Financing higher education in Kyrgyzstan

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For a small country with a population of a little over 6 million, Kyrgyzstan has an awful lot of universities – 68 at last count. For comparison, Singapore (population 5.8m) has exactly half as many and El Salvador (identical population to Kyrgyzstan) has 26 universities.

As with many countries in the former Soviet space, the number of universities and institutes (collectively, higher education institutions, or HEIs) rocketed in Kyrgyzstan with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even so, growth in the higher education system in Kyrgyzstan was phenomenally high, increasing by 325% in the first 15 years of independence. In neighbouring Kazakhstan, the increase over the same period was a more modest 197% (!).

Higher education growth in Kyrgyzstan came in both the pre-existing public sector as well as the nascent private higher education scene, and these days, the split between public and private HEIs is more or less 50-50.

With so many universities competing for students and limited state resources, Sputnik Kyrgyzstan recently published a fascinating interview with a senior administrator at one of the country’s leading institutions, Kyrgyz National University (KNU) on how the university gets and spends its money. This level of detail is often very difficult to glean from universities or Ministries of Education, so it adds quite significantly to our understanding of how higher education in a major state university in the former Soviet space is funded.

If cats did university budgets…

Income

KNU is a public university according to its history and current legal status, but in fact only gets 7% of its funding from the state.

As one of the biggest universities in the countries, they have over 17,500 students on their books and it’s these students who basically keep the university propped up. 92% of students are fee-paying, meaning that only a small minority are funded by the state (through various scholarships for e.g. high academic performance in secondary/high school or family/social status).

The biggest source of income by far is the 485 million som a year the university generates from tuition fees – equivalent to US$7m. Not bad considering that tuition fees didn’t exist as recently as 30 years ago.

From the state, KNU receives 40 million som a year (US$600,000) in the form of funding for students in receipt of government scholarships. The university allocates 60-70% of this on salaries and employment taxes.

Other income is minimal in comparison: 12 million som a year (US$170,000) in rent from its four dormitories, and 6 million som (US$85,000) from its residence in Issyk Kul (a popular lakeside holiday destination) and from eight dissertation councils.

In total, KNU is generating 543m som or US$7.85m in income a year.

Tuition fees and student numbers

Fees at KNU range from 31,000 som per year (about US$450) on ‘cheap’ courses such as physics, chemistry and Kyrgyz philology up to 46,000 som (around US$650) for economics courses in the Kyrgyz-European Faculty.

Each faculty has some wriggle room in setting its fees – some are planning to increase theirs by up to 10%, whereas others are actually decreasing them. This has been the case in physics and meteorology, where KNU has struggled to fill both fee paying places as well as state funded spots.

Total student numbers at KNU are considerably higher than at many universities, but have nevertheless dropped quite dramatically. Whereas around 28,000 students were fee paying 3-4 years ago, that number has almost halved to today’s figure of 16,330.

State sponsored places have also been reduced from 2,100 to 1,346. However, the university does not believe that the government will totally withdraw scholarship funding.

Expenses

As a state university, KNU has some limits on how it can spend the tuition fee income. They are required to allocate 80% to salaries and the remaining 20% for local taxes, staff/faculty travel, physical resources (furniture etc) and infrastructure maintenance.

A senior lecturer can expect to receive around 6,000 som a month from the state funding (a paltry US$85), which KNU then supplements depending on the lecturer’s teaching load and level of qualification (PhD/Candidate and Doctor of Science qualifications would entitle to you a higher pay grade).

The university doesn’t say what the total monthly pay packet looks like for senior lecturers, but the average monthly salary in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital (where KNU is located), is US$285. Let’s hope that senior lecturers are not too far off that figure.

KNU pays 144 million som (US$2m) to the state in various taxes each year, as well as a whopping 564 million som (US$8m) for electricity, water, and communal and other services.

I can’t calculate the total expenses per year as it’s not clear from the article whether the 20% of fee income in taxes is included in the 144m figure noted in the previous paragraph. And either I’ve misunderstood someting or there’s a typo in the services figure: if it really is 564m som a year, that’s more than the total income and presumably would mean the university would run very quickly into bankruptcy.

Those queries aside, the availability of data like this sheds important new light on higher education financing in Kyrgyzstan. For me, the big takeaway is how little of the university’s funding actually comes from the state despite its appellation as a public university and, as a result, just how dependent KNU is on tuition fee income and therefore students’ continued desire to study at the university.

Going, going, gone: Kazakhstan’s Innovation University is shut down

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A swathe of regulations, rankings, mergers, acquistions, and threats of closure for poor quality universities typify the Kazakh government’s drive in recent years to increase and assure quality in its higher education system.

The latest target of the quality movement is Innovation University, which had its operating licence removed in late January 2020 after two inspections in 2019 found that the university was in breach of a number of rules.

The university, known in Kazakh and Russian by its less snappy full name, Regional Social Innovation University, is in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent, 600km from former capital Almaty and a mere 130km from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent.

Time to move on from Kazakhstan’s Innovation University, which lost its operating licence in early 2020

The Ministry of Education and Science announced that not only had the university broken various rules, but it had not put any measures in place to improve the situation after the first inspection in 2019. The Ministry further pointed out ‘gross violations‘ in admissions – accepting students that hadn’t taken the correct exams, hadn’t provided originals of the ENT (nationwide university admission exam) certificate, and so on – as well as in teaching, where it was found that published timetables for classes were not being adhered to.

As a result, the university’s licence has been withdrawn and students are being transferred to other higher education institutions. A final decision was due from the Ministry in early February, but I have been unable to source this. The university’s website is still functioning and makes no mention of any interruption to its activities.

Since this announcement, another two universities have had their licences withdrawn: the Central Asian University in Almaty and Kazakhstan Maritime University in Aktau.

Innovation University was not particularly well known in Kazakhstan until June 2019, when local police discovered a drugs den in the university’s sports hall, finding that drugs were being consumed on university premises. Furthermore, one person was arrested in the said sports hall-cum-narco-haven for dealing drugs.

This led to the Ministry of Education carrying out an unplanned inspection of the university, finding no fewer than 63 violations of its rules and regulations for higher education institutions.

If drugs and rule-breaking was not enough, Olga Zhukova, an intrepid correspondent for Total.kz news agency, reported in August 2019 that the university was flouting the regular rules for admissions and also effectively operating a ‘cash for degree’ scheme.

On making enquiries, Zhukova was told that she could enrol in the distance education course and would be able to earn her degree in just two years. Zhukova also spoke with students at the university who reinforced what she had been told: as long as you pay your fees, you can get your degree in two years. No need to come to class or take exams. As one student told her, “It’s great! I’ve told all my friends at work to enrol!”

Zhukova notes that Innovation University was formed from the merger of three universities in Shymkent and offers a wide range of courses, but it suprisingly only has two medium sized buildings on its campus, one for the administration and one for teaching. Little wonder there are timetabling issues…

Closing down Innovation University certainly seems like a good idea in the light of the administration’s flagrant disregard for the rules and students’ eagerness to buy their way to a degree certificate.

The problem is that there are places like Innovation University all over Kazakhstan – and around the world. This one will be shut down, but there will always be someone else willing to sell you a degree. Though whether or not they also have someone on site willing to sell you drugs is another matter.

You’re fired: 10 university heads lose their jobs in Uzbekistan

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There was no love lost this Valentine’s Day as ten university leaders in Uzbekistan were fired

It was not an auspicious Valentine’s day for ten of Uzbekistan’s university leaders this year, with several newspapers running a story with the tantalizing title ‘10 university Rectors lose their jobs in one day‘ on February 14.

If previous leadership changes are anything to go by (see e.g. Tashkent State University of Law, Tashkent State University of Economics), there is probably more to this than the bureaucrat’s favourite reason: “they reached pensionable age”.

Hints at the reasons for the mass removals came during a meeting between the President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and industry, university and research representatives at the end of January. Mirziyoyev was scathing in his criticism:

In the coming days, we’re going to fire a number of Rectors. According to information I have here, these Rectors aren’t even worthy of being security guards at their university. They lack knowledge, education, patriotism and the ability to do their job.

Ouch.

Mirziyoyev also said that throwing these leaders in jail wouldn’t end the corruption that remains endemic in Uzbekistan’s higher education. The whole environment needs to be changed. True.

The universities involved in the February 14 changes at the top are:

Tashkent State Pedagogical University

Jizzakh State Pedagogical Institute

Navoi State Pedagogical Institute

Namagan State University

Tashkent Chemical-Technological Institute

Karshi Institute of Engineering and Economics

Namagan Institute of Civil Engineering

Kokand State Pedagogical Institute

Tashkent District branch of Astrakhan State Technical University

Tashkent State Dental Institute

Samarkand State Medical Institute

Kyrgyz students in Russia

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Say hi to Pep, who likes to hang out at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Pep has nothing to do with today’s story but I seem to have exhausted most of the internet’s attempts at cat memes relevant to university students.

Whereas their Uzbek counterparts are being sent home from studying abroad, Kyrgyz students are heading to Russia in ever greater numbers. From 1,300 in 2006/07, there were 5,700 Kyrgyzstanis studying in Russia at last count in 2016/17.

But in the style of the classic Russian gameshow What? Where? When? (Что? Где? Когда?), let’s find out more.

The most popular Russian cities and universities for Kyrgyz students are not in the major metropoles of Moscow and St Petersburg, but in the country’s regions. The Siberian city of Tomsk – one of the closest to Kyrgyzstan, just north of Kazakhstan and a mere 2,300km away – has the top two – Tomsk State University and Tomsk State Architecture and Building University.

Following the Tomsk pair, the next most popular are a duo in Moscow – the Higher School of Economics and the Russian People’s Friendship University, and then Kemerovo State University. Kemerovo is just down the road from Tomsk and its popularity is probably linked to its convenient location.

The Russian Minister for Education Valeriy Falkov is pretty happy about this given the government’s emphasis on developing higher education in the regions.

Kyrgyz students in Russia are more likely to study medicine and an array of technical subjects and hybrid courses such as agrobusiness.

Students from around the former Soviet space are these days not necessarily drawn to Russia because of the historic ties from their Soviet legacy. Nevertheless, there persists a sense – particularly in economically poorer states like Kyrgzystan and Tajikistan – that Russian education is ‘better’ than the domestic system based both on its history as well as comparatively higher investments in the system. Furthermore, there are still plenty of Central Asian students being educated in Russian who can manage the language of instruction.

That said, it’s just as likely that the current generation of Kyrgyzstani 18 year olds – who were born a good decade after the fall of the Soviet Union – are attracted by scholarships that are offered not just on admission but for placing highly in competitions and olympiads organized by Russian universities. A number of education fairs held annually in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia/ex-Soviet region also help recruit students to Russia’s higher education system.

The upward trend of international students in Russia is gaining some attention in the academic and practitioner worlds, and for good reason. Of the 5+ million students studying abroad, Russia is now the sixth most popular destination country. The number of international students in Russia has grown by 9% per year on average over the past 15 years; the government has an ambitious plan to increase numbers from the current figure of 220,000 to 700,000 by 2025.

Why are Uzbek students abroad being sent home?

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No choice but to home for Uzbekistan’s overseas students

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.

More Russian schools for Tajikistan

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A quick primer on how to say ‘cat’ in Russian. Easy, right? Oh, wait…

Here’s an interesting story on the continued growth of Russian language (and primarily Russian government funded) schools in Tajikistan. The story is (c) RFE/RL Tajikistan and author Farangis Najibullah (an excellent journalist; please check out her other work):

No Shortage Of Students As Tajikistan Builds New Russian Schools

Originally posted at https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-new-russian-schools/30384557.html on January 18, 2020

Tajikistan’s parliament has approved an agreement to build five new Russian schools in the next three years, with funds largely provided by the Russian government.

The move shows the Tajik authorities’ willingness to maintain close ties with Moscow and reflects a growing demand among Tajiks for Russian-language education.

During a parliamentary debate in Dushanbe on January 15, Deputy Education Minister Rahmatullo Mirboboev said the schools will be designed to hold at least 1,200 students each.

The Russian-speaking community has significantly dwindled in the Central Asian country as the population of ethnic Russians has fallen from some 395,000 in 1979 to just 35,000 when the last census was taken in 2010.

Despite that, it’s expected there will be no shortage of students for the new Russian-speaking schools.

The demand among Tajiks for more educational facilities in which Russian is the language of instruction has risen both in cities and rural areas in recent years.

There are already 32 Russian-only schools in Tajikistan, with 10 of them established in the past two years.

Dozens of mixed-language schools offer education in both Tajik and Russian classes, taught separately.

Rampant Unemployment

Tajik parents who enroll their children in Russian schools say it will enhance their chances of studying in Russian universities and getting well-paid, white-collar jobs in Russia.

Unemployment is rampant and wages very low in Tajikistan, one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics. The average monthly wage in October was $140.

“My eldest son goes to a Russian school,” says Zahro, a pediatrician from the northern province of Sughd who didn’t want to give her full name.

She says her younger son couldn’t get a place in the Russian school and that he is “currently studying in Tajik” while waiting for a vacancy.

“A longer-term plan for them is to study medicine in Russia, possibly in some smaller cities where living costs are not high,” Zahro said. “The children are working hard, we’re also getting additional private instruction in chemistry and physics.”

Like many other Tajiks, Zahro believes the Russian-language schools in Tajikistan generally offer a better-quality education.

Russian schools are the second-best option for middle-income parents like Zahro, who can’t afford to send their children to private schools.

There are dozens of private schools and lyceums — including English schools — that enjoy a reputation for providing quality education with a broader range of extracurricular offerings, smaller class sizes, and experienced teachers.

Russian Investment

Plans to open more Russian schools in Tajikistan were discussed during a meeting between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Dushanbe in September 2018, the Tajik leader’s official website reported.

Rahmon has always maintained a close relationship with “strategic partner” Russia, which hosts many hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrant workers.

The migrants’ remittances — estimated at around $2.5 billion and equal to about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018 — is an important factor for Tajikistan’s social and economic stability.

Russia, in turn, has always been keen to keep Central Asia within its sphere of influence, and uses Russian-language education and the lure of economic opportunities as a tool of soft power.

Since August 2018, Moscow has sent more than 100 Russian teachers to Tajikistan — a mountainous country of some 8.9 million people — while also providing textbooks for the country’s Russian schools.

A large portion of the teachers’ wages are reportedly paid by the Russian Education Ministry.

During his annual press conference on December 19, 2019, Putin mentioned the need to open more Russian schools in Central Asia.

“It is more difficult to adapt for those who come, for example, from Central Asia. What can we do? We have to introduce our education systems, open Russian-language courses, Russian schools, and university branches,” said Putin when asked about Russia’s demographic situation and the immigration issues his country faces.

Tajik education officials say the five new schools will be built over the next three years in the capital, Dushanbe, as well as in the cities of Khujand in the country’s north, Bokhtar and Kulob in the south, and the western town of Tursunzoda.

DIY budgeting: The self-financing experiment in Uzbekistan’s universities begins

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Further to my December 2019 post, An Uzbek experiment, the new do-it-yourself funding model for 10 of the country’s higher education institutions (HEIs) has now come into force. All 10 will be under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education to ensure that prices don’t jump too high, too fast and that standards don’t slip – and most importantly, as one news agency points out, to prevent corruption slipping in.

If cats could account for themselves…

So, as of January 1, 2020, the HEIs, a mix of universities and specialized institutes, are now able to:

  • Set their own tuition fees
  • Introduce new Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees
  • Continue to receive state funding for some students
  • Decide how their institutional budget will be split

This last point is one of the most important, although not getting as much press attention as the excitement generated by the possibility of new courses / fear that fees will be hiked.

Why? Because until now, all HEIs in Uzbekistan had to conform to the rigid model imposed by the government: 46.8% on salaries, 33.1% on scholarships, 11.5% on budget deductions (i.e. retained by the government) and 8.6% on other expenses. So now, if one of the 10 DIY-HEIs wants to increase faculty salaries, buy more computers or offer more student funding, it can do so.

Next door in Tajikistan, where I have been doing interviews with university-based researchers, this self-financing model and the flexibility it provides to set your own budget is seen as a very positive move for the woefully underpaid academics still committed to the academic cause. In Tajikistan (as in some other former Soviet countries), self-financing is offered to universities that obtain ‘national’ status. So far only one university of 35 in Tajikistan has this, but there are others that are keen to upgrade both for reputational purposes and financial flexibility.