Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 1

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This is the first part of what I plan to be a monthly update on developments in higher education in Central Asia.

As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, there is very little research into higher education in Central Asia, and what exists is often commissioned by external donors such as international organisations. These reports can be very helpful but because they have been written to meet the donors’ needs, they tend to be subjective.

So to kick off the first part of this series, November’s country of the month is… Tajikistan.

By way of background, here is a very brief introduction that I wrote recently as part of a contextual report on higher education in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:

Tajikistan is the least developed of the three countries and around 2/3 of the population live in poverty. There are serious challenges to reducing poverty and stimulating sustainable economic growth, from the reliance on income from migrant workers abroad to extremely low investor confidence (Asian Development Bank, 2011). The country’s own Ministry of Education is keenly aware of the effects this has on education policy and development, and currently focuses its efforts on improving basic education. In its 2006-2015 Education Plan, the Ministry identifies three major issues hindering the management and planning of education at all levels: the absence of a rational and streamlined process of decision making; low capacity in the area of policy development and system management; and the lack of a system to assess learning results and the effectiveness of educational establishments.

Adapted from Sabzalieva, 2011

Tajik students, (c) Avesta.tj
Tajik students, (c) Avesta.tj

Focussing in on higher education, state policy highlights natural sciences, engineering and technology as priority subject areas for development, and the Law on Higher and Postgraduate Education points to the need for state support in training specialists in fundamental and applied research.

One of the best reports I’ve read about in this area was from the Ministry of Education itself. Co-written in 2005 with the Tajik branch of the Open Society Institute and the Education Reform Support Unit “Pulse”, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly open look at the state of Tajikistan and the challenges of its now post-Soviet higher education system. You can find an English version on the UK International Unit’s website, and although it notes that it is a draft, I’ve not found a more final version.

The report lists no less than twelve groups of problems facing the country’s need to train professionals (see pp8-9 for a summary), This is a sobering register, starting with the challenges of dealing with ‘severely decreased’ state funding – an issue facing quite a few countries these days, the UK included – down to the twelfth point, corruption in the system.

In fact, the Tajik National Anti-Corruption Agency suggested in 2010 that the Education Ministry is the most corrupt government body of all. That’s quite an achievement in a country where corruption has permeated all levels of society and daily life.

Low levels of state funding that are diminishing further mean that most of the innovations in the higher education system are stimulated in some way or another through third parties. These third parties tend to be international organisations with a remit covering education, and the stimulation is usually financial. I have seen two recent examples of this.

Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, Dushanbe
Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, rated the best university in Tajikistan

Firstly, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently announced a new teaching course on Human Development. UNDP will provide support for the introduction of the course in the Civil Servants Training Institute and five of the country’s top universities. The objective of the course is a worthy one: to work out ways to utilise the fact that ‘the real wealth of the nation is the people’. These are also smart words, particularly for a country without the same level of financial wealth from natural resources that can fund higher education developments in places like Russia and Kazakhstan.

UNDP has also made a good move by identifying that universities are the right place to generate better understanding of human potential. But whilst this all sounds good in theory, it will be interesting to see what graduates of the course are actually able to achieve: how much will they become equipped to change the realities of life in Tajikistan, rather than just understand them better?

Moving on to the second example, the Tajik news website Avesta has reported on a World Bank  and Russian government initiative to introduce a unified university entrance exam in eight countries, including Tajikistan.

The programme is underlined by principles of fair access, transparency and objectiveness across a new national assessment system. It is intended that this move will help influence the modernisation of the school curriculum and increase the quality of education in the country.

Again, this is another very worthy development that is similar to programmes in other post-Soviet countries such as Kyrgyzstan (which has gone even further and submitted itself for assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development-run Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], demonstrating a commitment by the government to assessing educational levels and development at international standards).

I look forward to hearing more about how this programme turns out in Tajikistan. But, if a unified entrance exam is introduced, will it able to overcome the enormous problem of cash-for-entry into Tajik universities? My view is that unless this reform is coupled with improved conditions for academic staff at universities (mainly through better wages that actually reflect their qualifications and importance to society), a new entrance exam will simply be seen as one more trip to the cash machine.

In early December I’ll publish the second part of this series, which will be looking at Kyrgyzstan.

A meeting with Hillary Clinton

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Clinton in Dushanbe
Hillary Clinton at the town hall meeting in Dushanbe

When I entered the Social Hall at the Ismaili Centre Dushanbe [the location for Clinton’s talk], it was full. There was no place to sit, even though I thought that I came early. There were school pupils, students, media, representatives from different NGOs and others.

We waited for about an hour and finally she came and everyone clapped. She said she was very glad to be here and have an opportunity to talk to young people.

She also said that she was surprised to see men and women gathering together – perhaps she thought that it would be like Afghanistan as she had visited it a few days before.

After she spoke for a while, she then asked us to ask questions. Mostly the questions were about the future collaboration of US and Tajikistan, about studies and work in US, even about the Roghun hydropower station. Someone asked whether, as she would be visiting Uzbekistan, she could discuss energy issues with the Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan has been trying to block the construction of Roghun as it would reduce the amount of energy Tajikistan needs to buy from Uzbekistan. Clinton answered that she wasn’t in a position to discuss it with President Karimov, suggesting that it was the responsibility of the main funders of the project.

There were other questions about religion and about women’s role in society and politics. She supports women always to be involved in government, in politics, and she thinks that women should always be given a chance too. She gave some examples of women who are prime ministers in different countries, mostly in Muslim societies.

In general, it was very interesting and yet curious to see Hillary Clinton.

You can find more information about Clinton’s visit here.

By Ramila Mukairshoeva

Ramila is Resource Centre Manager for the University of Central Asia-Aga Khan Humanities Project, and is based in Tajikistan. She was recently awarded a US government scholarship and will be heading to Indiana University Bloomington in 2012.

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

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A slightly light-hearted post today as I’ve spent the last few days unwell and my mind is not in serious analysis mode right now!

As anyone in Central Asia will know, the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a short visit to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the weekend. This post is a round-up of some of the stories about the visit, which offered a rare occasion for Central Asia to get an airing in the international press. I think the opportunity was a missed one judging by the quality of the articles I chose…

Ahead of her arrival, ABC News published a handy pronunciation guide for anyone struggling to work out just where the stress goes in ‘Tashkent’. No, seriously.

Further help came from the American Washington Post, who described the two countries as ‘Afghanistan’s neighbours’. I’m not sure that’s an appellation most people would feel overly excited about.

Avesta.tj has several reports about the visit, including one entitled “Рогун и саксофон” (Rogun – a huge dam construction project that is always short of funds – and saxophone). With high hopes for a good local view on events, I was quickly disappointed. Clearly the journalist had become distracted by the novelty of a senior female politician.

Here are two short extracts: “Hillary is a good-looking woman. A strong woman. She was able to swallow the insult following the scandal of Bill and Monica’s saxophone lessons.” And just in case you didn’t think that was bad enough: “Hillary is a beautiful woman, but she came here as a politician, not a woman.” What a shame that trashy British tabloid News of the World has closed down, as the journalist could have had a great career with them.

Finally, over to CNN’s report on the visit. Two things about it made me laugh out loud. Firstly, the title’s focus on human rights discussions. Seriously? Just refer to my earlier post about forms of violence in the region to dispel any optimism on that front. And secondly – with apologies for my childishness – if you watch the short film on the webpage of Clinton being shown around the Botanic Garden in Dushanbe by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, look out for the gesture Rahmon makes with his hands about three quarters of the way through and Clinton’s bemused laugh in response.

A friend of mine was due to be present at a speech given by Clinton in Dushanbe, and I’m hoping she will post a more balanced first-hand account of the visit – watch this space!

To end today, a postscript that speaks volumes about where power lies in the post-imperial Western world…

With all the talk about Clinton’s visit, almost everyone has overlooked the fact that the UK sent its first ever government minister to Tajikistan. Follow that link for the only article I saw on this event. I’ll leave you with a quote from minister Alan Duncan – the word IF in sentence three should be up in huge letters:

“The future could be bright for Tajikistan. There are decision makers here we can work with. If they can attract international investors to their agricultural businesses, and encourage a better environment for entrepreneurs, Tajikistan could be a Central Asian success story.”

A two-pronged post: higher education in Russia and spreading the word

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Hello everyone. Rather than two posts in one day, today’s single post combines two quite different topics. Read on…

The first topic is about higher education in contemporary Russia. I’ve just come across the work of Daria Luchinskaya, a PhD student at the University of Warwick, who has some really interesting points to make about the modernisation of the system. Some of these are handily summarised in this article on University World News.

Having done a little research myself into the post-Soviet higher education system, I agree that Luchinskaya has covered the key points facing the Russian system:

  • state funding levels
  • rise (and future demise?) of private higher education providers
  • the pressures of internationalisation, such as aligning the education system to the Bologna process, and staff and student mobility
  • making the system more competitive e.g. through the creation of federal and national research universities

It would be interesting to see what Luchinskaya has to say about how the current system and its challenges are interepeted in Russia, both by students and by other ‘stakeholders’. For example, I have read that employers are sceptical about students coming out of university with Bologna-friendly degrees, wondering how a three year Bachelor’s degree could be equal to the former system of four or five years of undergraduate study.

The second ‘prong’ of the post is about communications. Can I ask for your help?

Could you pass on details of the blog to others that you think would be interested, and encourage them to sign up for email updates? I’ve just joined academia.edu in a bid to enhance my own network, but your assistance would be very much appreciated.

And please, please leave some comments! Some people have been kind enough to email/text me about the blog, but it would be great to get some discussion going here.

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading.

Some thoughts on violence in Central Asia

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Several conversations I’ve had and articles I’ve read recently have been about violence in Central Asia. This isn’t just about physical violence – although this seems to loom large – but political and economic violence too.

First, on physical violence. I heard that a friend of a friend was beaten up after leaving a wedding in Tajikistan recently for no apparent reason. He doesn’t know who did it and as they took his phone and left him practically semi-conscious, it took him a few days to get home. Fortunately, he seems to be recovering now – but isn’t that just a hideous example of random and wanton violence?

Secondly, political violence. I know Ukraine isn’t really in the remit of this blog, but in keeping with the violence theme I’d like to register my disgust at the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Most people are saying that she’s likely to be released soon but that doesn’t excuse the state of using political violence to try and keep an opponent quiet.

On a smaller scale, evidence of this political violence extends to Tajikistan too. The trial of journalist Urunboi Usmonov has ended with a conviction for complicity in the activities of a banned Islamist organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir. Throughout, Mr Usmonov has vigorously denied this to be the case and the trial seems to have had very little evidence to support the prosecution. There has been national (muted, though, due to limitations on press freedom) and international outcry about Mr Usmonov’s arrest, which may explain why he won’t actually be jailed, having been granted an amnesty. As with Tymoshenko’s case, that’s just not good enough.

Finally, the interesting concept of economic violence and a very enlightening article by Bruno de Cordier of Ghent University in the Netherlands (thanks to Zaynura for bringing this to my attention). He argues that economic violence was extreme in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, but has now become more embedded and localised. He picks out the cotton trade and bazaar activity as two examples of this. Here’s an example he gives about cotton in Uzbekistan:

“While cotton exports are in the hands of a state-owned company and the political elite in the capital, and most of the cotton farm land is state-owned, crop production is overseen by provincial and district governors who are left with a great deal of discretion and autonomy as to how they deliver the requested harvest quota. Since both the income and political survival of these provincial strongmen depend on the delivery of the quota, crass exploitation, eviction threats against farmers from land that they lease from the state, and the forced replacement of staple crops like wheat and rice with cotton, are all common. Similar practices exist in other cotton areas…”

I encourage you to read De Cordier’s article in full and would be interested to hear your views on these various large- and small-scale examples of violence. 

Guess the country…

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The UK-based Telegraph newspaper today has a story on what will be the one of the world’s biggest mosques. The start of building on the 115,000-capacity building closely follows the official launch of the world’s tallest flagpole in the same country.

Can you guess where?

A further clue: the mosque, 70% funded by Qatar, has a budget of US$100m, whilst the flagpole is estimated to have cost around US$30m.

Have you guessed yet?

It must be some rich country, right? So perhaps it’s Kazakhstan, the most affluent of the Central Asian countries.

No.

Or maybe it’s closed-to-the-world-Turkmenistan, which has a fine tradition of building grand budget-busting monuments, such a revolving gold statue of the former President.

No again. OK, I’ll put you out of your misery.

It’s Tajikistan, a country where 47% of the population live in poverty (2009, source: World Bank) and where the GDP per capita is $820 (2010, source: World Bank).

Those statistics are so stark compared to the expenditure against the two enormous building projects that it’s almost impossible to know how to try and reconcile them.

But surely a good start for the government would be to pump as much funding into developing the country’s people and resources through improved education, health care, infrastructure, industrial investment – and not into wild constructions that serve only to grab international headlines for a second or two.

What do you think?

A new “Cоюз нерушимый республик свободных”?

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Sorry – I haven’t yet mentioned that some posts may be all or partly in Russian, but I’ll ensure there is always an English translation. In addition, as the blog develops I’m hoping to get a range of colleagues contributing and it may be that some people feel more comfortable writing in Russian.

But the quote in today’s title couldn’t really be in anything other than Russian. If you’re not from the former Soviet Union – or, like me, an avid watcher of all things (post-)Soviet – the title is the first line of the 1977 version of the Soviet national anthem.

It translates as ‘An unbreakable  union of free republics’ and is a reflection of the force and imposed alliance that emanated from the Russian capital of the Soviet Union. (Just talk to anyone in Tajikistan who knows someone working as a migrant labourer in Russia and they will be quick to tell you that the ‘friendship of the people’ is long gone, if indeed it ever existed as more than a construct. But perhaps more on that another time).

The reason for the eyebrows-raised use of the anthem is in response to a story in today’s Moscow Times about everyone’s favourite quasi-President, Vladimir Putin. ‘Putin Calls for New “Euroasian Union” of Former Soviet Countries’ describes a Russian vision for a new (but most definitely not Soviet, we are assured) union involving Russia’s friends Belarus and Kazakhstan but also some of the Central Asian countries.

It’s certainly an interesting idea, but the article doesn’t talk about how the union would interact with pre-existing unions and networks, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (which also involves China) or the customs union between the aforementioned triangle of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Likewise, no opinion on the union from the proposed member countries is given. That said, I’d hazard a guess that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon would say yes (if they bothered to ask him) – the country is falling over itself to accept financial assistance from Russia, although it’s carefully packaged as strategic cooperation.

So what’s the aim of the union and why now? The offical line is that the union would be a ‘bridge’ between countries in Europe and Asia-Pacific, with a focus on Commonwealth of Independent States. That sounds like a way of Russia focussing on countries that it has former connections with where it might not be too hard to impose influence again.

Why now? Well, the Moscow Times points out that there’s a presidential election next year, so Putin may have one eye on some easy wins in his likely presidential campaign. But to be honest, Putin is as Putin does, so this may have come up simply because he felt like it. Just wait for the accompanying photoshoot…

By the way, the full glorious words to the Soviet national anthem are here – a wonderful journey into possibility and propaganda.