Nazarbayev University: the Oxford of Kazakhstan?

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Sorry for the silence since the last post (I try to post once a week) – I have been using all my spare time to complete a full draft of my Tajik study abroad paper. Given the wealth of information I received, you can imagine that it has taken some time to analyse all the data and then translate that into findings for the paper. I will post some of my initial findings soon, and welcome comments and feedback (preferably by the end of March when I have to submit my final paper!).

Today’s post is about a university with grand ambitions to become the Oxford (or Harvard, or Cambridge – post in your own analogy here) of Kazakhstan.

I’ve been following the rise of Nazarbayev University (NU) for a while now, and my fascination for its radical mission is ever growing. Why is the mission radical? Well, have you ever come across any other university with so much state support (not just funding but also other forms of support, such as a commitment to academic freedom) that has declared that it will be world-leading in such a short space of time? For a first-hand account of NU’s ambition, it’s well worth reading an article by the University’s President Shigeo Katsu published in the UK’s Times Higher Education magazine in April 2011.

Last summer, I had the privilege of meeting Dr Kadisha Dairova, Vice-President for Academic, Student and International Affairs at NU. She reinforced the importance of quality and research excellence to the success of the university, and outlined some of the partnerships that have already been established with the likes of Harvard, Cambridge, University College London, National University of Singapore and others to assist with the design and implementation of the first degree-bearing courses.

Dr Dairova also stressed the importance of high admissions requirements and similarly high levels of financial support to ensure access is needs-blind. NU has clear vision for their graduates, and will expect the following from them:

  • high quality professional knowledge;
  • both theoretical and practical skills;
  • an understanding of the needs of the country;
  • an ability to contribute to their profession and their community;
  • a well-rounded personality: as Dr Dairova said, “just a good engineer will not make a good leader”.

The diagram below highlights the most commonly used words in NU’s vision and mission: the larger words are the ones that appear most often.

Nazarbayev University's vision and mission
Nazarbayev University's vision and mission

If you want to see what NU actually looks like, check out this report on President Nazarbayev’s recent visit to the main campus in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan. The report also features a video of Nazarbayev touring his eponymous university – including visiting a student room as further evidence of the university’s “all-mod-cons” attitude.

In trying to emulate a university of Oxford or Harvard’s standing, NU is making significant financial investment (which also extends to a series of Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools which are designed to be feeders to the university in future) as well as devising high-level partnerships with international universities. But will this be enough to create the academic excellence that is demanded?

In the case of Oxford, academic excellence is partly borne of its long history. Nazarbayev University doesn’t yet have 900 years of teaching and research (in their many forms) to draw on, but what it does share is a determined commitment to attract the very best students and staff. Whilst it might take NU more years than it would prefer to establish itself internationally, I would argue that it is going about its business in the right way. Aim high and invest, and watch this space…

Education and human rights in Uzbekistan, part 2

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The letter from academics at London Metropolitan University that I featured yesterday clearly ruffled some feathers at the university. In response, the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University wrote this reply in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (thanks to David Wolfson for spotting this):

Uzbekistan projects

Thursday 16 February 2012 21.00 GMT

David Hardman et al (Letters, 14 February) correctly point out that London Metropolitan University is proud of its dedication to social justice. There are more ways, however, of addressing injustices in or elsewhere Uzbekistan than by severance of all communications.

Iran shows where that approach has not worked. The university is involved in Uzbekistan with a translation project, funded by the British Council, and an academic quality-assurance project, funded by the EU. In past years we trained human rights defenders in Uzbekistan, funded by the Foreign Office. We also receive international students from Uzbekistan. We believe these things contribute to dialogue between two very different societies. They build skills and connections, without lending legitimacy to regimes or military actions.

Presumably, if we should not have connections with Uzbekistan, we should not connect with other countries in the same human-rights band, such as China, India and Russia.

Professor Malcolm Gillies
Vice-chancellor, London Metropolitan University

The Guardian’s website is

Emma adds: Suggestions on a postcard (well, the electronic equivalent is to leave a  comment below) for what will happen next at London Met…

Education and human rights in Uzbekistan

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This is a repost of an article originally published by, available here.

British Academics Slam Education Links with Uzbekistan

EurasiaNet’s home is


Let them eat bread: Tajik university rector’s gesture to students

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No sooner is he appointed to a new post as rector of the Tajik Pedagogical (teacher training) Institute has Abdujabbor Rahmonov hit the headlines with a publicity-friendly stunt to offer oft-stereotyped hungry students free bread. Whilst there’s no denying that bread is an important part of the Central Asian diet, it doesn’t take a higher education marketing genius to work out that this initiative lays the Rector open to all manner of jokes and criticism.

It helps for context to know that Rahmonov was until very recently the Minister for Education, until he was moved on in January 2012, allegedly for his failure to tackle corruption in the education sector – thanks to Alexander Sodiqov for this link.

To share the joy of this quirky marketing ploy, I’ve translated the original article from Asia Plus into English below. Note that the tone is entirely serious, suggesting that Asia Plus is either desperate for a story (as one of the commentators contends) or is choosing to ignore the humour that could so easily be injected into this report.

I’ve also translated some of the best Russian language comments after the article. The freedom with which people are writing underlines some of the points I made in my most recent post about the role of online media in encouraging government criticism.

The article had been live for about six hours by the time I got pointed to it via a Facebook comment and had already had over 2,200 views and 30 comments.

Tajik Pedagogical Institute Rector treats all students to bread


Lots of lepyoshki

At the Tajik State Aini Pedagogical Institute, an initiative by new rector and ex-Minister of Education Abdujabbor Rahmonov means all students and staff are being offered free lepyoshka (traditional Central Asian bread) for three days.

Asia Plus news agency heard this news from the manager of the teaching department, Iskandar Sulaimanov.

Sulaimanov said that the university had opened a lepyoshechnaya [a bakery specialising in bread] and that the Rector had personally provided flour and given the order to provide free lepyoshka to everyone for three days.

“This is a Tajik tradition: when someone opens a lepyoshechnaya, they invite people to taste the first batch for free,” noted Sulaimanov.

The cost of one lepyoshka here is 70 dirams [15 US cents/9 British pence], when at other bakeries one lepyoshka costs a minimum of 80 dirams or 1 somoni [17-20 cents/11-13 pence].

In addition to this, the Pedagogical Institute representative reported that a hairdresser’s would shortly be opened at the university’s halls of residence. It would offer students a low rate on haircuts.

“The former minister is showing his care for his students,” assured Sulaimanov.

Story (c) Asia Plus. Originally published as Ректор Таджикского педуниверситета угощал всех студентов хлебом on 14.02.2012. , author Mehrangez Tursonzoda. The translation is entirely my own and unofficial.

Selected comments

Rohat: This is a clear example of “kishlakisation” [“kishlak” is a Russian word for village often used in Central Asia] – even sitting in the minister’s chair for 5 or 6 years hasn’t changed him…

Tursonboy: The Pedgagical Institute has around 8,000 students and 2,000 staff. The bread costs 70 dirams. Over 3 days, that equates to a cost of 21,000 somoni. Where has he [the rector] taken this money from? Why are the anti-corruption bodies silent?

Sovest [Conscience]: It looks like his conscience has woken up and he’s finally seen who it was that he was taking $200 for diplomas from all these years [as Minister]…

Abdullo: There are fewer bribes now so [he] needs to find a new source of income. I doubt the rector’s generosity. Everything has been thought up too craftily… he’s a clever guy. Maybe he’ll open a club there – he needs to earn money somehow…

Kto-to [Someone]: Asia Plus, do you really not have any proper news? For some days now you haven’t had any news. As a frequent reader of your articles, I think I have the right to ask you for a good job!?

Piligrim: Is this a university or a shopping centre? And what does “the rector had personally provided flour” mean? What is he, a businessman? I would suggest that the responsible department investigates this fact. The rector should care about the level of students’ education first and foremost. Yes… a new “Tajik tradition”: turn everything into a bazaar [market].

Hats off to Rustam and Gipopotam for my two personal favourite comments:

Rustam: This is called a circulation of funds in the Ministry of Education’s system… students pay [bribe] their teachers, the teachers share funds with the rector, who opens a lepyoshechnaya and offers “free” lepyoshka for three days… it’s both funny and awful… it would all be very funny if it wasn’t so sad!

Gipopotam [Hippopotamus]: The rector of the Tajik Pedagogical University has treated all students to bread. This is to help them get used to a teacher’s rations from the outset. If they were in the Law Faculty there would be shashlik [donor kebabs] to go with the bread.

Tajikistan’s government: how much longer a master of the nation?

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Recently, I wrote about the appointment of Nuriddin Saidov as the new Education Minister in Tajikistan. I wondered at the time whether there was anything underlying the move of President Rahmon’s close relative Abdujabbor Rahmonov from the Ministry to Tajik State Pedagogical University.

It seems I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this move, which was part of a wider government reshuffle. Two recent articles have looked at the way the media has reacted to the reshuffle. Here I briefly summarise the two articles and conclude by asking whether growing media criticism is a symptom of a wider cause.

The ever-reliable Konstantin Parshin on has a good article on the subject, which suggests that Rahmon may have been influenced by criticism from some media outlets. Online media is proving to be an effective way for independent news agencies and in particular individual Taijks to express themselves: just look at comments left under articles on news sites or the use of Facebook to circulate and discuss information.

Parshin says:

“With the spread of the internet, authorities have found it increasingly difficult to control the flow of information in the country. No longer can the government rely on the use of traditional means of coercion, in particular libel cases, to thwart journalistic scrutiny  of its actions.”

However, he concludes that:

“Despite all the attention-grabbing headlines since the New Year, it is still too early to say whether Rahmon’s responsiveness to the media will last, or is just a temporary phenomenon.”

Lola Olimova of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting has an interview with political analyst Nurali Davlatov on Ground Report’s website. Entitled ‘Tajikistan’s limited options’, it also discusses the recent reshuffle and demonstrates why increasing media criticism is important:

“The danger is that the public’s trust has its limits, and could soon be at an end. These media reports are a warning sign that people’s patience is running out.”

On the reshuffle, Davlatov’s points are in keeping with findings that are emerging from my study abroad research:

“Tajikistan has professionals, although they don’t necessarily live here – they are scattered around the world these days.

The people who are actually in power came from rural districts and collective farms…. [but] we need government that is conscientious, not corrupt, and that regards itself as servant rather than master of the nation.”

I find it very interesting that Davlatov also touches on the issue of the lack of a Tajik national identity:

“A nation’s psychological makeup takes decades or centuries to form. Tajiks are currently at a stage where they will place more reliance in their avlod [clan], their village, or their district than on outsiders.”

This is interesting because it correlates closely to comments made in a report by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the OSCE, based on its September 2011 conference. The report, which is available here, says:

“Tajikistan is still in the process of constructing a suitable national identity, that is, a foundational and unifying national narrative that can mobilize the support of all its citizens – one that answers the questions: Who are we? What does it mean to be a citizen of the state? Where are we collectively heading?” (page 8)

It thus seems to me that the growing swell of media criticism is something bigger than a series of responses to specific events: it is a collective expression of discontent at the government’s lack of ability to answer the question: where are we collectively heading?

Whilst there has been some economic growth, this has not been enough to prevent drastic under-investment in critical public services. Talented people, as Davlatov notes, leave the country because there aren’t any opportunities for them at home. For people that stay, poverty abounds. The government looks and acts in an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt way.

It is hard to see how Tajikistan can progress from its current state of malaise until there is a government and a leader prepared to seriously address and offer answers to some fundamental questions about the country’s future.

Study abroad survey attracts more than 100 responses

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On 31 January I closed my study abroad survey for Tajik nationals and I was absolutely delighted to see that in total, I had received over 100 responses! This figure is more than double the number I had hoped for and I would like to extend a huge THANK YOU / РАХМАТ / СПАСИБО to everyone who participated.

Thank you in lots of languages

In its Global Education Digest 2011, UNESCO reports that approximately 5,500 Tajiks study abroad each year, with the majority going to Russia (approx 2,800) and Kyrgyzstan (approx 1,500). Around 300 students a year are estimated to go to the USA. With over 30 responses to my survey coming from people studying in the US that means I’ve managed to capture the views of around 10% of the annual total number going to that country. That’s really good going for a small-scale study.

I attribute the better-than-expected response rate to two connected reasons: firstly, the snowball sampling method I used and secondly, the power of social networking. When I created the survey, I also drew up a list of people I knew who would be eligible to participate, and – here comes the snowball part – asked them to spread the message to other people they knew. In this way I was able to reach an audience that was much wider than my own contacts. Secondly, thanks to Facebook, LinkedIn and a Central Eurasia mailing list maintained by Harvard University, I was able to reach people out of my network and my contacts’ networks.

The Facebook group Tajik PhDs abroad was a particularly dynamic group and I feel privileged to have been added to the group with its active discussions on everything from representation of the ‘other’ in Russian film to data on cotton production in Tajikistan. The Harvard mailing list also put me in touch with people around the world. The process of doing the survey may well prove to be as fascinating as the results that I will shortly start analysing!

An explanation of the study that the survey is contributing to is in an earlier blog post.

Global, but not local: Tajikistan’s new Education Minister overlooks basic reform needs

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Nuriddin Saidov, the new Tajik Education Minister

Earlier this month, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon installed a new Minister of Education: the former Rector of Tajik National University Nuriddin Saidov.

(The outgoing Minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov has been appointed Rector of Aini Pedagogical University. I don’t know if there was a particular reason for the move – the only information I can find is from state agencies who offer information but not analysis).

This week, Saidov presented some of his early plans to the Majlisi Namoyandagon, Tajikistan’s lower chamber of parliament. I found it interesting that he chose to focus on what I would consider the “garnishes” rather than the “bread and butter” issues. That is to say, he did not use this as an opportunity to address some of the fundamental issues in the education sector like low teachers’ wages and poor school conditions (lack of materials, heating etc).

Instead, he spoke about getting more young Tajiks studying abroad and improving the study of foreign languages in schools and universities. He also asked parliament to ratify the Lisbon Recognition Convention, signed by Rahmon in June 2011. This is a European initiative to recognise countries’ higher education qualifications in the European region.

Whilst this is great news for students who want a more international perspective (and would give me more respondents for my study abroad survey!), these initiatives are certainly not going to fix the underlying problems facing the sector.

Potentially positive news for the Ministry known to be the most corrupt of all government agencies in Tajikistan (quite some achievement) was Saidov’s mention of a restructure of the Ministry. However, it remains to be seen whether this mean appointing his friends to posts or driving more fundamental reforms.

Say no to corruption in education... not just applicable to students? Image (c)

Parliament’s  speaker Shukurjon Zukhurov was on hand to give Saidov some real-world advice. He noted that ratifying the Lisbon Recognition Convention did not mean that Tajik students’ levels of knowledge would improve. For this, he said, the Ministry and students themselves must work harder and do more.

Saidov responded by saying he understands the responsibility he’s taken on. Let’s just hope this is truly the case.