Growing gaps in Kazakh society?

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Sorry for the silence from this blog. Firstly, there hasn’t been much happening in Central Asian HE (or not that I have seen) – no high heels scandals this month! Secondly, we’re in the summer term at the University where I work and that means exams, panicking students, organising everything for next year and generally no time whatsoever to relax!

The post today is an interesting observational article about Kazakhstan, exploring whether gaps are emerging in contemporary society. I think it’s worth including here as there may be a spillover effect onto higher education. This could materialise, for example, in students joining in protests (in these cases they usually take up the left-wing anti-government side), or in a discourse around access to higher education for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Article is (c) Eurasianet and can also be found at

Kazakhstan: Widening Social Divide Fuels Protest Mood

Visualising educational disparity in Uzbekistan

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UNDP has produced this eye-catching visual representation of what would otherwise be a very long statistics heavy report showing the state of education in Uzbekistan, which a focus on the differences in participation and outcome based on gender. Reproduced below (c) UNDP Uzbekistan, source

Infographics are an excellent way of familiarising people with what can sometimes feel like very ‘heavy’ numbers. By looking at this infographic, you would grasp a number of facts quite quickly. The most striking to me – which is not as gender specific as some of the data – is the drop in participation in higher education and the fact that only 9% of school leavers are going on to university now. Compare that to neighbouring Tajikistan (20% participation rate) and don’t even think about other neighbours Kazakhstan (41%) or Kyrgyzstan (51%) (source: World Bank, 2011).

The implications for Uzbekistan’s future human potential are deeply worrying and not even a beautiful infographic like this one can hide some serious concerns.

High heels hit the headlines

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My previous post High heels for higher learning seems to have captured the imagination of news agencies around the world. I’ve had pingbacks from France, China and Poland and the story was picked up by the Huffington Post, Global Voices Online as well as a number of syndicate agencies.

Today, Spanish national newspaper El Pais has featured my post in its S Moda fashion section under the heading ‘Tacones por obligacion‘ [sp]. This roughly translates as ‘[high] heels by order’. I was interviewed last week by journalist Noelia Ramirez, who wanted to know whether I thought there was a growing trend in Asia for some kind of “modesty code”. I don’t think this is the case at all and rather the incident I reported on is much more about the individual Rector’s view of how to control the student body.

I once again have to thank Asia-Plus News Agency [ru] for breaking the story. It might not sound like a big thing to people living in countries where the media is genuinely free to write what it wants, but it takes a lot of guts to do that in Tajikistan, where the government – and in this case the university leadership – is all about control and suppression of the right to think and speak freely.

High heels for higher learning?

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A scandal is bubbling between the Rector of the Tajik State Pedagogical University, Abdujabbor Rahmonov, and the only vocal national newspaper (inasmuch as it can be vocal in Tajikistan), Asia-Plus. The reason? The rector’s decision to impose a supplementary dress code on female students requiring them to wear high heeled shoes (though only up to 10cm high) and clothes made of single-block colour [ru].

I read through Asia-Plus’ latest reportage on the situation with complete bewilderment. Could it really be that the Rector believes that ordering such a dress code (which is much more explicit than the national dress code for university students) – and having security guards at the entrance of the university checking this in what in Russian is called face control – will enhance female students’ learning experience? Will it make them smarter or better equipped to learn?

Of course, the answer is no.

This is not the first time Abdujabbor Rahmonov has interfered in such affairs. As Minister of Education, he introduced a dress code into schools which included such rules as banning male teachers from having beards.

The worrying part of what would otherwise be simply a farce is that the Asia-Plus journalist who attempted to ascertain whether the university really had imposed this enhanced dress code by interviewing female students wound up in the local police station. The Rector then requested that the police investigate [ru] what he calls the ‘incorrect and illegal actions of the journalist’, allegedly so because Rahmonov happened to appear in the background of some of the journalist’s photos (she explains that he was driving in to the university when she was taking photos of the female students she had been interviewing). The good news is that the police have decided not to take the request forward [ru], as they don’t believe that the journalist had been breaking the law.

Public reaction on Asia-Plus’ Facebook page [ru/tj] has been one of both outrage, disbelief and lack of surprise. Here’s a typical (repeatable!) quote: “Where is Tajikistan and its government heading? Rather than starting with high heels… it would be better to strengthen teaching, stop bribe-taking and simply give students the chance to study…”

Study abroad – stay abroad?

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A recent post from Kyrgyz blogger Begimai Sataeva, Kyrgyzstan’s Migration Tragedy [en] on New Eurasia, points to the loss of highly trained and skilled workers as a ‘real tragedy’ for the country.

It is certainly the case that many people who migrate for educational purposes do not return to their home country, although my 2011 study of educational migration from Tajikistan showed that at least a third of those who had completed their courses returned home (this may be as high as 50% but not all respondents noted their current location). I’d suggest that Sataeva may have been a little quick to conclude that once abroad, migrants stay put and don’t return. This is in line with Philip Altbach’s view that ‘while brains may no longer be permanently drained, they are nonetheless siphoned’. Altbach, who is an international education specialist, looks more to the notion of brain exchange, which I have to say I rather like as a metaphor.

The article suggests that security, or lack thereof, is a major driver for migration. I think this analysis overlooks a number of other factors that push people abroad or pull them towards a different country. Here are some factors that came out strongly in my study:

Push factors

  • Availability of subjects not offered in Tajikistan
  • Desire to remain overseas temporarily/permanently
  • Corruption in Tajik higher education system

Pull factors

  • Desire to improve academic knowledge
  • Desire to improve career prospects
  • ‘Vertical mobility’ i.e. the desire to improve one’s academic knowledge and one’s career prospects (see De Wit et al, 2008)

Whilst Sataeva’s study does not focus exclusively on educational migration, an interpretation of a fuller range of factors leading to migration would have given her piece a broader and deeper perspective.

It was interesting to learn that the Ministry of Migration, Labour, and Employment provides a range of support for migrants, including connecting them in with fellow Kyrgyz nationals abroad. That seems to me a very sensible strategy, and one that former President Roza Otumbayeva is also employing to support the development of Kyrgyzstan (as noted in the article). From a comparative perspective, this is quite different to the experience that most Tajik migrants will have. In Tajikistan, government support is rather implicit and much more focussed on the financial gain that outbound migrants can send back in the form of remittances. There is little, if any, focus on cashing in on the intellectual and social benefits migrants may be able to offer to their home country.

Whilst the Kyrgyz experience may be rather bruising for the country if, as Sataeva contends, most migrants stay abroad, at least the government is taking steps to utilise the expertise and knowledge of this group. This is surely a more positive way to view migration that encourages Kyrgyz nationals to support the country even if they aren’t physically there.  Do read Sataeva’s article, and I’d be interested to know what you think of it.


Altbach, P. G. (26.02.2012). The complexities of 21st century brain ‘exchange’. University World News.

De Wit, H., Agarwal, P., Elmahdy Said, M., Sehoole, M. T., & Sirozi, M. (Eds.). (2008). The dynamics of international student circulation in a global context. Rotterdam: Sense.

Test time for Kyrgyz secondary school students

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Like a growing number of countries worldwide, Kyrgyzstan offers standardised testing to determine entry into higher education. The tests, commonly called by their abbreviation ОРТ (Общереспубликанское тестирование or ORT, Republic-wide Testing) were introduced in in 2002, a first for Central Asian countries. Another stand-out fact is that the ORT is run by a non-governmental organisation, the Centre for Educational Assessment and Teaching Methods. This is largely US-funded.

The tests are based on students’ abilities and not directed towards their knowledge of what they have learnt in secondary (high) school. From a comparative perspective, this is akin to the interviews undertaken by applicants to Oxford and Cambridge: the idea is to see how a student applies what they do know and their learning styles to new problems. You don’t necessarily have to get the problem right, but you do have to be able to show how you’ve worked it out.

De Young argues that the Minister of Education at the time the tests were introduced was passionate about the need to reform higher education, ‘never more than when she described what she understood as the ability of university rectors to pocked tuition fees paid by students and/or to sell supposedly free (scholarship) slots to the highest bidding students’ (De Young, 2005, p45). This explains the separation of the testing function from government structures. This independence has held and the tests have been lauded by e.g. the Vice President of the Russian Academy of Education: “The tests are high quality. You can trust them and they have stood the test of time.” (my translation from ru, source:

The number of students sitting the test has been in the 30,000s since year 2 of their existence – see table [ru] at the Ministry of Education’s site. The tests can be taken in Russian or Kyrgyz – but as of this year, not in Uzbek. Fergana News [ru] suggests that this is part of a trend to remove everything Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan e.g. with Uzbek media being closed and Uzbek language being removed from universities. So the government is not quite independent of the process.

To end this piece, take a look at New Eurasia’s lovely photo montage [text: ru] from 2011 showing a ‘day in the life’ at a test centre. It demystifies the process through a series of photographs that even show students doing the exams. The students’ relief at the end of the series is palpable!

Good luck to everyone taking the tests this May!



De Young, A., (2005) Ownership of Education Reforms in the Kyrgyz Republic: kto v dome hozyain? European Educational Research Journal, 4 (1).

Planning ahead in Kazakhstan

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The Ministry of Education in Kazakhstan is about to launch a new savings plan to help parents save towards the cost of their children’s higher education. After an initial deposit, subsequent instalments can be variable both in amount and frequency. On top of the bank’s interest rate, the government has committed to add in 5-7% as a ‘premium’. Both the flexibility of the options for saving and the government premium act as strong incentives to make use of the facility and I imagine it will be popular, particularly amongst a) middle and high earning families and b) families with a history of higher education participation. But in a country where great value is placed on education, perhaps it will also motivate those outside of those two obvious groups to make their contribution towards their family’s future.

I think this is a great initiative and credit is due to the Ministry of Education. It shows a country that is comfortable with (or at least, accepting of) the concept of families contributing towards the cost of higher education and there is a lot that the UK, still licking its wounds from the introduction of GBP£9,000pa fees, could learn from.

Here’s the full story from Tengri News (copyright):

Thursday, 14.03.2013, 13:12
In April 2013 Kazakhstan to launch education savings plans

Zabira Orazaliyeva, Financial Center LLP President. Photo courtesy of
In April 2013 Kazakhstan will launch education savings plans, Ms. Zabira Orazaliyeva, Financial Center LLP President, said at a press-conference at the country’s Education Ministry March 14.“Any citizen of Kazakhstan can open a savings account with an eligible bank to accumulate funds to cover his or her children’s tuition fees in future”, Ms. Orazaliyeva said.

According to her, the major distinguishing feature of the state-run education savings plans is that the state offers a premium making up 5-7% of the amount [depending on the social status of the depositors] in addition to the bank’s interest on the deposited amount.

“Halyk Bank, Kazkommertsbank and Temir bank are among the first banks to participate in the state-run program. A number of other major banks also meet the standards to participating banks”, she added.

All the data on the participating banks will be available at the Financial Center LLP’S website. reported mid-January that Kazakhstan’s President had enacted law on the state-supported education deposits to be introduced as a tool to help families accumulate funds to cover their children’s tuition fees.

According to the law, depositing a certain amount in the name of their child, parents enjoy both the bank’s interest and a special premium from the government.

The minimum obligatory amount to be deposited in 2013 shall be 4854 tenge ($32). The amount of all the following installments and frequency thereof shall be at the discretion of depositors. The premium offered by the government shall make 5%, with the figure standing at 7% for some categories of population.

When presenting the draft legislation in the country’s Parliament, the Education Minister cited an example of how the scheme will work: “”Let’s assume a family open a deposit in the name of their 10-year-old child. The first deposited amount makes up 5000 tenge ($33), with all the following monthly deposits standing at 15 000 tenge ($100). By the time the child turns 17, the amount of the deposit will make up 2 075 000 tenge ($13 800), with 60% of the amount being the depositors’ money, 23% provided by the bank as an interest on the deposit and the other 17% provided by the government as a premium”.