak points out that the university rankings Kazakhs are becoming so fond of are not very good at telling you about quality.
By this she infers the quality of the program (course), the depth and breadth of linkages between the university and other partners, and graduate career prospects.
This may be a temporary oversight. With the rush to measure and assess universities, it is surely only a matter of time before university choice in Kazakhstan is spelled out in even more detail.
I wonder, though, whether this will leave prospective students just as confused as they are now, only this time suffering from too much, rather than too little, information!
In an expected but still noteworthy move, the Kazakh-British Technical University (KBTU) in Almaty, Kazakhstan has now officially been merged with Satpayev Kazakh National Research Technical University (known by its Russian acronym as KazNITU). Announced in 2015, the merger is the brainchild of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev [ru] that aims to strengthen the engineering and technical specialties found in both institutions. To smooth the acquisition from the side of the junior partner (KBTU), the President has appointed Iskander Beisembetov – formerly Rector of KBTU – as the Rector of the newly enlarged institution.
Other than a short story covering the merger in Forbes Kazakhstan [ru] in April 2017, there is very little outward evidence of the change. The only mention I could find on the universities’ websites about the merger was a small link to KBTU’s website next to KazNITU’s on the latter’s homepage, and the story noted above from November 2016 about the appointment of the Rector.
Both institutions have interesting histories. KBTU was an early initiative of President Nazarbayev in higher education, being founded in 2000 by agreement with Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (as an aside, this helps set into perspective the longer-term working relationship maintained by the two leaders, which has been reported on rather incredulously from the West as if it was something more recent). KBTU has always been a specialist science and technology university and leads national rankings in these areas.
In contrast to KBTU’s positioning as being part of a ‘new generation’ of universities, KazNITU in its various iterations is one of the oldest higher education institutions in Kazakhstan, with a history dating back to 1934. Founded as the Kazakh Mining and Metallurgical Institute, it now has a mission much like KBTU’s, namely, to be a leading provider of high quality teaching and research specialising in technological education.
For the two institutions, it looks like – for the moment, at least – very little will change. But for the higher education system in Kazakhstan, this represents an important moment. Mergers reflect a change in the way institutions are governed and the context within which they operate. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, mergers are often symbolic of a shift towards a managerial logic in higher education. Out are the old practices of academic collegiality and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (and at whatever cost), ushering in instead governance by tuition fee in a (pseudo-)market environment.
The good governance of universities is critical to their effective running, and there are doubtless cases where the introduction of new forms of governance (that may include mergers and acquisitions, as well as the closure of institutions) has helped universities and the system they operate in. Yet there are also concerns that the imposition of externally driven reorganizations may reduce institutional autonomy and differentiation or damage academic morale. And whether they improve the university’s core ‘business’ of teaching and research is, as well-known British higher education scholar Michael Shattock has argued, unproven.
Shattock, M. (2006). Managing good governance in higher education. Open University Press.
More MOOC madness?
The trend in higher education for MOOCs – massive open online courses – shows no sign of abating.
In 2016, an estimated 58 million students around the world signed up for a MOOC. 23 million of these students (an impressive 40%) enrolled in a MOOC for the first time. Over 700 universities are involved in offering nearly 7,000 MOOCs. Check out ClassCentral’s 2016 report for more MOOC-tastic stats.
As Ben Wildavksy has argued, this is much more than ‘MOOC Ado About Nothing‘ (groan away – it’s his line, not mine!).
Now that the first wave of MOOC enrollment has passed, access begins to open up to a wider audience, following the same pattern as the disbursement of the internet (first to the elites who could afford a computer as an expensive piece of tech, later spreading to society more broadly). The metaphor is apt given that the internet is a crucial reason for the birth and growth of MOOCs.
MOOCs speak your language
One of the most interesting trends in 2016 is the growth in regional providers of MOOCs, which attracted around 25% of all new learners last year. Most of these courses are offered in languages other than English.
The days of the arena being dominated by North American providers and English language medium of instruction may well be numbered, especially with the entry of Chinese language providers to meet the huge education market in China.
Bilim (knowledge) for all
It is on the coat-tails of this regionalization movement that the recent launch of Kazakhstan’s own Open University, Қазақстанның ашық университеті [kz], can be located. OpenU, as it is billing itself, has set itself the lofty aim [kz] of increasing the intellectual level of the country by delivering high-quality online courses.
Courses will be developed by leading Kazakhstani academics and are aimed at high school students (an interesting target audience often overlooked by other MOOCs), university students and those who for some reason are unable to access face-to-face higher education.
All ‘interested citizens’ are also invited to join in too, so the mission is highly inclusive. As with other MOOCs, all OpenU courses are free.
The founders of OpenU
Although pitched as a university, OpenU is in fact a joint project, created by the public fund WikiBilim [bilim = knowledge in Kazakh] with KCell, a leading Kazakhstani mobile phone provider, as the main sponsor.
The initial university partners are:
Four more courses are due to go live in April and a further three this May. Most courses are around five weeks long with one session a week.
In a country where (multi-)language policy is a major issue, it is interesting that 80% of the course content is being offered in Kazakh. That said, English and Russian language subtitles are planned for all video content, which will enhance accessibility.
What can you study?
The initial courses, like the global pattern for MOOCs, focus on computer science and business/management.
Students can sign up for courses in Matrices and Determinants, Public-Private Partnerships, Web Programming Fundamentals, Fourier Analysis [Maths], Robotics and Introduction to Computer Science Using Java [all kz or ru].
The course creators have outstanding academic credentials. Professor Askar Zhumadildayev, for example, holds a Doctor of Science degree (equivalent to the ‘habilitation’ in some other contexts, i.e. a more advanced degree than the PhD) in Mathematical Physics and is an academician of the Kazakh National Academy of Sciences.
Zhumadildayev is committed to this new style of learning: “Если эти лекции посмотрят даже 20 человек, я буду счастлив. Все должно развиваться постепенно. Это настоящая академичная наука и настоящие знания, это полезно” (“Even if only 20 people watch these lectures, I will be happy. Things should develop gradually. This is genuine science and genuine knowledge – it’s useful.”)
The project’s founders hope that the OpenU courses will provide a means for students in regions of Kazakhstan to learn from the country’s great academics [ru], who tend to cluster in the two main cities of Astana and Almaty.
Surfing a new wave of MOOC innovation
There are three reasons why I believe that OpenU offers a new way of thinking about MOOCs that may help to refresh the format and generate a third wave of MOOC development.
I would argue that the first wave lasted until 2012, with the massive rise and popularization of the MOOC. The second wave of 2013-2016 was characterized by the personalization of MOOCs, where provision became more oriented around individual needs in terms of scheduling, credentials being made available and so on.
So what makes OpenU a breath of fresh air in the increasingly jaded world of MOOCs?
- The pedigree of the course creators is stunning. Whilst you can certainly find other MOOCs offered by ‘star’ academics, the concern of many universities when they rushed to joined the MOOC bandwagon was to generate course content. Less attention was paid, at least in the early days, to quality and delivery. OpenU’s collaboration with a range of universities and its focus on working with leading academics means that quality is being put first.
- The partnership between a non-profit public organization, WikiBilim, and a corporate, KCell, is an extremely interesting model. Rather than a single university trying to create its own MOOC platform, or the wholesale adoption of an outside model (Coursera, EdX etc), the OpenU model creates a different type of structure through which partner institutions can offer selected courses. This is advantageous for the universities in terms of resource sharing and also for the prospects for publicity (and thus potential future student recruitment) it offers.
- OpenU has not been set up to offer degrees [ru], as is now possible through the combination of some MOOCs. Rather, it is an ‘educational upgrading’ experience to support growth in educational quality not just for individual learners but also for universities in Kazakhstan. The idea is that they may adopt some of the course content as part of their own curriculum in order to draw on expertise available within the country but not within their own institution.
New article published: The policy challenges of creating a world-class university outside the global ‘core’
I’m pleased to share the publication of my latest journal article. Out online in the European Journal of Higher Education now (and in print in June), my article is called The policy challenges of creating a world-class university outside the global ‘core’ and takes a fresh look at the now commonplace idea of the world-class university.
I used a case study of recently founded Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan to highlight some of the challenges and opportunities for policymakers and people working/studying at the university arising from this new and in many ways experimental project.
You can download the article in full at: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/BugJKtrEFRnhfJpkeDya/full, and the abstract is below.
Although the idea of the world-class university is not a new one, it has become increasingly commonplace in public policies around the globe, also gaining traction in states outside the global ‘core’. Kazakhstan, the only Central Asian member of the European Higher Education Area, is no exception as it too aspires to have a world-class university. This paper examines the policies of the Kazakhstani government towards a recently founded institution, Nazarbayev University, as it seeks to position Kazakhstan as a credible global knowledge economy, but also use the university as a means of fulfilling domestic nation-building objectives. Addressing the policy challenges of creating a world-class university in this particular Central Asian context, the paper contributes to a reshaping of our understanding of how certain states currently outside the global ‘core’ are using higher education as a neoliberal development strategy. This paper offers the prospect that there might not just be multiple paths to the creation of a world-class university, but also multiple interpretations of what it means to be a world-class university.
A long overdue update of my Links page is now available. Tucked away on the blog, the idea behind this page is to share reliable, interesting and/or fun websites that focus on Central Asia or higher education (but not both – I’m the only person doing that).
I also have a few links to other websites and blogs that I like and that you may enjoy too. My top new finds are Sapiens, a fabulous Anthropology blog that is totally accessible for non-Anthropologists, and Afternoon Map – those of you that have ever seen me teach or give a presentation will know quite how partial I am to a good map. If it’s historical, even better!
The list isn’t long so do take a moment to have a look. If you have suggestions for other websites and blogs (English and Russian language), please use the Comments feature to let me know.
Who else out there is blogging on Central Asia right now? There must be some great stuff I’m missing.
At the start of this year, I shared a great article on the nascent University of Central Asia from Devex and Michael Igoe. If you enjoyed that, you’ll be pleased to hear that the article in fact came in three parts.
In part two, A classroom for the mountains, Igoe discusses the intensity and rigour with which the undergraduate curriculum has been developed, the difficulty of recruiting suitably qualified staff to come and work in rural mountainous Kyrgyzstan on the site of the first campus and the fundamental importance of that mountain location to the Aga Khan’s vision for the university.
Part three, The future leaders of Central Asia, focuses on the university’s hopes for its future graduates, including a nice feature with an undergraduate from Khorog, Tajikistan, who matter of factly comments on the hostility her family has faced from the government for expressing political view. The piece also emphasizes the way the university is gearing its programmes towards the needs (current and prospective) of the regional economy.
Something that struck me in all three articles was the absence of discussion of the political environment in which the university operates. This may be a reflection of the pragmatic mission of the Aga Khan and his network of charities that aim to work with local communities from the inside, rather than tie short-term funding to political or economic conditions. This is a laudable aim, although for the University of Central Asia, it seems as if the encouragement for students to be change-makers beyond the economic arena will be implicit at best.
In a setting like Kyrgyzstan where the government is more open, this strategy may be effective. It may be possible for students to envisage and even implement alternative ways of seeing and experiencing their home and other contexts. Yet for the Tajikistan context, the government maintains close control over the political establishment, making it hard (it not impossible) for alternative voices to be heard, let alone permitted in government.
The Tajik campus of the University of Central Asia is opening in Khorog, a town in the south-east of the country that the government has for a number of reasons found harder (though not impossible) to control. People from Khorog and the surrounding region of Badakhshan are spiritual followers of the Aga Khan and since he first visited the country in 1995, they have keenly followed his command to focus on education, particularly in English language and information technology. School leavers from Badakhshan are thus likely to be in a position to make extremely competitive applications to the university, increasing local leadership capacity in a part of the country that has on occasion been restive.
I think this raises important questions about just how holistically – ‘leadership’ is taught – and interpreted – at the University of Central Asia.